Championing Change – A Culture of Alignment

sheep-lineRather than viewing change management as a series of periodic events in which a new program or initiative must be “rolled out,” consider fostering a culture of alignment.  In a culture of alignment, employees’ values, perspectives, and priorities are “aligned” with the overall strategic direction of the company or team.  Simply put from a management point of view, they “get it,” and are able to view the business from the company’s perspective (as well as their own).  They may not agree with every individual directive or initiative, but they trust their leaders and subsequently accept or even embrace decisions that are made, even those that are unpopular.  Change is viewed more as an evolutionary process than a series of periodic singular events.  When new initiatives are brought forward, team members feel more engaged in the evolutionary process and have a greater comfort level toward any potential impact.  Rather than becoming overwhelmed by fear and trepidation at something new, they maintain a viewpoint focused on the immediate opportunities and longer term benefits.

Now all this sounds well and good, but let’s be honest, there are times when initiatives presented from above are viewed as flawed, implausible, even unrealistic.  This creates a critical juncture for a leader and his or her team.  Failing to acknowledge obvious problems and blindly repeating scripted expectations undermines a leader’s credibility.  This is management, not leadership.  As I stated earlier, leaders must have the courage to appropriately challenge assumptions and question superiors.  On the other hand, organizations rightfully expect their managers to sometimes just tow the line and enthusiastically implement new initiatives.

In many cases, managers are afforded enough discretionary license to adapt the implementation of an initiative to align with the strength of the team and better respond to specific business needs.  In these situations, the emphasis is on the end objective rather than the means.  Reviewing the objectives with all team members and involving them in developing an action plan for implementation builds consensus and instills a sense of ownership.  People are far more likely to own a problem when they participate in designing the solution.

However, there are times when the mandate leaves no room for interpretation, or when the emphasis is on the means itself as well as the end objective.  Here, a team’s culture of alignment is truly put to the test and strong leadership becomes crucial.  Even in disagreement, a healthy, aligned team will embrace the solution together, but only with the leader’s support and assistance.  A leader doesn’t necessarily have to agree with the merits of every directive, but he absolutely must believe in and support the organization’s overall vision of success.  He must also believe in his team’s ability to accomplish the goals set forth, and champion their effort toward achieving the overall objective.

The point is, affecting change within any team or organization means altering the status quo in some way.  Teams with a strong culture of alignment are far less resistant to change because the idea of change itself is less threatening.  Let’s face it, most people dislike change.  There is some level of comfort even in the consistency of misery.  Teams that operate within a culture of alignment may never enthusiastically embrace the idea of change, but will nevertheless accept change as a systemic component of their ongoing growth and success.  These team members trust their leader and their values are fundamentally aligned with the general vision and mission of the organization.

Next Post:  Developing a Culture of Alignment

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Championing Change – The Parable of the Boiled Frog

boiling-frogAn experiment was conducted back in the late 19th century in which a frog was placed in very hot water.  Immediately sensing danger from the extreme heat, the frog jumped out to safety.  However, placing the frog in cool water and slowly raising the temperature resulted in the frog getting groggier and groggier, and finally boiling to death.

Nature programmed the frog to respond to sudden changes in his environment, not gradual changes.  Similarly, most people are instinctively resistant to change.  In fact, the problem is actually not so much resistance to change per se, but rather an inability or unwillingness to cope with change.  It is no wonder that so many of our initiatives struggle or fail to get off the ground.  We blame the employees, refer to the “old school” mentality, but the fact is that the fault lies with us, the leaders, for failing to cultivate a culture in which change is non-threatening.

As managers and leaders, we are responsible for championing and facilitating many types of change – product launches, marketing initiatives, sales strategies, policies, etc.  This means much more than simply adopting a positive attitude or being cheerleaders in morning staff meetings.  The fact is, leaders often fail their teams by relying solely on the acceptance of authority as the primary motivation for buy-in, with little or no thought given to the cultural complexion of the team and its individual members, or even previous responses to new initiatives or changes to organizational structure.   In the absence of a culture that tolerates change, let alone one that embraces it, we just keep tossing the same set of frogs into new pots of boiling water.

Next Post: Creating a Culture of Alignment

Summary – The Qualities of a Superior Leader

You know, being a strong leader is really just a simple matter of putting others first.  It’s having the confidence in yourself and your own abilities to let others have the spotlight.  It’s understanding that your own success depends entirely upon the success of those you lead.  The self-efficacy of the strongest leaders comes not from titles or promotions, raises or recognition, but from seeing those with whom they’ve achieved some measure of influence become better for the experience.  Regardless of rank or title or position, and independent of any designated authority, leaders influence those around them.  Superior leaders are set apart by their strength of character and integrity.

