Reflections on Leadership: Change
The subject of change may be the most popular topic in the study of leadership. After all, if the world was a static place, there would be no need for leadership. The evidence and language of change is all around us – climate change, the need for political change, educational change, social change (positive and negative), technological change, demographic changes – pick almost any topic, and the change is the focal point of discussion. We live in a world of change – but this is nothing new. All of human history has been marked by how people live and adjust to the next wave of change. Those of us who are old enough to remember the 1960’s recall the Bob Dylan classic “The Times They are a Changing” with lyrics that could be applied to events of almost every decade that has followed.
The subject of change has a personal dimension that is often associated with the New Year’s holiday. Almost everyone I know aspires to change something in their life, and many of us use the change of calendar from one year to the next as the impetus to make a resolution of some kind. Many of these resolutions are centered on health – exercise, eating better, quitting smoking, etc. Others are related to personal relationships, changing spending habits, setting aside time for recreation, personal reflection or spiritual development, and other subjects that fall under the general heading of personal discipline.
I believe that for anyone who aspires to be a leader - at work, home, church, or in the community - there is an intersection between personal change and organizational change. It is impossible for a leader to be good at fostering organizational change and leading their team in a new direction if he or she is unable to understand and apply the principles of personal change to their own lives. At the heart of change is a personal discipline that, once mastered, can be extended to include other people. The lessons of personal change can and should be essential tools that leaders use in their daily work.
How and What to Change
One of the more insightful books on the subject of personal change is the book Triggers, by Marshall Goldsmith. In response to the question “Why don’t we become the person we want to be? He identifies what he calls two immutable truths about behavioral change:
- Meaningful change is very hard to do. To those who doubt this truth, he asks three questions – What do you want to change in your life? How long has this been going on? How is that working out? These three questions conform to three problems related to introducing change. First, we cannot admit that we need to change – either because we are unaware that a change is desirable – or more likely that we have developed elaborate excuses for why change is not possible. Secondly, we do not appreciate the power of inertia. Finally, we don’t know how to execute a change.
- No one can make us change unless we truly want to change. People may say that they want to change, but often they don’t really mean it. This may be because the nature of the change comes with a price that we are unwilling to pay.
Goldsmith goes on to identify 15 “triggers” that stop behavioral change. But what is interesting to me is what is behind the 15 triggers he has identified as barriers. He claims that “our inner beliefs trigger denial, resistance, and ultimately self-delusion… and these beliefs are more pernicious than excuses.” He also explains that “An excuse explains why we fell short of expectations after the fact. Our inner beliefs trigger failure before it happens. They sabotage lasting change by canceling its possibility.”
This observation is breathtaking in its scope and impact. It is one thing to make a New Year’s resolution with good intentions and a sense of discipline and fail to completely follow through. This is the reason that health clubs and fitness centers are crowded in January, February and March and thin out as the year progresses. But according to Goldsmith’s theory, for every resolution that we make, there are others that we talk ourselves out of before we even try. So the first question that we should be asking of ourselves as we start the New Year is – “What is the thing (or things) that we need to change (personally or professionally) that we are inclined to talk ourselves out of because we have determined them to be beyond our reach?”
Learning and Failure
It has been my experience that human beings naturally shy away from addressing areas where they have failed before. This may be related to the attitude toward failure more than anything else. Instead of being threatened by failure, it should be embraced as an opportunity to learn.
In his new book, Black Box Thinking, Matthew Syed talks about the intellectual contortions that people engage in that limit the potential for progress. He observes “If we edit our failure, if we reframe our mistakes, we are effectively destroying one of the most precious learning opportunities that exists.” He talks about the self-justification that people use to deceive themselves into thinking that they were victims of random events or placing the blame on someone else, concluding that “Lying to oneself destroys the very possibility of learning.” To illustrate his point, Syed contrasts the attitudes on learning from failure in the airline industry and health care. The results are striking. Over time the airline industry has experienced a continual improvement in safety, and health care has failed to reduce error rates that cost the lives of thousands of people annually. This raises a second question – How can each of us change our thinking in the coming year so that we can acknowledge failure and learn from it without becoming defensive or threatened?
While the need for change has been constant throughout history, I do believe that we now face a level of complexity in many areas that complicate how we approach change. General Stanley McChrystal’s book Team of Teams has focused on the need for agility, adaptability, and cohesion as necessary ingredients in adjusting to adversaries that constantly evolve and change tactics. His message, which has decidedly military overtones, can be applied broadly to personal and organizational change:
- Efficiency is necessary, but no longer sufficient to be successful. Just working harder at doing the exact same things is more likely to increase stress and frustration than it is to achieve a better result.
- Organizations (and individuals) must be networked, not siloed in order to succeed. Improved communication is a key to change. McChrystal tells his colleagues to “communicate until you are afraid that it is illegal.”
- More data (big data) will not necessarily save us. We have moved from a data poor but fairly predictable setting to a data rich uncertain one. To deal with complexity it is important to focus on what matters and to remove the extraneous. Whenever possible stick to a few key themes – sometimes less is more.
- Adaptability is the key to the future. McChrystal cites Henry Mintzberg, the author of The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning – “Setting oneself on a predetermined course is the perfect way to sail straight into an iceberg.” Leaders need to change from being a chess master, intent on making the right moves to being a gardener – shaping an ecosystem where plants (and individuals) can grow and adapt to constant change.
So the final New Year’s question is – Are there steps that I can take to become more flexible in adapting to changes that are happening around me?
Whether it is personal, occupational, or societal, real change rarely, if ever, happens by accident. It requires focus, discipline, and hard work. Change is also not optional. It is a necessity in a world that is moving in new and often confusing directions.
About Steve Proctor
As the now-retired CEO of Presbyterian Senior Living, Mr. Proctor was employed by PSL from 1971 - 2019. He is a Registered Nurse and Licensed Nursing Home Administrator with a BS degree in business administration from Elizabethtown College. He also holds a master’s degree in gerontology from the University of North Texas. Before becoming CEO, Mr. Proctor was Chief Operating Officer for 16 years. In addition, he has served as a Board member and is a Past President of the Pennsylvania Association of Non-Profit Homes for the Aging (“PANPHA”). In November of 1995, the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging (“AAHSA”), now known as LeadingAge, recognized Mr. Proctor’s proven leadership and accomplishments by electing him to serve as Chair of its national board of directors. He served as Chair-elect in 1996 and 1997, as Chair in 1998 and 1999, and as past-Chair in 2000 and 2001. He has also served as chair of the International Association of Homes and Services for the Aging.
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