There are many pitfalls along the way to leading a successful change initiative. There is the failure to build a “sufficiently powerful guiding coalition” (Kotter, Leading Change), or failing to prepare for inevitable resistance. One could make the common error of pulling up short of the change goals thereby teaching the organization that ‘we don’t finish projects around here.’ Or, you could make the catastrophic mistake of failing to gauge the extent to which the organizational culture must be transformed before it will accept new patterns.
Much has been written on these common errors made by reformers, leaving one of the most devastating errors untouched: failing to change oneself.
Decades ago when I was a young leader, a Church of the Nazarene pastor taught me what has become for me a leadership axiom: “If you want your people to change,” Pastor Waller taught me, “they have to see you learning twice as much.” I must admit his conferred wisdom baffled me for some time. It took a few more years of my own experience in leadership before I began to fully grasp his point. Leadership is, after all is said and done, primarily influence. I learned through leading my own change initiatives that my primary weapon to enlist the hearts and minds of my team was my own personal influence of leading by example.
The Cost of Leadership
Change has a cost. It requires people to think differently, adjust their habits, confront their basic assumptions, leave behind the status quo, and perhaps most painfully of all, grow. Those you lead will not make these sacrifices without seeing you undergo the same transformation, and more so. Your willingness to be transparent, to lead out of your humanity, becomes the key to conducting an effective change project in your organization.
One of my earliest lessons in this leadership axiom came amidst a large scale change initiative I was leading. Just as the project got underway, I received my annual performance evaluation which stated that I needed to grow my listening skills. I was crushed. I believed that I had excellent listening skills having undertaken intentional and concerted efforts in years prior to bolster these skills.
Nevertheless, I ordered a self-administered ‘Listening Skills Inventory’ and learned that of the five fundamentals to listening, I scored high in 3 of the 5. The two areas where I scored low were ‘Appreciative Listening’ and ‘Empathic Listening’, which were the two primary criticisms by my Board. After taking the exam and learning about my strengths and weaknesses, I went back to the Board as well as to the whole organization to discuss my self-learning. In sharing my struggles and describing my personal growth plan, I ended up not only introducing new language and learning to the organization about what comprises authentic listening, but I garnered widespread respect for my openness.
The Benefits of Change
My slightly bruised ego became a huge deposit into my leadership bank account from which I could draw upon in leading the current change endeavor. Thank you Pastor Waller, now I get what you were talking about!
So, next time you are called upon to lead change, give considerable thought to what you personally need to learn and how you can lead change by example.