Superior leadership, through the attributes of character I’ve laid out, requires tremendous personal discipline and uncommon selflessness and sacrifice.  The pursuit of each attribute – character, discipline, humility, courage, and vision is an ongoing endeavor for most of us.  It certainly is for me.  They perhaps represent an idealistic goal, but I know with all certainty that they form the core qualities of superior character based leadership.

5. Leadership and Vision

vision-roosevelt_churchill_1941_600Vision is the fifth attribute common to superior leaders.  Usually, the word “vision” in leadership brings to mind lofty, high level ideals – a long term strategic objective.  But leaders with vision do more than align staff members with a company’s mission or rally the public around a common cause.

In a broader sense, visionary leaders focus on everyday objectives, not obstacles.  They are optimistic and enthusiastic and inspire people.  People naturally follow leaders who arouse their hopes just as surely as they reject anyone who is perpetually pessimistic.  Have you ever known an effective leader who was lazy or constantly negative?

That’s not to say that visionary leaders are Pollyannas.  Leaders cannot simply pretend that setbacks don’t occur or that challenges don’t exist.  The reality of a given situation may very well present real and significant problems to be addressed.  They have to be honest and forthright to stay credible.  But rather than allowing the focus of the group to become fixed on the difficulties, they engage the team in developing productive and meaningful solutions.

Visionary leaders are passionate and purposeful about the work that they do and the objectives they seek.  Indifference is contagious and erodes the credibility and effectiveness of a manager, so leaders demonstrating strength of vision must have the courage to challenge those around them, subordinates and superiors.  In this context, “challenge” means that visionary leaders question the validity of assumptions or reasoning of others, not to be obnoxious, but to better understand and facilitate meaningful two way communication and feedback.  It’s a fine line to be sure, but if leaders are afraid to speak up, the flow of communication becomes so filtered that it is rendered meaningless, or worse, actually opposite of what was originally intended.

There’s a great book by George Washington University Professor, Jerry Harvey, called “The Abilene Paradox.”  In it, Harvey illustrates the paradox in which a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is actually counter to the preferences of each individual in the group, simply because no one wants to speak up and be the squeaky dissenting wheel.  So, a family takes a 53 mile trip to Abilene, Texas for dinner on a hot Sunday afternoon because each of them believes the others all want to go.  In reality, none of them want to make the trip but they all go along, wasting a Sunday afternoon collectively doing something that none of them wanted to do, because no one had the courage to challenge the assumption.

Just as visionary leaders must be willing to challenge those around them, so must they be willing to be challenged.  Too often we solicit the opinion of others thinking we want information, when we really just want confirmation.  That kind of confirmation feels good, but it doesn’t mean very much.  It’s like telling the Emperor that his new suit looks fantastic instead of pointing out that he’s walking around naked (Please tell me someone remembers that Hans Christian Anderson fable).  And guess what happens when the information we receive doesn’t quite align with the confirmation we were looking for?  That’s right.  The Emperor is not happy… until he finally realizes that someone had the courage to be honest with him and act in his best interest.

I think it’s natural to prefer a response that validates rather than contradicts, but there is tremendous value in constructive feedback.  Visionary leaders check their ego at the door, slice themselves a big piece of humble pie, and rely on others who they trust to be honest and provide intelligent insight.  Their purpose is to make everyone around them better, but they also reap what they sow.  Engaging others in an objective focused process makes them stronger, more effective, and more motivated.  And that’s the whole idea.

4. Leadership and Courage

courage-iwo1Winston Churchill said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”  This quote from one of the 20th century’s greatest leaders holds a wealth of wisdom in its simplicity.  No one would argue that it often requires courage to take action.  It’s easy in times of conflict to sit back and let others do the dirty work.  But it also takes courage at times to not act immediately, especially when confronted with adversity.  Knowing when to intervene and when to let events run their course comes with experience and confidence.  Courageous leaders calmly assess the situation and explore alternatives, even as others respond emotionally, demanding swift action.  This measured response to adversity requires discipline and the courage to be steadfast.

Courageous leaders take the initiative and act in the best interest of others, regardless of their own position or level of authority.  They don’t wait to be told, or (necessarily) wait to ask permission.  I once worked for someone who taught me that when confronted with a crisis, it’s better to act and be wrong than just sit back and do nothing.  I believe that to be generally true, but it’s also important to note that, sometimes, acting in the best interest of others means allowing them to fail so that they might learn from the experience.  Courageous leaders make decisions that serve the greatest long term good, even at the expense of short term personal gain.

