The one constant reality of the human experience is change. Change is so ever-present in our lives that one would assume humanity would embrace this winding road of transition. Nonetheless, leaders with experience have first-hand knowledge that change is often held at an arm’s length among followers. Whenever routines are interrupted, expectations are challenged, or norms altered, resistance can be triggered by individuals. This resistance can be overt and active or subtle and seemingly passive. People by nature seem to long for stability and cling to what is known. Change challenges these treasured ideals.
Just as a wise and experienced farmer knows one must prepare the soil to produce a harvest, so a seasoned leader understands they must take steps of preparation to cultivate the desired outcomes of change. Without these necessary elements in place, leaders will collide with the fallow ground of follower’s hearts and minds that may be resistant to change. However, if a leader embraces the proper components required to successfully lead through change, including vision, addressing core beliefs, engaging key stakeholders, communication, and long-term commitment, change will spring forth and blossom.
According to Dinwoodie, Pasmore, Quinn, and Rabin (Dinwoodie et al, 2015), research consistently shows that planned changes fail 50-70% of the time within organizations (p.2). Therefore, it is imperative for leaders to know and understand the unique dynamics of change and embrace effective leadership tactics and techniques in the process of change.
As a leader initiates change, the one indispensable element is a clear and compelling vision. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not declare, “I have a few good ideas!” He declared with clarity and passion, “I have a dream!” It was a clear and compelling vision that was critical to creating a different future for many Americans. According to Robert Tanner, a vision paints a compelling picture of what the future will look like after the change takes effect. Vision is also the catalyst that convinces stakeholders why they should let go of the past, sacrifice and work hard in the present, and follow the leader into the future (Tanner, 2017).
An additional benefit of having a clear and compelling vision is it becomes the fuel for an organization on the journey in the uncharted waters of change. Vision empowers leaders as well as followers to endure the uncertainty and challenges that stand in the path of progress. As an organization continues down this path of progress, communication becomes a necessity in maintaining unity and strength. According to Desai (2015), leaders should make it their goal to over-communicate the vision at key levels within the organization. The practice of communication with key stakeholders keeps the vision at the forefront of follower’s minds and has a greater ability to shape the outcomes a leader desires. Tony Robbins, an internationally known speaker, often says “Communication brings clarity. Clarity brings confidence.” As a leader continues to set the vision before followers within the organization, it clarifies the vision and takes root in the hearts and minds of the multitude. This clarity leads to a collective confidence that the change is not only the right thing to do and indispensable, but that change is entirely possible.
Another critical component in the process of creating change as a leader is addressing mindsets and beliefs. The strength and vitality of any culture rests upon the depth of shared values and beliefs. Every organization has a certain climate and culture that must be taken into account by a leader as they journey toward change. If an area of an organization has deficits that leaders agree should change, it is imperative to examine the attitudes, values and beliefs of everyone involved. Vision can be cast, mission statements can be redone and policies can change, but if the beliefs and values that created the culture of the organization are not changed, long-term success and desired outcomes will not be sustained or realized. Therefore, to create ongoing change, one must plant the seeds of new beliefs and cultivate new mindsets.
In the famous words of Donne (1988), “No man is an island, entire of himself….” (p. 108). This quote rings true in the context of carrying out change in an organization. No leader can create change within a vacuum or in isolation. The success of the desired change rests upon engaging key stakeholders. The engagement of these key stakeholders will be a microcosm of the process within the larger organization. It will involve sharing the vision with clarity, addressing mindsets and beliefs that will ultimately lead to a long-term commitment to birth the new change. The buy-in from this smaller circle will eventually ripple through the organization creating momentum and ultimately a tipping point toward the desired change. Leading and engaging others in the process of change is a unique challenge. According to the Center for Creative Leadership, change leadership is about enlisting people in change and keeping them committed throughout, in the face of uncertainties, fears, and distractions (Dinwoodie, p. 2)
Leaders have the additional challenge of leading in the midst of a complex, volatile and uncertain world. Therefore, the need for clear and healthy communication becomes even greater in the modern world. When a leader decides to embark on the journey of change, they must also commit to communicating throughout the entire process. A lack of communication leads to many negative outcomes like confusion, anxiety, false assumptions and halted progress. As a leader, communication serves as the scaffolding to build and accomplish the vision. Communication becomes the medium a leader uses to continue to paint the picture of the future reality in the present moment. Liz Wiseman, an experienced leader and president of the Wiseman Group, suggests most leaders err in leading through change by their lack of communication. She also suggests that many leaders hesitate to communicate because they are waiting for all of the unknown information to become known. It is acceptable for a leader to not have certainty on every facet of the process with absolute clarity. The leader should simply communicate what is known and what is still in the formative process. She suggests that followers will respond better to honest and transparent communication rather than a lack of communication (Wiseman, 2015).
As the popular proverb reassures us, “Rome was not built in one day.” This wise saying instructs us to be patient in the process of building something significant. Taking on the task of carrying out successful change within an organization will require patience, endurance and a commitment to a long-term plan. During this process, leaders must stay engaged in the process while keeping the pulse of the people. A leader must be able to observe if things are going well or not, as well as be in a position to make slight adjustments if needed. Followers need assurance that a leader will see the process through to the intended end. If followers begin to question the leader’s commitment, this will erode confidence and commitment to the vision. A leader in the process of evolution must commit to sustaining two key realities: stability and change. According to Dinwoodie (2015):
“To achieve the full performance potential of the organization, energy must be given to both poles simultaneously. We hold constant the organizational elements that are critical for reaping the benefits of today’s business model while driving the innovations that propel us toward our desired future.” (p.6)
Leaders must embrace the tension between the stability of the present and the uncertainty that future change promises.
As a leader, change is one of the most common, yet complex, challenges to master. It is a leader’s job to be effective in this specific niche. Some key elements that will increase success in the desired transition include having a clear and compelling vision, addressing beliefs and mindsets that are needed to actualize the vision and those that would hinder the vision, engage key stakeholders, communicate effectively and remain fully committed throughout the process.
Desai, S. (2015). 9 things leaders must do to create a transformation. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/ellevate/2015/01/27/9-things-leaders-must-do-to-create-a-transformation/#659aa3221e98
Dinwoodie, D., Pasmore, W., Quinn, L., Rabin, R. (2015). Navigating change: a leader’s role. Center for Creative Leadership. Retrieved from https://media.ccl.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/navigating-change-a-leaders-role-center-for-creative-leadership.pdf
Donne, J. (1988). No man is an island. London: Souvenir Press Ltd.
Tanner, R. (2017). Leading change: step 3, develop a change vision and strategy. Retrieved from https://managementisajourney.com/leading-change-step-3-develop-a-change-vision-and-strategy/
Wiseman, L. (2015). Managers, this is why you need to send more emails. Fortune. Retrieved from http://www.fortune.com/2015/07/12/liz-wiseman-lead-change/