Leadership and Change…The Road to Mastery

You can’t pick-up any ‘mainstream’ business or management publication, newsletter, blog, or e-zine without seeing something about leadership as the crucial ingredient for success.  A recent search on Google on “Leadership” delivered about 856 million results with something about leadership in their content.  Getting equal ink is the topic of Change…that search returned over 3.8 billion (with a “B”) results.  I remember a graduate seminar some 40 years ago where the guest speaker intoned, with great gravity, “Change, get used to it, it will be the only constant in your career.”  That’s been true ever since, with one major shift.  The rate of change keeps getting faster.  It’s a relentless pace that leaders in every organization of every size have to face and deal with daily…monthly…yearly.

The topic of leadership has so many shadings, themes and variations that, if you aren’t careful, you can be quickly get caught up in the ‘flavor of the month’ club.  Some 3 – 4,000 business books will be published this year, the most popular topics will be leadership, change and communications.  Many of our most visible CEO’s, politicians and sports figures are anxious to ‘tell their story’ and provide you with their wisdom about how you can lead just like they did. The result can be an overflow of input that is confusing to you and more importantly, your people.  Which model do you follow?  Whose advice and insight is going to work best?

You ARE a Leader…

By definition, as the owner or founder of your business or professional practice, you are a leader.  Whether you want the role or not, if you have one or one-hundred people working for you, they are expecting you to lead – to provide direction for the organization, to articulate a vision, a reason to come to work that is larger than any individual.  Or, as I tell groups of leaders and executives nationwide, “A reason to drag themselves out of bed on a cold, snowy, miserable February morning and get into work for you instead of snuggling back into their warm beds.”  Your people are looking to you to provide a day-in and day-out ‘touchstone’ about why they are doing this, and that what they are doing serves some greater good or larger meaning.

How do the best leaders do that?  What makes two companies in the same business, competing in the same geographic area so different in terms of how people feel about working there?  How does leadership contribute to ‘sustainable competitive advantage,’ keeping customers coming back time-after-time?  How does leadership contribute to handling change that keeps increasing at an increasing rate?

Manage Tasks – LEAD PEOPLE

“So much of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to work.”  

That’s a quote from Peter Drucker, often cited as the management guru of our age.  At over 90 years old, he’s still going strong and advising some of the most powerful Fortune 500 CEO’s in the country.

As a leader in what the Small Business Administration now calls “SME’s” (Small- to Medium- sized Enterprises), it is easy to get lost in the ‘task management’ part of your job.  If you are particularly prone to being a ‘control freak’ you can really get task management saturated.  You believe that parsing out specific, detailed tasks for people to do, barking orders about how to do this or that, is providing leadership. Hard as it may be for you to accept, you are not leading in these situations.  You are managing tasks.

Great leaders learn to hire the best people they can find, provide a broad outline of the objectives that need to be accomplished then get out of the way, so the people they’ve hired can do the work they were hired to do.  It’s the ‘let people accomplish your objectives THEIR way’ model.

One of interesting ‘disconnects’ that appears in almost every Employee Opinion Survey conducted over the past 20 years or so – including a national survey this past December by the Harris Organization – is that managers in organizations just don’t get it. Managers typically believe that what’s most important to their people is income or compensation. Employees responding to these surveys consistently put income in fifth, sixth or even seventh place.  So, what factors do employees rate as most important?

Appreciation and acknowledgement

Sense of being able to make a difference

Having a sense of control over my work

Knowing what latitude they have in making decisions

Working in an environment that gives permission to ‘make mistakes’  if they try something new or take
risks for the organization

Mardy Grothe, an organizational psychologist and business coach, talks about the most basic human needs in the work environment.  He uses an acronym LARA – people want to be Liked, Admired, Respected and Appreciated.  I think that sums it up pretty well.  If you are going to show-up as a leader, you’ve got to create an environment that allows your people to thrive, a place where they are LARA’ed consistently.

Remember, manage tasks (like making the phone calls to key customers that are your individual responsibility or collecting a badly overdue receivable if your personal involvement will make it happen) and lead people – be the ‘keeper of the flame’ for the values, vision and mission of your business.  Create an environment that speaks to what is on your employees’ minds, establish and communicate your expectations clearly, and get out of their way so that they can contribute to accomplishing your objectives their way.

Be Change Resilient

“It is not necessary to change, survival is not mandatory.” W. Edwards Deming, the reengineering and change management guru who was the architect of the effort to rebuild Japan after World War II, said this in one of his last books.  I have his words up on the wall in many meetings I facilitate as a reminder to leaders in organizations that the only constant is change.