While courageous leaders must always be thoughtful and purposeful, they should also demonstrate personal ownership of the problem and responsibility for its resolution.  People will not follow a leader who evades responsibility.  Character is tested under fire and leaders do not abdicate their role when challenged.  Courageous leaders are steadfast and firm, demonstrating authority and setting a personal example, empowering others through personal action and integrity.  Military history cites endless examples of battlefield leaders who rallied their troops by personally leading the charge or putting themselves in harm’s way to save the lives of others.

On January 26, 1945, just weeks after receiving a battlefield promotion from staff sergeant to second lieutenant, Audie Murphy found himself a company commander in Holtzwihr, France.  With temperatures in the teens and 24 inches of snow on the ground, Murphy’s unit was down to 19 of its original 128 men.  Facing a German tank attack, Murphy ordered his men to retreat and then stood alone and wounded atop a burning half-track, manning a machine gun and directing artillery fire into the enemy position 100 feet in front of him.  Asked by the artillery officer how close the Germans were to him, Murphy snapped back, “Hold the phone and I’ll let you talk to one.”  The artillery fire and subsequent counter attack led by Murphy successfully repelled the Germans and Audie was awarded the Medal of Honor for his courage under fire.

Murphy’s example is uncommon, but what is important to remember is that his actions were not motivated out of a desire for personal advancement or notoriety.  He was just 19 years old on that January 26, having lied about his age and enlisted in the Amy at age 16.  He didn’t set out to become a leader or a hero; he simply wanted to serve his country.  Prior to his promotion to lieutenant, Audie had already earned a Distinguished Service Cross and two Silver Stars as an enlisted man.  In his later years he summed up his perspective on leadership succinctly, “Lead from the front.”

Military heroics such as this are easy examples.  However, courage is much more than performing brave deeds.  Courage manifests itself in many forms and in small, everyday ways.  Sometimes it’s demonstrated on the field of battle for the entire world to see.  But other times it’s demonstrated in the boardroom or conference room, before colleagues and superiors.  Sometimes courage is tested in the face of overwhelming peer pressure, and sometimes it is quietly demonstrated in defense of others who are not even present.

Courage is taking action counter to one’s own best interest, simply because it’s the right thing to do.  A popular quote states that character is revealed in the actions taken when no one is looking.  I would add that courage provides the resolve.

Next Post:  Leadership and Vision

3. Leadership and Humility

humility-depression-soupThe third attribute demonstrated by superior leaders is often the most elusive and under-appreciated.  The very concept of humility rarely crosses the mind of most people in positions of authority.  It is simply not how we are typically conditioned to think.  Our culture champions the loud, the bold, and the brazen.  I stated early on that we live in a self-centric society.  It’s the “me” generation – self-absorbed, self-centered, self-inflated, narcissistic, entitled, demanding instant gratification, and lacking any sense of personal responsibility.  This is the age of entitlement.  At the risk of sounding like somebody’s grandfather, today’s generation is vapid and superficial, placing more value on appearance than character.

I guess it’s no surprise that humility is often interpreted as a sign of weakness, and those with a humble, unassuming demeanor are perceived as lacking self esteem or confidence.  But in truth, the opposite of confidence is uncertainty, not humility.  To be sure, the opposite of humility is egoism and arrogance.  There’s a wonderful quote by William Temple that aptly sums it up, “Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts.  It means freedom from thinking about yourself at all.”

Contrary to the view of leadership that many managers maintain, leaders are servants, and superior leaders have a heart for service.  But servitude in this context does not mean that leaders are subservient – they don’t wait on people, do their jobs for them, or clean up their messes.  Here, servitude means that leaders work on behalf of the people they lead, serving the best interests of the individuals, team, customers, and organization.  Through training, guidance, and the continuity of vision and direction they provide, humble leaders constantly strive to better others.

Humble leaders do not need to seek the spotlight of recognition.  In fact, no competent leader is anxious to impress people with his or her performance credentials.  Their success is defined not by being indispensable to the organization, but by leading others to lead themselves to self-sufficiency.  Remember, the most effective leader is one who makes his own presence unnecessary.  Rather than seek personal recognition for the goals they accomplish, they make the success of others their path to personal achievement.

Humans are imperfect creatures, and there is nothing superhuman about superior leaders.  All are fallible, but as with most failings, it is the manner in which the shortfall is handled that sets effective leaders apart.  Leaders who forget or ignore their own weaknesses will inevitably fail.  Strong leaders are definite and decisive, but not inflexible.  They acknowledge and own the mistakes they make.  They do not perpetuate bad decisions out of ego or fear, but adapt to changing circumstances and know when to change their mind.  Character and trust is strengthened when leaders admit and take ownership of mistakes.

Humble leaders acknowledge and understand their limitations, and are vigilant in their efforts to mitigate their shortcomings.  Rather than feel threatened, they surround themselves with others whose skill sets compliment their own areas of weakness.  Keeping their egos in check, they put the strength and success of the team ahead of any desire for the personal spotlight.

