Economics tells us that supply swiftly follows demand. If we need something, free enterprise ramps up to provide it. The operation of markets is a wonderful thing to behold. Efficient and effective, the system fills voids in a true and timely matter.
Markets work marvellously for tangibles like books, bourbon, and bras. But no so much so for intangibles like leadership; a thing we can all agree is in short supply and desperately needed. Leaders cannot be forged in the fires of industry. They cannot be conjured by the creative economy. They cannot be summoned by moment’s need. The qualities of a leader cannot be manufactured and transacted on Wall Street. We have to find leaders, in any nook and cranny of society they might dwell.
But where? We’ve traditionally looked to two sources.
The first is the military. A proven testing ground, active-service and veterans have a huge array of experience coupled with weighty responsibilities. They stood for a principle, they coordinated people in service of unified ends, and they worked cross-functionally. For all the right reasons, they’re excellent leadership recruits. But the transition from military command to civilian ranks is delicate and difficult to traverse. And in any event, the needed supply just doesn’t meet the demand.
Second is the school of hard knocks, the boot-strappers, the proverbial Horatio Alger’s. The men and women who started on the factory floor and worked their way up, or launched a garage business and astutely built it, or found a way to leverage their high school debate team skills to soaring oratory on the political platform. These leaders have realized the American Promise; that you can be anything you want to be. The problem here, though, is that these people have to find themselves before we find them. And, again, there just aren’t enough of them.
There is a third source—a veritable gold vein that’s not been mined as deeply as it should. In many cases, these men and woman are household names. We follow their careers and admire their accomplishments. Professional athletes. Below are five reasons why they fit the bill.
Professional athletes are determined. True, many are endowed with physical gifts, be it size, speed, or savvy. But as with any gift, realizing it is hard work. Progressing in sports is an increasingly exclusive series of hurdles that can’t be cleared without discipline, focus, patience, practice, and more practice. Only the indomitable can leverage their talent to move from high school to college to professional ball. It takes decades of sweat equity to bring whatever a leader possesses to fruition. We simply won’t follow someone who hasn’t demonstrated determination.
These men and women don’t just preach teamwork; they practice it. They simply can’t achieve their individual aspiration with their fellow team-members. A sports team is like a jazz band; integration is necessary to gather a coherent whole, but everybody gets the chance to shine. There might be a “most valuable player,” but he or she is first among equals. Everybody, and I mean everybody, has to do their job or no one gets the ring or the trophy. More than ever, modern organizations need the intense and intentional cross-functionality that team sports can supply.
Professional athletes appreciate followership. “Follow the Leader” is not just a playground game. It’s an experience in serving greater purpose. Athletes understand the tangible advantages of executing a plan. Their very goal achievement is contingent upon following, well and truly. Maybe counter-intuitively, leading is rooted in having learned the lessons of following, for the simple reasons that leaders have to understand what followers need and want in order to excel.
They are cognitively complex. They grasp the dynamic flow of many inter-related variables, simultaneously played. As any fan will attest, the strategic machinations of a successful franchise are convoluted and complex. The plays themselves have layers upon layers, intricacies upon intricacies, variations upon variations. Their wits are challenged with hundreds of unpredictable factors that require seamless adaptation and improvisation. This kind of thinking stands to today’s fast moving environment.
Professional athletes know what it’s like to work under pressure. There are enormous stakes. A lot of people are watching. The investment in time, talent, money, and reputation is ever-present. They have to check their anxieties and injuries at the door to stay calm, cool, and collected. If one player loses his or her composure, the efforts of the rest are squandered. Nothing’s more valued in today’s stressful business climate than a level head.
Society extolls the virtues of team sports, earnestly believing that they develop teamwork, discipline, followership, intellect, and level-headedness. Sports surface, support, and, potentially, impart, that most important of leadership qualities: character. Professional athletes have character, in abundance. I know first-hand, having taught many in executive programs, and becoming friends with a few.
The cynical line of Paul Simon’s, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you” captures a leadership vacuum. But, in this context, it’s not cynical at all, because the inheritors of DiMaggio’s legacy—todays professional athletes—are well equipped to answer the call. They are the real thing, a next generation, and it is time we turned to them to provide the leadership we yearn for, and deserve.