The rate of change is so fast these days that most of what you think you know is obsolete before you have a chance to use the knowledge to do anything.  In the 21st Century, illiteracy is not a function of being unable to read and write.  Instead it is measured by our ability to learn, unlearn and relearn at a faster and faster rate.

I coach about 20 CEO’s and organization leaders each month in group and individual meetings.  The most consistent topic we talk about, regardless of what business they are in or how big or small the organization, is the challenge of dealing with constant change at a faster and faster pace.  Or, as Robert Byrne said, “Everything is in a state of flux, including the status quo.”

Regardless of how ‘commoditized’ or ‘niche – specialized’ your business is…you have to deal with change every moment.  Being ‘change resilient’ is the biggest challenge for today’s leaders.  The change is so fast, coming from every direction that it’s enough to make you want to just get back in your warm bed on some of those February mornings!

A central part of the leader’s role is to initiate, manage and cope with change.  The changes may be internal – we need to reorganize to reduce expenses or we need to find a different way to do these tasks because our business has grown so fast.  Or, they may be external – the county wants our site for redevelopment, a competitor just started manufacturing in China and is selling for less than our cost. My colleague, Jean Maxwell in Colorado says…” Your job as a leader is to help people be uncomfortable with the things they should be uncomfortable with.” That’s a great ‘touchstone’ for the challenges of leading change today.

We all resist change, even the best leaders will fret about it once-in-a-while.  In fact, in my experience, the only people on the planet who really like change are babies with wet diapers.  The rest of us don’t think too much of it.

Make It Look Easy

As a leader, it’s up to you to be the most ‘change resilient’ person in the organization.  To accept change as a constant of your environment and make it look as easy as possible to your people.  When the leader gets flustered and frustrated by change, the people you are responsible for handle it poorly, their resistance is higher, their anxiety level goes up.  As the leader, you have to convince people that resisting does more harm than good.  Get your people to see that resisting the inevitable changes takes a lot of unproductive effort and energy that can be spent more productively making change work for individuals and the organization.

What are some things you can do?  First, look at how you react to change, both inside and outside – where your people can see it.  If you want a change resilient organization, the best place to start is with you.  Do you communicate frustration, resistance, anxiety to your people about change?  If you do, they will magnify your communication 10 times in your organization.  Is that what you want?  What result do you want to produce instead?

When you get your own change resilience level up, find ways to communicate it, formally and informally, over and over again in your organization.  Let your people know that you are anticipating and initiating change and that you expect them to deal with it effectively as a measure of how well they are doing their jobs.

When things are changing fast (where aren’t they these days?), the leader’s most useful tool is communication.  It’s often noted that adult learners need to be exposed to new materials or learnings 6 or 7 times before they “get it.”  And, those exposures need to use a variety of different media – spoken and written.  Whether the change is going to be perceived as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (most change is seen as ‘bad’ just because it’s change), the effective leader’s guide is communicate, Communicate, COMMUNICATE!

If you want people to get their individual and collective change resilience level up so they can do something positive with changes, you’ve got to over-communicate about the changes.  That’s particularly tough when the changes are perceived by you as negative or bad news.  It’s human nature to want to avoid the pain of communicating bad news. In the absence of communication from the leader, everyone leaps to the assumption that it’s bad news and quickly makes it worse.  That’s because we all have a 50,000-watt radio station broadcasting 24/7 in our heads called WIIFM (What’s-In-It-For-Me?).  WIIFM can even turn good news into bad if people don’t hear from the company’s leader.   As that leader, one of your jobs is to positively affect the quality of those broadcasts inside each employee’s head so they become increasingly change resilient.

Learning to manage tasks and lead people, along with guiding and communicating the change agenda are two of the most challenging tasks for leaders in small to medium sized businesses.  George Leonard defines Mastery in his book of that title as “the mysterious process during which what is at first difficult becomes progressively easier and more pleasurable through repetition and practice.”

To become a master at your craft of leadership, you must practice giving up the tasks and leading your people.  It does not come easy to control-freak entrepreneurs and company founders who believe “No one can do it as well as I can.” You’ll find yourself slipping back from time-to-time.  When that happens, remember to “begin again,” wherever you are.  Your journey is one of “ARETE” (that’s are-uh-tay), an ancient Greek word that, translates to “the pursuit of excellence and achieving your highest potential. Learn more about ARETE on the CEOIQ Website

To master the process of change resilience requires constant practice and constant communication with your people.  Achieving a level of mastery as a change guide for your company will also be a ‘slippery slope’ at times.  You’ll notice that it’s worse when your own change resistance is highest.  And, that’s when you need to refocus your energy and be at your best as a leader.


Ben Griffin
Author: Ben Griffin

Facilitator - CEO Peer Advisory Group; Executive Coach; Photographer