Leadership Skills Needed to Manage Complex Change

Meredith S. Levert
Cook Ross, Inc

 Thank you for the warm introduction.  It is a privilege to speak to you this morning on the leadership skills needed to manage complex change.  I’m sure that there is not a person here who can’t relate to the enormous amount of change that effects each of us daily in our role as leader.  So let us spend a few moments reviewing the purpose of today’s session.

 In the time that we have together, I would like to explore change as it effects today’s leaders, impacting who we are, who we would like to be, and what we need to do to be successful leaders in the 21st Century.  I like to examine what others have written and observed about this skill called leadership.  For me Noel Tichy, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Business, describes it best:

Leadership is about change-it is about taking people from where they are now to where they need to be.  The best way to get people to venture into unknown terrain is to make it desirable by taking them there in their imaginations.

Imagination is that place where the future is created.  Think about all the things that five or ten years ago we thought were unimaginable, that now exist.  To create something new or different, we as leaders have to not only get others to venture into the unknown, we have to be willing to go there!  As leaders, we can’t go into the future by constantly looking over our shoulder into the past!  So in the new millennium, our ability to lead will be a function of our ability to constantly look at ourselves and question our knowledge, our style, our willingness to listen, to learn, and to grow.  Having knowledge or acting like we do will no longer make us great leaders.  In other words, everything that we have been taught, and everything that we have learned, could possibly lead us astray in the future unless we begin to accept the fact that change is a constant.  It may be one of the few constants we have in our personal and professional lives.  Plato said, “Nothing endures but change.”  All leaders exist inside of cultures that generally influence how we see the world.  So, in order to examine why we, as leaders, have such a difficult time changing we should look at why cultures have such a hard time changing.

Culture is, for the most part, invisible to us.  That is, we may know what we are doing, but we are largely unaware of the influence of the culture around us in creating our values and behaviors.  The values we have and the choices that we make as a result of our invisible cultural assumptions often occur as “true” to us;  the way things “really are.”  For many of us inside our culture  “the way things really are,” gets translated into  “This is the way things are done  here! " or "This is the way we’ve always done it!"  How many times have you heard your leaders tell you that in one way or another?  How many times have we found ourselves telling others that in one form or another?  So the question becomes why do people have such a hard time changing?

 Some of our personal experience and research tells us that change is a disruption!  Woody Allen said it best.  “No one likes a change, but a wet baby.”  For the rest of us it represents:

  1. Discomfort--  This is the notion that we will have to do, act, or be outside of our zone of comfort-our belief in what is certain.
  2. Safety--  Change often represents uncertainty, which is translated into issues of safety (e.g. I’ve worked all these years and now they want to change what is required or what is important.  I’m fearful for my position or organization’s safety.)
  3. Fear of the Unknown--   We don’t know what to expect.  Our comfort is in our past-the old, the familiar.
  4. Fear of Success--  Many people believe that with change they could experience a level of success that would be unmanageable and uncontrolled.
  5. Fear of Failure--  How many leaders are trapped in the fear that change will disclose a weakness that will lead to failure?
  6. Hopelessness--  Often, change produces a sense of hopelessness, a sense that the task or change is too big, too difficult.
  7. Powerlessness--  For many leaders change represents a perceived loss of power, control, and certainty which results in a feeling of being powerless.  As you have been faced with change, how many of these have you personally experienced?
Turn to the person next to you and list ten things that represent significant change in your life in the past five years.  What did you discover?  Perhaps that change is truly all around us and that we are not alone in dealing with change.  Some people changed their names, their addresses, their mates,  certainly their clothes, and their hair.  As we look at this notion of change, at your table discuss the key reasons leaders typically give for not changing.  What reasons do you give?

 Well, now that you’ve heard some reasons from your colleagues, here are some reasons that leaders have been known to give.  Notice we create lots of reasons for not changing.  For example:
Boss won’t like it Don’t have the resources
Too expensive Too visionary
Can’t be done  Tried it before
Needs study If it ain’t broke…
Too ambitious WIFM (What’s In it For Me)
Let them do it Too risky
Someone else’s responsibility That’s not the way we do things around  here
I’m for it, but… Never done it before
Contrary to policy  Nobody  cares
Take too long It won’t be popular
I’m comfortable, etc., etc., etc…
My observation is that there are a number of ways that people can react to change.  At our firm, we have identified what we refer to as some archetypes.  I believe that people react to change in 8 basic ways:

  1. The Accelerator
  2. The Phantom
  3. The Destroyer
  4. The Stiff Upper Lip
  5. The Ostrich
  6. The Class Clown
  7. The Quit n’ Stay (or not)
  8. The Solid Citizen
So what are some of the characteristic behaviors associated with these types?  The Accelerators believe that in times of change, they should turn up the tempo, avoid thinking and feeling by doing, and lose themselves in their work, so they work long hours and are afraid to say “no” due to their own sense of uncertainty.  The danger for this type is burnout.

Then there are the Phantoms.  This type believes that “if you can’t see me, you can’t hurt me.”   They try to become invisible.  They often stop speaking and literally attempt to fade into the woodwork.  The danger for this type is fadeaway, people will actually forget about them; they lose their visibility.

The next type is The Destroyer.  Their motto is, “I am victim, hear me roar!”  They are purely driven by their emotion.  They generally work from the blame and defend model.  They are known to act out.  They often speak and act inappropriately in meetings and the work environment.  The danger is self-destruction.  Everyone avoids them.

Then there is the Stiff Upper Lip.  What’s important to them is looking good.  On the surface nothing appears to bother them.  They are good at concealing their upsets.  They deftly change the topic.  When discussing concerns, they are difficult to read.  Danger:  Isolation and depression.  They are the most difficult to read and they are often the most vulnerable.