Heroes have been held out as the best of us throughout recorded history. All cultures commit to profiling and proclaiming them. Their stories are our past, present, and future, told through the protagonist’s lens. We research, record, and relate them for a reason.
From undergraduates to senior executives, heroes are used to illustrate leadership. Who they were, where they were, why they were, what they did. But like any entrenched practice, the teaching of leadership deserves frequent revisiting. What makes the principles, qualities, and behaviors from the sum of leaders that went before or since so worthy of edifying? Why these burnished exemplars and not others?
Before beginning, some givens.
Leadership is leading people. It’s harnessing human energy, talent, hope, and imagination. One can be a leader of ideas or art or technology, but in our operational definition, that’s doesn’t qualify. Leaders lead people. Period.
Let’s also agree that heroes are flawed. Often their personal conduct was deplorable. They had skeletons in their closet. They labored for self-interested gain and sometimes nefarious nations or corporations. Leadership doesn’t mean leading to peace or prosperity or public good. It would be nice if it did. But for good or for ill, for greed or virtue, leaders refract the imprint of humanity. That they were twisted or pernicious doesn’t distract from the fact that they left enduring footprints. You don’t do that unless you can lead people. Let’s put that aside and focus on why we can’t, or shouldn’t, shake them from our collective memory.
There are three reasons heroes are so useful.
First, they’re recognizable. To be effective, any teacher must connect with as many students as possible. Minimum tuned in means maximum tuned out. The stories and deeds of heroes are cross-culturally valid and accessible, and as such, capture attention. You can’t teach without attention. This illustrative footing is the basis for discussing and debating, determining and doubting. Does everybody love them? Absolutely not. Does everyone know them? Absolutely. The platform needs to reach as many as possible. Heroes do that.
Recognition for recognition’s sake is not enough. Heroes are recognized because they had impact. They amassed powerful followership and changed the world. Durable recognition is an echo from the past to the present. It means that they and their deeds have survived the test of time. They’ve been written into history books. They’ve been taught in schools. They’ve been the subject of dissertations. They have legs. To have legs, you must have done something worth remembering.
Second, heroes had impact because, with unshakable clarity, they saw the end they pursed. It was ever present. They woke, walked, and wepted with it in their frontal lobes. Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit is depicted as selfishly fatal obsession. Maybe there was little virtue in pursing Moby Dick. But heroes were undeniably obsessive in quest and defense of their hoped for future. Everything they did was in service of it, consciously or not. It fed, and fed off of, their intellectual, emotional, and behavior forces.
To be obsessed is to think of a thing unceasingly and persistently. Its etiology is psychological—to haunt—and military—to besiege. Can you think of a real leader who wasn’t passionate, and, in the end, wanted most of all, to conquer something, be that a nation, and ideology, or an idea?
Clarity is a singularity of mind that leverages force to energy and energy to motion. It provides vision. At its core, a vision does not yet exist; it’s conjured from the future. By itself, it’s frightening, as it represents the unknown, which is something we instinctually shrink from. Fear of the unknown provides the raw emotional fuel to mobilize humans.
Third, heroes weren’t for their followers, they were their followers. They didn’t stand beside the river as we gasped for air; they were rushing along with us. This explains why they were so powerful, but more importantly, why they were beloved. They didn’t have to understand the people because they were the people.
Leaders don’t have to be of the same socio-economic status or ethnic background as their followers. Churchill was upper crust, while most of Britain wasn’t. Eamon de Valera was as much Spanish as Irish. That’s not important. The connection’s deeper than that. Heroes felt what, and acted as, those around them. Their emotional response was perfectly consistent with their supporters. Their action plan was what those around them would have chosen to do. They had, and were, the pulse. Heroes didn’t have to think about it. They didn’t need polls. They were indistinguishable and inseparable from their followers; a powerful explanation for their appeal.
These three qualities—recognizability, singularity of purpose, and harmony with followership—provide the foundation of leadership education. They’re the key to reaching those curious about what it means to lead. If these are rooted, the learning conversation that ensues is sparkling and meaningful.
