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Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die

Change: a core leadership competency

[4-minute read]

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about leaders and leadership. Sometimes, with feelings of fondness and admiration; often, with a certain wistful frustration.

Of course, leadership is central to any change or organisation development (OD) effort: if the leaders (formal and informal) don’t really want change, it’s almost impossible to make it happen elegantly. And I do like a bit of elegance every now and then … change shouldn’t all be uphill slog and heavy weather, should it?

At any rate, since change is what all my work is about, leaders are pretty important to me. They’re also usually the people who invite me in, who pay my bills, and who have the power to invite me out.

You might think that simply being invited implies buy-in. But that’s not always the case.

‘Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die,’ said some unknown person (who was doubtless a change agent).

Many people, leaders included, want things to be different in their lives and their organisations, but don’t want to go through the process – or the pain – involved in actually changing. And that’s where the frustration comes in.

It’s easy enough to understand and to find some compassion for this: it’s a very human thing to want change while clinging to sameness or the illusion of control. However …

Axiom: leaders lead change or they lead nothing

A leader is more than a caretaker or a manager. Their job is to guide their system (organisation, community, country) into the best possible future. And that’s almost always change work – though there’s certainly holding, caretaking and managing involved.

If you can’t work effectively and consciously with change, you can’t lead well. Therefore, leaders have to be change competent.

By ‘change competence’,  I don’t mean a facility for implementing complex change management models: change competence is something both more nuanced, less mechanistic and frankly, simpler. It requires compassion, wisdom, humility, the capacity to learn, and an appreciation for the fact that everything and everyone is in process. At its root is the capacity to change oneself.

Leaders shape their organisations, consciously, but also unconsciously and unintentionally. If you’re a corporate cowboy, you’ll find the light of that identity (bold risktaking) and its many shadows (cut corners; half-truths in service of spectacular results; me-first thinking) reflected in your organisation. Similarly, if you’re risk-averse and slow to act, your organisation may feel like a safe space, but it’ll also accumulate dead wood and lose opportunities (and talented people) while everyone follows your cue and plays it safe.

Very often, changing the system requires changing the self. That’s the real price of organisational change – and also where the magic lies.

Some of the main questions to consider when appointing or electing a new leader should be:

  • Has she shown that she can change in significant ways?
  • Does he know how to listen and learn?
  • Are they willing to be shaped, even as they shape?
  • Can she temper decisiveness with humility – and still take the necessary decisions?
  • Does he have a sense of humour and perspective?
  • Can they see their own capacity and limitations clearly enough?
  • Does she understand process, unfolding and emergence in a grounded way (i.e. not only intellectually)?
  • Does he see organisations as living things that require something more than a rational/analytical response?
  • Can they hold and lead a human process, not just manage a machine?

In a world as volatile as ours, these qualities are as fundamental to success and longevity as vision, strategy, presence, critical thinking, systems thinking, and other more technical and traditional leadership skills.  They are also qualities that can be developed.

More than that, I suspect they’re qualities we must develop in ourselves and in emerging leaders if we want to build a worthwhile future.

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As usual, I’d value your thoughts on this article. Feel free to drop me a line or find me on social media: Facebook, LinkedIn Twitter.

Cover image: Nathan Dumlao

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About this blog

This blog is for people who work with and in organisations of any kind – as leaders, managers, formal or informal change agents. If you are trying to work more consciously and effectively with change in your organisation, I hope you will find some ideas here that make your work (and your life) a bit easier, and your organisation a more effective, creative and positive place to be.

If you would like to engage around these ideas, ask a question, suggest a post, or discuss the possibility of working together, please drop me a line.

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