Finally, leaders who understand the importance of humility do not abuse their authority.  In fact, they understand the difference between having authority and being authoritative.  To reuse an analogy, authority is like a sword.  Those who are authoritative swing it indiscriminately, either to reinforce their position of power or out of simple ignorance and inexperience.  The recently promoted have a dangerous tendency to let their newly bestowed title go straight to their heads.  They wield their title like a sword, without first establishing credibility and trust.  These managers have not yet figured out that there is no correlation between title and authority beyond the implied presumption of power.  Like trust and respect, true authority is earned, not bestowed.  Without it, the power of influence is superficial and stifled.

David Packard, the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, exemplified humility in his leadership and management of his company.  A man who avoided publicity, Packard is quoted as saying: “You shouldn’t gloat about anything you’ve done; you ought to keep going and find something better to do.”  Superior leaders, like Dave Packard, are humble, with a willingness to serve others first.  They embrace their weaknesses, and admit mistakes.

In my own place of business, we love to quote a customer who once said it best, “It is most important to be humble.”

Next Post:  Leadership and Courage

2. Leadership and Discipline

discipline-depression-strikeAs I wrote in my last post, personal discipline, as it contributes to strength of character, ensures we are guided by principle rather than emotion or personal desire.  In that context, self-discipline, resilience, and integrity all go hand in hand.  But in a much broader sense, the discipline that strong leaders demonstrate reflects much more than mere self-control.

Disciplined leaders must be able to consistently make decisions that are clear-headed, informed, and conclusive.  Their response to difficult and stressful situations is thoughtful and purposeful, never random or subjective, particularly in emotionally charged situations.  Objectives are communicated clearly and unambiguously. This is not always an easy thing to do, which is why this attribute has such a profound impact on those around us.  To borrow (and modify) a quote from the world of sports… “Adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it.”  A firm, definite, and decisive leader demonstrates grace under pressure, very clearly reinforcing the perception that he or she is in complete control (of both the situation and his/her own emotions).

While disciplined leaders are decisive, they must at the same time exercise sound judgment.  I read somewhere that judgment is the application of wisdom.  Emotions run high in times of crisis.  Most people intuitively look for someone to “do something” in emergencies or uncomfortable situations. It often requires great discipline to think before responding.  As Jimi Hendrix is famously quoted, “Knowledge speaks, wisdom listens.”  Any situation that requires action, whether it is crisis, conflict, or moral failure (of self or others) necessitates a thoughtful and measured response from a leader.  Knowledge and experience are necessary, even crucial.  But like a sword, they are only as effective as the person wielding them.

Drawing on a distinction that will be further explored in a later post, leaders can and should be flexible when appropriate.  However, it is one thing to compromise on matters of preference, it is another to compromise on matters of principle.  Strong, disciplined leaders understand this difference and are of unwavering conviction.

Unfortunately, in a world where the boundaries of morality and foundation of ethics are deemed malleable and subject to individual interpretation (so as not to offend one group or another), any semblance of absolute “right” and “wrong” is obscured.  Right and wrong become a matter of convenience and opinion, lacking any moral or ethical bearing or even anything close to consensus.

It takes courage to draw a line in the sand, to stand up for what you believe in.  Some consider this to be close-minded or prejudicial, even intolerant.  One thing is for sure.  Those in positions of influence weaken themselves as leaders whenever they compromise their principles.  Whether in work groups or politics, it is rare to find everyone in agreement, and even the strongest leaders can and should be questioned and appropriately challenged.  Values vary and people come to different conclusions and form different beliefs.  It requires strength of conviction and great discipline to stay the course.  Fortunately, faith and trust are more important than belief.  People are far more willing to follow a disciplined leader they trust, particularly when they disagree.  However, no one will follow a leader they don’t trust or in whom they have no faith – leaders who fail to be true to themselves and the principles on which they claim to stand.

It is important to remember that as leaders, we are also tasked with teaching.  It is quite common for managers to want to maintain personal control over every responsibility they are tasked to accomplish.  Our desire for perfection and to be needed often gets in the way of the greater goal we seek.  After all, even as children we’re taught, “If you want something done right you have to do it yourself.”  But as I said earlier, people need room to fail as well as succeed.  Superior leaders keep this bigger picture in mind, and delegate what doesn’t absolutely require their personal attention.  It is not an easy thing to do.  Most leaders have achieved their position by “doing.”  It takes courage to give up some of that control.  It takes discipline and a sense of humble acknowledgment that only through the achievement of those we lead will we as leaders truly become successful.

Next Post:  Leadership and Humility