Heroes capture who leaders are and what they do. In so doing they embody what we want to—and sometimes do—see in ourselves. We tell their stories because they are projections of who we want to be; remembered, rapt, and reflected. They are our greatest stories because they reinforce the notion that one person can change the world. Believing that ennobles us to do just that. For all these reasons, heroes are the vehicle by which we do, and should, grasp and erect our own leadership. Living by example was never truer.
James Bailey is the Jonathan Hochberg Professorial Fellow of Leadership Development and Director of the World EMBA at George Washington University School of Business.
Conventional wisdom holds that during tough times—such as today’s feeble, disheartening economic climate—the lines between right and wrong blur. Reliably decent people, whether on the street or in the boardroom, find the compromising conditions in which they live sufficient justification to bend the rules, to find grey hues in colors otherwise reflected as black and white, and to excuse their own transgressions as externally driven. No reproach of personal character is evoked when one acts as the necessity demands. “It’s not my fault,” one might protest. “I’d lose my job if I didn’t do it!” Or, “Come on, others are getting their fair share, why not me?”
This line of reasoning is a chief product of several hundreds of years of economic theory that has been absorbed into the public consciousness. From Adam Smith through David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus, John Stuart Mill, and, recently, Milton Freeman, economists interested in big issues like the allocation of national resources have had to make assumptions about what motivates average folk. The answer? Self-interest. “What’s in it for me?”
Self-interest is a perfectly reasonable speculation that is an undeniable human quality. Anyone who’s raised children knows that no matter how nurturing and generous the environment, kids are self-centered little seeds way before life’s lessons have hardened them.
There is, to be sure, truth to this egocentric picture of human nature. But it doesn’t nearly explain the whole story. The problem with assumptions is that when used across the board, they start to resemble that narcissistic child desperately forcing a square peg into a round hole, even though it doesn’t fit.
Economics predicts that in good times, self-interest is satisfied and thus more charitable, civilized behavior trumps baser instinct. Self-interest is, after all, rational, which means that when one has enough, one would, rationally, let others have their’s. The satiated creature gives the hungry one a turn at the trough. It’s a nice thought, but it’s fundamentally flawed.
The last two decades of economic prosperity are examples of how good times don’t always make for good conduct. At the zenith of America’s success, neither Wall Street nor the Capital seemed overly concerned with the ethical minutia that, when woven together, describes the character of a society. It’s most often the little things that, in the midst of plenty, seem like small ethical potatoes. The accounting of the market value of an asset as a profit on a balance sheet, or the creation of financial products from derivatives—whether appropriate or not—is cast as acceptable when the sun shines. It’s natural to think of oneself as an invulnerable master of the universe when all goes according to plan. It’s easy to excuse personally beneficial lapses when the overall tide lifts. It’s convenient to dismiss another’s failure as incompetence when one’s own star is rising.
So when do humans become humane? Even a casual read suggests that we are most ennobled when most disadvantaged. Strength triggers arrogance, which leads to belief in a just world where those who’ve fallen deserve their fate. They are the inept or cowardly products of a simple Darwinian equation. In contrast, weakness triggers vulnerability, which leads to a belief that anyone can fall prey to life’s vicissitudes. Here, sympathy, not superiority, is evoked.
The armies of recently relieved in Detroit, New York, and elsewhere, have a pristine empathy for their own and others fragility. This is not a class or a religious allegiance, but a psychological one. The fate of laid-off lawyers, financiers, consultants and managers is directly equivalent to that of skilled laborers that find their life’s circumstances inconsolably discombobulated. Misfortune, or the prospect thereof, is life’s great equalizer.
Psychology, not economics, provides a more compelling explanation for how we come to grips with tumultuous times. When times are stable and munificent, we humans erect intellectual and emotional structures that allow us to revel in the conviction that we are in control of our lives and thus not susceptible to fortune’s foul winds. These structures let us take credit for success and deny blame for failure. They furnish the fallacy that bad things only happen to bad people (which, by the way, we are most certainly not counted among), enabling a life free of agonizing uncertainty.
But when, as inevitably happens, the hard rain falls, these structures are punctured. They no longer protect or prevent awareness of our vulnerability. The experience of exposure to vulnerability is both poignant and terrible. It is at these moments and in these times that empathy is most heightened. The chastening reminds us that life is unpredictable and unfair, which in turn gentles our attributions of others. The result is that benevolence bests bestiality.
