Taking the right lead - my Smart Manager article
Most of us only embark on change if we can travel in ways that reinforce existing patterns. That is the paradox. We seek a new ‘what’ by comfortably using the same ‘how’.
action versus movement
In my work assisting leaders navigate large complex transition, I define change as the ‘disturbance of repeating patterns’. Unless leaders can pay as equal attention to the system-shifting process through which they bring in change, as they do to the change outcomes, my research has shown that their efforts will be doomed to fail, or, at best, be incredibly irksome and hard work. Leaders and their organizations will get busily acting, yet, not sustainably moving to a new place. For example, many of my clients are presently seeking greater agility to respond to today’s VUCA world, yet, they are trying to cultivate agility through risk-managed, centrally-controlled, linear change programmes.
I have long been curious about how to lead true change, change that gets to the source of the routines that hold the present system (or department, team, individual) in place. We are often blind to that source—how our own point of perception, or emotional state, is in fact creating the very situation we are trying to change. Too often we think that change is about changing the world outside of us. My latest book, Still Moving: How to Lead Mindful Change, calls for a radically different and much-needed way of leading change, an approach that recognizes that all deep movement starts on the inside. Unless leaders can tune into and regulate their own inner state, they will be unable to tune into and change the system around them. Put simply, we get what we project.
Given today’s premium to build the capacity to face disruptive change, what kind of leadership is required to implement complex change in uncertainty? And, how can this kind of leadership be best cultivated?
being before doing
I have found that the answer does not lie in more change management tool kits and initiatives. We have enough of those ‘doing change to people’ programmes that just seem to overwhelmingly layer on more work. Rather, the answer lies in fostering a different quality of leadership, one that combines both inner and outer skills, and one which starts with a leader’s ability to work on their inner game—their quality of being.
The case for ‘mindfulness’ (simply defined as the awareness that arises from paying attention, intentionally, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally) has exploded in recent years. Largely with the aim to reduce workplace stress, improve cognitive functioning, build greater empathy, and enhance creativity, there has been no rigorous empirical study into the relationship between mindfulness, change leadership, and organizational change outcomes—until now.
To combat the almost mindless take-up of mindfulness, in 2015 I led a major global research inquiry spanning five continents. The study examined both the outer practices (what leaders need to do) and the inner capacities (how leaders need to be) required to lead successful change. In total, from 65 senior leaders across multiple industries, we gleaned 88 indepth behavioral-event-based stories of change implementation.
Through coding and analysis of the story transcripts, we found that a particular combination of leadership qualities is significantly correlated with successful change outcomes. In fact, it explained over 52% of the reason why big change either succeeds or fails (that is a large swing factor in variance analysis). It was rare though to find these precious combinations of qualities in any single leader. No wonder so much change fails.
And, what is more, it was the inner state of a leader that made the most difference to change outcomes. Getting into the right place personally explained almost half of the difference between great and poor change leadership.
leading change requires still moving
Movement begins in cultivating stillness, finding that deep place of awareness. It is only from our place of awareness that we can truly see and shift what lies around us. I found that four inner capacities, qualities of being, clearly differentiated the successful change leaders from the non-successful, a combination of both mindfulness and systemic skills:
- the ability to stay non-judgmentally present and not be ‘rattled’ by experience—a noticing skill. Simply being with ‘what is’.
- the capacity to consciously choose how to respond to experience, and not impulsively react to it—a choosing skill. Critically, choosing curiosity over anxiety.
- an empathic capacity to be able to tune into deeper and connected systemic dynamics—a perceiving skill. Not taking everything personally.
- the capacity to acknowledge all that happens, especially disturbance, as being necessary for change and transition—an integrating skill. Change flows when difficulty is seen.
Four external practices (ie, visible behaviors) also stood out as being essential for successful change leadership, and were significantly enhanced by the above inner capacities:
- the attractor ability to align people behind shared purpose and intention—meaning matters
- the ability to confront reality and amplify disturbance via ‘edge’ and ‘tension’—truth is a turn on
- the container ability to channel people’s inevitable anxiety in a change process towards purposeful energy—safety strengthens
- and the transforming space ability to spot and change repeating patterns as they happen—we only have the now
As useful as these individual capabilities are, it is when they are put together that the success rate of change increases dramatically. Easy to say, much harder to do!
The top leaders of change in our research could put these inner and outer skills together. And they were contrasted with the less successful leaders who possessed non-mindful, ego-centric, and pace-setting behavior. We can all ‘lose it’ when under pressure, but great change leaders could consciously put their reactive impulses to one side and play a bigger game. The distinction was clear. Still (inner quality of being) Moving (external quality of doing) leadership is essential for bringing about change in today’s uncertain and turbulent context.
Moreover, this kind of leadership cannot be learned in ‘offline’ training courses and taught leadership development programs. I found Still Moving leadership could only be learned through skilfull and guided experience-based learning* within real-life contexts. This insight challenges the traditional industry of expert/trainer-led leadership development, and suggests that investment for leading change skills development be switched into well-moderated ‘online’ experiences.
In summary, leading change successfully today requires a challenging combination of skills, which can only be cultivated in experiential development contexts. Are we up for it?
We only need look around us to see how the cost of change failure is increasing. We have a world still reeling from the aftermath of its worst global economic recession since World War II, challenged by the continual threat of terrorism, rocked by political upheavals spurred by a growing backlash against economic globalization and its governing elite, and facing environmental concerns that threaten the survival of the planet. It is clear that the price of not being able to lead successful change in today’s context has become too dangerously high to ignore its process.