No matter where your title appears on the org chart, transformational change is usually difficult and often disruptive. But if organizational change is to take root, corresponding change of the organization's leaders must also take place. As leaders, we must orchestrate and embody such change efforts.
Few of us schedule time on our business calendars for personal transformation. Even if we go to a development seminar, there is no guarantee we will have a time of significant insight or even helpful learning. Real transformation cannot be scheduled like a business lunch. This would not matter much were it not for this: Organizational culture change is impossible to sustain without corresponding personal transformation of individual leaders up and down the chain of command.
Organizational change is a dual journey: The strategic initiative must go hand-in-hand with deep and lasting personal change in leaders. Whether you are trying to find a new way to fight a counter insurgency war or attempting to create a more inclusive and innovative culture in a manufacturing plant, the learning culture you create hinges on the individual mindset of leaders.
We know that real transformation often comes in disruptive ways, which we quite naturally resist. Paul is an operations director in a manufacturing plant. He is a tough, no-nonsense man who commands as much fear as respect from co-workers. Any kind of personal development work is, to Paul, just psychobabble and a waste of time. He is active in his town athletics program as a coach and serves on the board of elders in his church. In short, he is a responsible member of the community and his leadership team at work. One night, he is arrested for driving under the influence. He takes a swing at the arresting officer and shouts profanities at him. Additional police are called to the scene. The story deteriorates from here.
Paul is terrified at the side of himself that has been revealed. Full of shame beyond anything he has imagined possible to endure, he plunges into Alcoholics Anonymous and begins to confront the side of himself that he had held as a dark secret for many years. He tells his story and witnesses others doing the same. Even after the court issues a lenient decision, Paul continues his journey into himself. At dinner one night several months later, he makes a startling acknowledgement: "All these years I never saw myself as strong. I was trying to prove something to myself over and over again. Then, I ran up against something I couldn't bully or intimidate. For the first time in my life I can begin to feel the possibility that I can actually be strong - in a real but different way than I imagined. A better way."
We don't orchestrate times like these. Over the ensuing months, Paul's leadership begins to change. His contact with his own vulnerability has left him less willing to attack others or defend himself. A new kind of authenticity begins to show in his behavior that leads to new, unexpected opportunities in senior leadership. At this level, transformation is disruptive and painful. Does it have to be this way? Are there early warning signs that could guide us forward with less irritation and disruption? And for leaders, can we orchestrate our change efforts so they allow for corresponding personal transformation to occur?
I suggest we can and must.
Tough times ahead
My years as an executive coach (and 50-plus years in my own skin) have taught me that we each go through three or four times in our lives when we get caught up in tough times with little idea of how we will get through them. None of our old strategies work. The skills and experience we've relied on suddenly become obsolete. Nothing we know how to do provides us the relief we seek as circumstances continue to spiral out of control. Financial crises can be like this. Emotional and physical health challenges, intractable …