The reality or prospect of hard times breeds compassion and connection, not coldness and correction. When the tectonic plates of life shift underfoot they are accompanied by an equally powerful psychological shift. The recognition of our own vulnerability casts the vulnerability of others into sharp relief, which in turn triggers sympathy and a renewed appreciation of “there but by grace go I.” In today’s recessionary times, there’s every reason to believe that munificent conduct will rule the day.
Is leadership the product of the person or the place?
One camp says it’s the force of the individual. Through a combination of genetics and experience, some are leaders. And leaders act upon circumstances, make the market, revolutionize the industry, jump the trend.
Another camp says that leadership is the force of the place, the situation, the Zeitgeist (German for “spirit of the times”). Here, leaders are forged from present pressures and tectonic-like tipping-points. The momentum of the moment molds the players in the play.
The leader makes the times, the times make the leader. Which is it?
Both. The qualities of the leader—be they courage, intelligence, insight, or empathy—must compliment the current state of affairs. The person and the situation are inextricably linked; can’t have one without the other. But how do these forces combine to cause leadership? The answer lies, curiously enough, in evolutionary theory.
Many of us claim to understand evolution. We toss terms like “survival value” and explain event sequences as “evolutionary processes.” But how many have actually read Darwin’s 1859 The Origin of the Species? I dug into it to untangle the web of persons and situations, individuals and times, leaders and leadership.
Darwin was very clear about two natural cycles: production and maintenance. The cycle of production is that which produces variation. Deep in the genetic code of all species lays a “tendency for spontaneous variation.” The genotype (genetic composition) and consequent phenotype (observable characteristics) of all species just plain vary once in a while. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. The process is immune to environmental conditions. It appears to be—even with electron microscopes—random, accidental, and unknowable.
The cycle of maintenance is that which maintains variation after it’s been produced. Here is “survival of the fittest.” Here is the where the environment either selects for or rejects variations produced and introduced by the cycle of production. This process is perfectly observable and logical. Keep in mind that in no case does the cycle of maintenance create the variation, but it is the ultimate arbiter of whether it flowers or flounders, thrives or dies.
The giraffe’s neck makes the case. If asked why the giraffe’s neck is long, most will reply it’s because there’s digestible foliage in the forest’s canopy for which there is less competition. Most would be dead wrong.
The length of the giraffe’s neck has nothing to do with food in the high fronds. That length is a result of the cycle of production. Those high fronds are the environment—the cycle of maintenance—which selects or rejects post-hoc. The environment chose the peculiar neck but it didn’t make it.
What this has to do with leaders and leadership is two-fold. First, leaders are not manufactured by their times. They are instead best understood as unique and genuine spontaneous variations born of the cycle of production and endowed with consciousness and volition. Second, leaders cannot lead unless their talents are conducive to the times—the cycle of maintenance. If leaders (a noun) are not surrounded by conditions that favor their talents, they cannot lead (a verb). But when these forces align—person-place, production-maintenance—leadership (both noun and verb) can unfold.
Two towering figures illustrate this interplay. Benjamin Franklin might have been remembered as a clever inventor and diarist had it not been for the War of Independence. The war didn’t create Franklin; he was his own man. But it did call for his particular qualities. He and the moment were well matched. Another is Winston Churchill; a churlish chap, seemingly ill-suited for the modern world because of his quixotic 19th century principles. Still, his gifts were exactly what times required. WWII didn’t make Churchill, it selected him. He made sense.
With this in mind, leaders—potential and proven—should ask some questions. Are their qualities aptly matched with their firm’s dynamics? Are they well-fit for their position? Even if they possess abundant leadership qualities, if ill-suited, they’ll go unrecognized by organizations, peers and reports alike. That’s frustrating, and always compromises performance and satisfaction for all involved. Jaguars don’t do well in deserts just as strong personalities don’t do well in gentle organizational cultures.
