Inspiring Leadership for Change

An often-used quote in change management books and presentations is Mahatma Gandhi’s “Be the change that you wish to see in the world”. It is often interpreted as good advice to convince leaders to manage by example, but there is much more to it than that. I recently came across some hard-to-accept events in my personal life that got me thinking. I would like to share some of the thoughts with you that those events sparked.

For one thing, I was confronted – again – with the fact that you can’t change the world. I’ve always had a strong sense of justice, and I am often deeply touched by reports in the news from war zones, by the pointlessness of many armed conflicts that have such a devastating effect on the lives of so many. I find it very frustrating that nobody seems to be able to change this and steer the conflicting parties to a lasting solution (which, I am convinced, always exists). The hard fact is: You can’t even change one single other person.

Agreed, if you have power, you can force someone into some specific new behavior – probably at the expense of the quality of your relationship with that person. But that’s not real change, of course. Such an approach can be instrumental and even effective in a work context, provided no strong emotions are involved and no important needs of the person(s) involved are frustrated (have you come across many significant changes like that?). Of course, I do know there are lots of things you can do to facilitate and bring about ‘change’ in organizations – mostly through changing the context in which people work. But, basically, the only person you can really change is yourself. This is also a key message from many of the wisdom traditions, both Eastern and Western. It is a harsh truth for a change management professional to stomach…

Gandhi talks about being the change you wish to see in the world. Being refers to the identity level, the most core level of a person. In other words: it is not enough for a change leader to just say the right things (communications management) and to do the right things (management by example), but (s)he also needs to believe and truly value the right things – in order to be effective, in order to inspire others! Theory U – a relatively new and fascinating approach to change management (among other things) – phrases this insight in an even stronger way. It asserts that the quality of the results that we create in any kind of social system is a function of the quality of the awareness, attention or consciousness that the participants in the system operate from. Or put differently: the success of our actions as change-makers does not so much depend on What we do or How we do it, but on the Inner Place from which we operate. Theory U is the only change theory I know that is primarily concerned with the question “How do we know where we want to go?” (and offers a specific methodology to actually find that out) – instead of how to get there.

What does all this mean, in practice, for change (and general) management practitioners?

First of all, it stresses, once more, the importance of the right attitude for change leaders. And by ‘change leaders’ I’m referring to senior management and the sponsors of a change initiative – not the change manager him (or her) self. It can be a role of the change manager to coach the senior leadership in making them aware of the importance of this attitude. Much has been said and written about the importance of being ‘authentic’ as a (change) leader, but few good ‘operational’ definitions exist of what that actually means. I believe this is a big part of it: a (change) leader will not be perceived as authentic unless (s)he is open and honest, and truly believes in the change (s)he is asking from other people – actively supporting and living the core values that come with it. This should be a selection criterion for sponsor(s) and change leaders, since it is usually easier to find another sponsor than to change a senior manager’s attitude… Alternatively, this can be a reason to reframe or change core messages into messages that the change leader(s) can stand behind firmly – even if these are a little less sympathetic. In order to bring about truly sustainable change, I believe it is more important to be authentic than congenial.

If you’re a change manager – and so typically in a consulting and supportive role – a key insight is that you can only inspire, not directly change other people (be it the change leaders mentioned above or the people that are asked to change). So you should not try to convince those people to change, but ask yourself how you can inspire them to change. It is often a deeply personal question.

Are you – as a change manager or change leader – confronted, from time to time, with these personal questions too, or is it just me? Do tell me.

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