The Ostrich.  They represent the Sergeant Schultz from Hogan Hero’s phenomena.  You can hear them saying, “I see nothing, nothing.”  They maintain avoidance at all costs.  As someone once said, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”  The danger for this type is being unprepared for what lies ahead.

The Class Clowns.  They use humor as a distraction.  It is hard for them to be serious about anything.  They avoid dealing with difficult issues.  The danger is not only do they avoid dealing with things, but they attract others and minimize the importance of the change.

The Quit n’ Stay (or not).  They typically are apathetic, cynical, uncooperative, low motivated, and lethargic.  The danger is mediocrity.

Then finally, there is the Solid Citizen.  They display a high degree of confidence, also a high level of responsibility.  They see themselves as having options, which they can and often do exercise, by leaving an organization.  Their motto is “Que sera, sera…I can cope.”  The danger is losing them to the next opportunity.  Which archetype do you find yourself slipping into during times of change?

I’ve spoken about the dangers associated with each of the archetypes and as you are faced with change inside your organization, you may want to consider some possible strategies to address these archetypes.  So far we have been discussing change, but now I would like to have us focus on what impact change will have on us as leaders, moving into the future.  If there is one thing that we should keep in mind, it would be that the future will not look like the past!  This is key because all the scholars who study leadership and change believe that one of the most challenging notions is not whether leaders can learn new concepts, but whether they can unlearn that which no longer works.  So what is it that we are being called upon to unlearn?  To explore this question more fully,  let’s look at the evolution of leadership.  So what is leadership?  Many have defined it as the process of guiding or exerting control over others.  In this age, we are beginning to differentiate between leading and managing.  Some have defined this as-- managers care about process, leaders care about results.  In order to understand the mental model we have developed about leaders, let’s examine two images that have often been representative of our view of them,  in terms of who they are and what they do.

I call this the Evolution of Leadership.  The first model is known as the Strong Man Model.  In this view, the leader is white and male.  This is not said despairingly, but as a fact.  Generally they have had a military background and use that experience as a way of leading and communicating (e.g. “Chain of command”, organizational rank, etc.)  The belief is that this leader gives very little attention to the needs of people.  He is  responsible for putting into place plans and organizing their work and the work of others.  He basically sets the direction of the organization.  From that model, we moved to the Visionary Hero, who is solely responsible for creating the vision for the organization.  He should also be charismatic and create a cult of personality.  This leader is often ego-centered and believes that he is always in control and controls everything.  He alone solves all of the problems of the organization.

Many new thinkers and scholars studying the art of Leadership are challenging our view of what and who are leaders.  Peter Senge,  who is a Professor and author of the “Fifth Discipline, ” says:

Leadership in learning organizations centers on subtler and ultimately more important work.  In a learning organization, leaders’ roles differ dramatically from that of the charismatic decision maker.  Leaders are designers, teachers, and stewards.
So, the question for our consideration is what kind of leader will you need to become to be successful in the 21st  Century?  Ron Heifetz, a professor of organizational change at Harvard and recognized thought leader in this area says it best, when he said:
Leaders inspire others by identifying where people find meaning and by finding connections between specific tasks and the organization’s purpose.
Due to the constantly changing terrain, these are some of the leadership traits that leaders may need in the 21st  century:  leaders must be willing to seek altitude.  Leaders need an elevated view so that they can work to be able to see the forest for the trees.  Leaders need to be courageous, willing to take risk.  Leaders have to seek ways to change and challenge the pattern of  “how we’ve done things.”  Leaders need to be willing to take the heat, and take the heat off of those around them!  In fact, they need to be the first one in the kitchen!  Twenty-First Century leaders need to acknowledge and understand that performance is more impacted by relationship than structure.

People want to work for and with a person, not an image or title.  So don’t be afraid to let people see your passion.  When possible, communicate face to face.  Constantly remember to tell people how important they are to you and the organization and mean it!  Leaders make things make sense to the people in their organization.  They understand how things really work and not how they think they work.  Leaders need to be prepared and be willing to change those things that don’t work or make sense.  Leaders should be clear about their own and their organization’s value system.  They must know their culture and figure out how to engage people in discussing the undiscussable.  They must learn to listen musically as well as analytically.

So what should you, as 21st century leaders, begin to do?  First, take a look at yourself!  Don’t do it in isolation.  Inquire about yourself from others.  Get feedback-- authentic, reliable feedback from all the people with whom you interface.  Find out how you can improve your ability to be effective.  Learn and trust that you can be authentic with the people you lead.  You can admit that you don’t know some things or that you also have doubts and fears.  Be human!  Increase your experience with diversity, by insisting on working with a wide variety of people from diverse backgrounds.  Be aware of how the people in your present and future differ from those in your past.  How many people in the following groups do you regularly exchange thoughts, ideas with?  Generation X, Baby Boomers, People of Color, and different genders…How many people from these groups are included in your work groups or your organization?  Be willing to ask questions and understand that you don’t have all the answers.  Leverage learning in yourself and others.  Constantly seek feedback.  Create opportunities to be coached, and coach others.  Expose yourself to “new thinking” regarding your organization, your style, leadership and success.  Which of these traits will be most difficult  for you to develop?  Which will be the least difficult?

As you can see, the new millennium will require that we, as leaders, both unlearn the old and create the new!  It won’t be easy, but it is doable.  Virgil said, “They can because they think they can.”  I believe  the same is true for you!  You can become the leader you and others want and need because you think you can!!  Thank You!