Fortunately, unlike instinctual animals— long-necked giraffes, migrating birds, light-drawn moths—we humans possess volition. That means if introspective about our leadership qualities, we don’t’ have to be passive receptors of environmental currents. We can instead intentionally develop competencies that equip us for extant challenges. We can also move within the firm to a unit or department or team that’s better allied with our idiosyncratic skills. Or, we can go to another firm where our qualities are consistent with their demands. What I’m saying is this: those of us that find ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time can adjust by developing complimentary skills, move to a more harmonious position in our firm, or up-root to re-root in friendlier soil.
A profound implication of this analogy is the impact that leaders have on their environments. Just as the introduction of a new species changes the floral and faunal equilibrium of a region, so does leadership. By their thoughts and deeds, leaders change the organization and culture that they are leading. In so doing, leaders may lead themselves out of leadership. For instance, a transformational, people-oriented leader may be exactly what is needed during times of crisis. But if that leader overcomes the challenges to set the organization on firm footing, his or her qualities may no longer be needed. A transactional, process-oriented leader may be better suited. Ironic, isn’t it, that successful leaders sufficiently change the conditions of their organizations so that those conditions are no longer favorable to their unique talents?
This may be why chief executive officers should stay no longer than five years. If they haven’t transformed the organization in that time, then they weren’t properly matched in the first place. If they have transformed the organization, then it’s a different environment, and it’s well-nigh time they move on.
We are creatures of nature, and as such are subject to its fundamental dynamics. But we are not merely visceral, primitive beings. We are instead singularly brimming with free-will. Our leadership is our own. But our talent is for naught if our competencies are not consistent with the conditions and culture of our clans. We have the power to change ourselves or change or surroundings. True leaders not only know who they are, but also know where they belong.
For a more in-depth treatment, read my extended version in the Journal of Leadership Studies.
To be in a state of grace is to be absolved of sin. To repent is to be exonerated, and to atone is to be pardoned. To err is human, and to forgive is divine. It is the most revered sacrament because it encourages us to look forward, not backward.
Odd start for a leadership column, right? Stay with me.
A few months ago, a client shared how she’d badly mishandled a project. The particulars aren’t important. She did what we all do: stumble, screw up, drop the ball. Not because of incompetence or negligence, but because our best efforts don’t always succeed. To me the disquieting part was that she was still embarrassed and self-conscious. She still thought her credibility was wounded. The fact that she carried this weight after three months vouches that both she and her employer engaged in an unwitting conspiracy to create an untenable situation. She didn’t apologize, they didn’t forgive.
The two most difficult sentences to utter are: “I’m sorry,” and “You’re forgiven.” The former admits fault, whereas the latter discharges it. Both are hard. Being sorry means acknowledging our shortcomings. That’s something we’re loath to do, as it bruises the pride that protects our fragile egos. Forgiving another is equally threatening because it requires genuine magnanimity, abdicating l’authorite de la persona. When this reciprocal exchange doesn’t occur, a toxic cycle is triggered that leaves us cowed and our employers disappointed.
How do we reach a state of organizational grace? A state where we aren’t afraid of failing, and our firms aren’t afraid of that either? A state where license is practiced as well as endorsed? (My friend, Jerry Harvey, wrote about this in his celebrated book, The Abilene Paradox. Definitely worth a read.)
For our part, we have to place our precious pride aside. The problem is that we’re savagely self-protective; an instinctual reaction to a threatening world. Overcoming the instinct begins with faith. In this context faith is simply the belief in our own competence. But to be competent is to learn, and to learn is to know what we have to learn, and to know what we have to learn is to own our own weaknesses and transgressions.
We have to quit taking things so personally. A single mistake doesn’t define our professional identity. I can’t even count my mistakes. But that’s all they were, and they were shameful only when I repeated the same ones over and over. All of us know that none of us is perfect. In fact, we don’t like perfect people, so why would we want to be one?
But faith in us is not enough. We must have faith our firms. That’s where leadership comes in. Leaders can create environments where thoughtful failures are embraced. That’s where culture—even the micro-culture of a unit or department—comes in. Performance, or lack thereof, is part and parcel the product of culture; ignore it at your peril. Culture’s a good thing, but if it gets in the way of taking chances without the burden of disappointment, then it should bend or break.
