Monday, November 23, 2009

Keeping Leadership Invested in the Change

How do some leaders who were champions for change become entrenched in the system? People change, but an interesting thing happens sometimes as people change. Sometimes you can measure a person's tenure in their role by the shift in their attitude and behavior about changing the culture. When new to the organization, there is little risk in standing up and saying something is wrong and needs to be fixed. Little risk because its not their mess they are pointing out, and they get to show leadership by pointing out the mess. As they grow more comfortable in their skin however, a change occurs, where they gradually become less connected to the dynamic change that is occurring and more invested in the status quo because they now have ownership for the system and to point out the messes would be self-incriminating.

So the question; How do we help leaders stay passionate about the change and see that there is still more to do, that we have indeed NOT arrived?

I think about my own experiences in leadership. I'm kind of a different sort of person when it comes to leadership. I think leadership is about working to create a vision that everyone can rally around, but I also think leadership is as much about helping people make the vision happen. I view it as one of my primary responsibilities as a leader of people to help my people be successful. In the book The Recipe for Simple Business Improvement by David W. Till, I found an interesting list of characteristics of leaders. Let me share them here;


1. Setting Strategic Direction: Setting the mission and vision that will guide the organization.

2. Aligning the People: Communicating the strategic direction and getting commitment.

3. Motivating and Inspiring: Initiating and gaining momentum to moving the organization forward and overcome barriers.

4. Producing Change: Initiating change the make the organization better.

So from that little list I hone in on the last bullet. Producing Change. That's an action. That means get involved, start to push the wheel around, get others to help but you get in there and help too. The other part of that bullet that interests me is the part about making the organization better. I'm sure everyone shares a similar goal, we all want our organizations to improve. Then why is that some don't improve? In my opinion, leadership is the primary cause. Leadership is a pretty broad topic to assign all the blame to and I certainly don't assign all blame to leadership. The leadership imperative to produce change implies that the direction of change must be something that the leader is bought into and supports. The leader must believe in the change in order to initiate change. If that commitment is not present, the change initiative will ultimately fail. Another significant issue for success of a change intiative is participation. Leaders initiate the change. Looking at bullets 3 and 4 shows that leaders are also active in the change, not passive sideline players. People are smart enough to recognize when real commitment is not present.

In the groundbreaking book Good To Great Jim Collins describes one of the key elements of success of good companies that became great companies as the "Stockdale Paradox". Briefly, the Stockdale Paradox is named for the late Admiral James Stockdale, who was Ross Perot's VP running mate in 1992 and before that was a prisoner of war in Vietnam. When interviewed about how he managed to survive a long captivity in the Hanoi Hilton, Admiral Stockdale credited two paradoxical viewpoints. First, was an undying optimism that he would survive. This was tempered with a dose of reality that he would not be free any time soon. Of additional interest in the interview with Admiral Stockdale was that those fellow POW's that had an overly optimistic view, not founded in reality, suffered more defeatist attitudes when their freedom did not come when they thought it would. He believed that his fellow POW's with rose colored glasses died of broken hearts. Mr. Collins found the Stockdale paradoxical characteristics in the leaders of good to great companies. The ability to see the present situation for what it is, along with a high degree of confidence in the future of the company. Over time leaders run the risk of becoming managers if they can not keep themselves tuned into the realities of the present situation. For clarity, lets review the roles of management from The Recipe for Simple Business Inprovement that I mentioned earlier;


1. Planning and Budgeting: Setting goals, targets, and timetables for the organization.

2. Organizing and Staffing: Develop the organization structure, positions, and roles to meet the budget.

3. Controlling and Problem Solving: Monitoring compliance to the plan and intervening when needed to keep the plan on track.

4. Maintaining predictability: Keeping the ship as steady as possible and preventing change in those areas where it is not beneficial.

Sounds a little less exciting doesn't it? Those who were once leaders run the risk of becoming managers by insulating themselves from what's really happening. This happens a number of different ways, but one that I have seen is the yes man. The leader comes to the organization and is the "new sheriff in town". He or she is kickin @#%$ and taking names to establish a reputation. After a while some personnel change decisions need to be made and the leader choses the clone or, thinking that they are doing the right thing by bringing in different perspectives, brings in people who don't have the same value set for the program(s) being led. I call them the anti-clones. The clones are easy to spot, they are the ones who dress, speak, and act like the leader. The anti-clones are a little more difficult to deal with because they want to belong too so they will say and do the right things in front of the leader, but left to their own devices, they think you're wasting your time with this initiative. They don't lead, they manage, they don't help push the wheel, they cheer from the sideline when the right people are looking, but sit down when no one is watching.

Meanwhile, back at the top, the former leader does nothing to actually see for themselves whats going on and believes everything they are told. They start to believe they have arrived. They are no longer leading, just managing. The speed of the wheel starts to slow because key people aren't helping to push it around. Pretty soon, that commitment we talked about earlier from point 2 on leadership becomes less clear, no one is clearly communicating and getting commitment to push the initiative. As commitment and direction are lost, so is momentum. So how is the leader to re-establish or maintain their fresh perspective, their urgency for the change?

One of my personal values as a leader is to seek out those that will tell me the truth. I love it when someone tells me that something I have done is a bonehead move and why, because I get to learn. I value and respect those people more than any others because it is through them that I become a better, smarter leader. If you want to avoid becoming a manager and stay a leader, get out of your office and go talk to people who will tell you the truth. Interesting thing about the truth, it's different depending on who's talking. Seek out the real truth, find it where it lives and tap into it. Chances are, that is not in a conference room.

Excerpts on Leadership and Management from "The Recipe for Simple Business Improvement" by David W. Till. 2004, American Society for Quality, Quality Press

Its on my reading list on Linked-In, check it out.

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