Make change – challenge norms

Leading change is top of the agenda right now. Yesterday someone sent me a piece from Saturday's NY Times. It makes the point that "Leaders shape followers' perceptions. That is what actors do. And what is it that great actors have? A presence." The article goes on to describe a five day course in theater techniques taken by

some of the 50 fellows at the World Economic Forum who came to New York this week to explore how theater and the arts can help them, say, someday run an international conglomerate or a finance ministry. … The idea was to teach the fellows – who hail from 40 countries and range in age from 26 to 36 – the techniques that actors employ to hold an audience's attention. … A second aspect of the week's activities is to see art and culture as a vital force for social change."

At more or less the same time I was writing a piece on skills for leading change. I re-discovered Rosabeth Moss Kanter's article 'The Enduring Skills of Change Leaders'. It was first published in 1999 in Leader to Leader and is a classic that is freely available. In the article Kanter reminds us that

In a global, high tech world, organizations need to be more fluid, inclusive, and responsive. They need to manage complex information flows, grasp new ideas quickly, and spread those ideas throughout the enterprise. What counts is not whether everybody uses e-mail but whether people quickly absorb the impact of information and respond to opportunity.

She suggests that to set the direction, define the context, and help produce coherence for their organizations leaders of change need seven skills to inspire voluntary behavior – the degree of effort, innovation, and entrepreneurship with which employees serve customers and seek opportunities:

  • Tuning in to the environment.
  • Challenging the prevailing organizational wisdom
  • Communicating a compelling aspiration
  • Building coalitions
  • Transferring ownership to a working team
  • Learning to persevere
  • Making everyone a hero

Later in the day, I read a coaching enquiry about observation. It focused on the notion that observation without evaluation is a great leadership quality to practice. The writer described the work of a naturalist whose job it is to track flora and fauna:

His job this summer was to observe. That's it. Not to evaluate. Not to manipulate. Not to agitate, integrate, or extrapolate. His job was just to observe and to record everything that he saw.

The writer continues with the suggestion

Wouldn't it be great if we could all learn to navigate a bit more slowly, on the basis of observational data rather than evaluative judgments? That's especially true for leaders. We are quick to size up situations and to fly into action. We want results, and if we see or hear of someone who is "not doing his or her job" we want to fix the problem as promptly as possible. … If we hope to serve as great leaders, then it's important to become great observers. Forget your assumptions as to who is to blame and how to move forward. Take a new tack. Open your eyes and ears.

Finally, that day someone told me a story about a 26 year old squadron leader in Afghanistan. His wife was pregnant with their first child. He drowned trying to save someone else from drowning. The speaker told of Javed's immense talents in empathy, getting support for a course of action, being fair and just, and challenging norms so effectively.

These four different perspectives on leading change had one significant theme in common – challenging the prevailing (organizational) wisdom – This is, perhaps, the bravest and most difficult thing to do but skilled challengers of norms make change they don't just manage it.