Leaders can also resist building performance metrics exclusively around quantitative metrics. Such appraisal systems don’t capture reasoned risk, creativity and innovation. Follow the money; reward it and it gets done, don’t and it doesn’t. Leaders can craft policy that consents to deviation by not marking those who deviate as deviants.
Participating in this debilitating conspiracy is mutual. We want to be forgiven, but we can’t get it unless we ask for it. Our organizations want to forgive us, but they can’t do it unless their leaders understand its importance. That’s a shame, because if we were released from our penitence, like my client needed to be, we could look forward instead of backward. A wonderful life is made when we fall without fear because we know we’ll be caught. That’s when ideas flow. That’s when performance peaks. That’s when you and I want to come to work.
There’s an Irish sentiment, to “throw the jute on the burning ground.” Jute is a heavy reed used for thatching. To carry it is a burden. The burning ground is a place where we’re liberated from that burden. To be in a state of organizational grace means asking for, and being granted, forgiveness.
More jokes have been told about lawyers than any other professionals. But the business of law firms is no joke. Law firms generate $250 billion a year in the United States, and Washington gets more than its fair share of the bounty.
For the last 50 years, law firms have done astonishingly well. Revenues have soared to levels that make other industries greenish with envy. Like brethren professional service firms, law firms don’t have much overhead, which, coupled with cost of services, means spanking profits. To their detriment, though, as LLCs, those profits aren’t withheld for investment or rainy days. They’re parceled out in bonuses; it’s a cash business.
So the bottom fell out in 2008, just like it did for all of us. Decreased demand for services and general counsel spending, coupled with increasing price pressures from competition and clients, stymied law firms. Layoffs, hiring freezes, compensation cuts, dumping pricey office real-estate, shrinking expense accounts and other Draconian measures followed. Unprecedented stuff in an industry accustomed to our largess.
Jim Jones, senior vice president of one of the oldest and most prestigious law firm consultancies, Hildebrandt Baker Robbins, didn’t mince words when asked about it: “What we are seeing is a sea change…. [That] will drive a reexamination of the ways law firms price their services, manage their work, and recruit and develop talent.” Mark Phillips, a former lawyer and current doctoral candidate in business administration studying law firms at GWSB, put things more bluntly: “In my experience, law firms have relied far too much upon a grossly antiquated business model. Many firms have now run that model into the ground. The chickens are coming home to roost.”
Rooted in traditions molded by longstanding munificence, law firms are, well, reluctant to change. But circumstances demand it. Other professional service firms have adapted by adopting best business practice. Why not law firms? Here are a few things they can do to remain viable and vital.
1. Think more strategically about the broader economic climate, industry trends, client needs, and internal policies.
2. Engage in branding and other marketing practices, even if it seems crassly commercial.
3. Erect executive structures that integrate business-savvy non-lawyers into the authority hierarchy.
4. Introduce pricing models based on metrics other than billable hours, such as value added to client businesses.
5. Align and contract vendors and service providers to maximize value chains.
6. Form strategic alliances or even initiate mergers with other specialized firms to offer clients more comprehensive and coherent representation.
7. Engage in more vigilant talent management, and when that talent is elevated to leadership roles in practice or firm governance, compensate them fairly and employ meaningful development opportunities.
The legal industry is one of nation’s great success stories. This is especially so in Washington, the interface of business, government and society. Law firms offer a critical service to society, provide tens of thousands of good jobs, and post impressive price-earnings ratios. They are powerful economic engines. But, they’ve never thought of themselves as businesses. That thinking should change.
A spring morning in Washington. Walking home from dropping my son at preschool—just two blocks from home—and it started to storm. Scattered clouds and high winds conspired to violently burst into rain and thunder. Waterfall-like sheets poured and shuddering booms echoed. Naturally, I scurried under a broad, leafy tree for protection. Five minutes later the storm passed, the sky cleared, and a wetted sun appeared.
Lingering under the tree, the drops off the leaves quickly soaked my clothes. I was almost as wet as if standing direct in the downpour. The tree was shelter one minute, the next it was not.
It then struck me that being under the tree is not necessarily the best place to be once the storm subsides. You can still get wet.
