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

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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.