Organizational change can be a storm. It can be fast, furious, and fearful. If introduced too swiftly, absent expressed vision and bereft of clear path, we feel intimated and run for cover. Because organizations are inherently socio polis (i.e., public gatherings), our impulses—where we duck—have critical consequences.
The great organizational theorist Ed Schein was a US Army psychologist during the Korean War. His job was to help prisoners of war and to understand their captivity experiences. Patterns emerged. A small percentage actively resisted the change, and was punished with solitary confinement, banished from contact with fellow humans. The largest group, by far, we’re passive bystanders; trundling along, neither cooperating nor resisting. But some actively collaborated, adjusting to the new circumstance by aligning with the initiators of it, finding an opportunity to advance.
In the swell of an organizational storm—a wrenching and ill-conceived change—we face the same decision those counseled by Schein did; resist and perish, be passive and survive, or collaborate and gain (at least temporarily).
But what happens when the storm subsides? It’s no surprise that most of us react to organizational change passively, ducking our heads until the smoking clouds clear. But if we closely align with those who foisted the change upon us, abruptly and disconcertingly, and they pass like storms do, where are we? Associated with those who left scorched earth in their path, who left a minimum winning coalition and a maximum losing coalition, who left wounds. We’re soaked.
When the storm comes—and it will; it always does—be careful where you seek shelter. Being under the tree is not the best place to be when the storm subsides.
A lot has been written about organizational change. Why do it. When to do it. How to do it. But not a whole lot has been written about why it fails 50 percent of the time. Clearly, all’s not well in Change City.
Change efforts go south for a million reasons. But in the final analysis, change is carried out by people, not organizations. And if we, the people, resist, it’s over.
Studies offer a host of reasons why you and I resist change. But after a decade of thinking about it, I’ve come to believe that we don’t resist change at all. We change all the time; we change our clothes, our minds, even our spouses. What we resist is loss.
Loss is what we feel when something once possessed is taken away. Valued colleagues, comforting routines, and self-affirming competencies can all be lost in organizational change. It’s not the change, per se, that we fear. It’s the consequences that are often too much to stomach.
Now—and this is a bit of a leap—what’s the ultimate loss that we, regardless of race, creed, or culture, face? Isn’t it life itself? We fear change, organizational or otherwise, because it reminds us of our own mortality.
Macabre? Maybe. But our fragile and fleeting life is a looming reality that we go to great lengths to repress. To do so we use defense mechanisms that have evolved to enable coping with, and adjustment to, threats posed by a constantly changing, uncertain, and anxiety provoking world. These mechanisms minimize our consciousness of loss, including the big one, our own death, and permit us to feel we live in a stable, certain, secure, meaningful, and, perhaps most importantly, enduring, environment.
Organization change threatens our deeply-held identity and sustaining livelihood, puncturing those precious defense mechanisms. And we become terrified. Remind you of how you felt during your last, wrenching, organizational change?
Leaders can do a lot to counteract this debilitating feeling and reduce resistance while facilitating adjustment. Organizational change is all too often painted in broad brushstrokes oriented toward the bold strategic thrust that depreciates the fact that, ultimately, the success or failure of change must account for us as well as the organization in-aggregate.
The primary value for leaders is in understanding that change itself is less important than the psychological bulwark it invades. From executives to supervisors, the recognition and appreciation of what we are losing is critically important. We’ll adjust capabilities to organizational demands if supplied with sufficient time to come to terms, ample opportunity to develop new skills, and security if we screw up in the process. Absent these, uncertainty and anxiety will be attributed to the change itself. We dig in.
A lot’s at stake for us in organizational change; so much that it’s terrifying. Leaders would be well advised to know what they’re asking of us.
Dr. Doug Guthrie, Dean, Professor of International Business and Professor of Management at The George Washington University School of Business is an expert in the fields of economic reform in China, leadership and corporate governance, and corporate social responsibility.
The members of the MBA Admissions team contribute to the blog with postings about recruitment tours, events, interviews with current students, and insights about the admissions process. The team is composed of:
Christopher Storer, Executive Director Jason Garner, Associate Director Patsy Torres, Assistant Director Jason Smith, Assistant Director Shelly Heinrich, Admissions Consultant Jessica Page, Coordinator