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Part Two:
Leadership in Managing Organisational Change
"The leader must put the organisation into a position where the highest level of performance is necessary in order to succeed.  There is no escape from commitment.”…Sun Tzu quoted by Peter J Reed in Extraordinary Leadership, Creating Strategies for Change.

In the first article of this series we talked about three crucial factors that shape the management of change in our organisations.  They were: 1. The age-old human response to change; 2. The environment in which we are trying to manage change; 3. Institutional responses to this environment.  In this article we want to look at the dynamic of organisational leadership in the light of these three factors. 

When faced with change everyone feels threatened, everyone experiences fear and anxiety.  The uncertainty of the future can overwhelm us and leave us and whole groups frozen in inaction.  The task of the leader is to enable the group to overcome this initial response and then to move to the task of creating the desired future.  John A. Shtogren says in the introduction to his book Leadership Skyhooks, “Leadership can help people act bravely in the face of uncertainty.  Instead of taking cover, leadership helps us stand up, face the future and realize we can take charge of our own destiny, that change really can be an opportunity for growth, not loss.”  This infusing of an organisation’s staff with courage, confidence and a belief in themselves and their capacity to make the necessary changes is, however, just the first demand upon a leader.  Perhaps more crucial and more demanding for the leader is the task of sustaining people in the on-going and never-ending process of change.  The capacity to call forth the necessary courage and self confidence to face the future and take charge, coupled with the ability to sustain people for the long haul, are the two fundamental leadership skills in this area.

Shtogren, identifies seven “core values” (His Leadership Skyhooks) which he considers crucial to this task of enabling and sustaining an organisation’s staff.

  • Vision—Developing and communicating a picture of an attractive future.

  • Trust—Conveying confidence and respect for your coworkers' abilities, values, and aspirations.

  • Open Communication—Sharing organisational and personal information widely.

  • Meaningful work—Making work more than just a job by appealing to the heart.

  • Empowerment and self-determination—Strengthening individuals and teams through education, autonomy, and accountability.

  • Teamwork and involvement—Making people partners by giving them a significant role in core business activities.

  • Transformational style—Facing change with optimism and a conviction that apparent differences can be reconciled in mutually satisfying ways.

The second dimension we must deal with is the environment in which we are working.  Change is happening so quickly these days and on such an inclusive scale that a whole new understanding of what it means to relate to our environment is required—especially for those of us from the west.  We westerners have been taught that the way you live effectively in an environment is to dominate it and exploit it.  We have taken literally the Old Testament injunction about man being given dominion over the plants and animals (and everything else).  A command and control manager could do so when the factors he had to deal with were local or at best restricted to his regional or national market—and change, when it did occur, was followed by long periods of consolidation and stability.  Today the market place is global and the speed, frequency, and multi-dimensionality of change makes such command and control illusory at best and disastrously counter-productive at worst.

If control and dominance is no longer possible, how should we relate to and/or understand the environment, in which our organisations must live and survive?  Anthropology has identified two fundamental human relationships to our environment.  These have shaped our cultures and thus have shaped us and our organisations.  The first is the command and control response to the environment where the organisation is conceived of as a machine that obeys the will of its operators.  The second tends to see an organisation as itself a product of nature, owing its development to the nutrients in the environment and to a favourable ecological balance.  Fons Trompenaars in his classic study of cultural diversity in business, Riding the Waves of Culture, says that the modern shift that is required is toward cybernetic cosmology where the focus of control is not dominance of the external but “reconciliation of internal and external control”.  “The manager intervenes but is not the cause of what occurs; the system of organisations and markets have their own momentum which we can influence but not drive.”  Today the leader’s challenge is to enable his/her organisation to finds its place in this environment.  Enabling a business organisation to become market-driven would be an example of finding the place in the environment where first of all, survival and then growth and development are possible.  Today, to seek to stand outside our organisational environment for the sake of dominating it is simply not a viable survival strategy.  Rather, as leaders we are challenged with finding the ways in which we enable our organisation to integrate and adapt to this global changing environment.  In the natural world dominance and exploitation has given us a “dying world”.  In the organisational world, we find the environment littered with dead and dying organisations that proudly fought the good fight for dominance and lost.

Finally, we are left with the question of the institutional responses to this environment.  The challenge here is that the environment which gave birth to the organisational forms we all live and work in, is shifting and thus those organisational forms are increasingly unresponsive to the reality we experience day after day.  It is here that any leader will face their sternest test in guiding an organisation.  To begin with, if your organisation is going to change structurally and culturally in response to its environment, how do you achieve this when the environment seems to completely change every six months (just as you are getting the latest restructuring in place)?  How do you lead people when you seem to be asking them to march in a new direction every six months and when, every day you go further in that direction, all can see the growing irrelevance to the changing environment?

Every leader sooner or later is faced with the question, “What do you keep and what do you change or remove?”  The key prerequisite to answering this question is to identify those norms, values, basic assumptions and structural forms which make the organisation what it is.  What is the core, the heart of the structure and culture of the organisation?  What is it, that if it were lost, the organisation would lose its purpose, its focus, and its reason for being?  Identifying these gives the leader and indeed all the members of the organisation a place to stand and a certain security, in light of the questions at the end of the previous paragraph, to say what must change and/or go.

There are no easy answers or universal prescriptions that a leader can take off the shelf and ensure success for their organisation in this area.  Perhaps the best we can do is look for those characteristics that enable leaders to more closely align their organisation with this constantly evolving environment.  In their introduction to Real Change Leaders, Katzenback and the RCL Team give seven characteristics shared by the change leaders they identified.

  • Commitment to a better way

  • Courage to challenge existing power bases and norms

  • Personal initiative to go beyond defined boundaries

  • Motivation of themselves and others

  • Caring about how people are treated and enabled to perform

  • Staying undercover

  • A sense of humor about themselves and their situations

Organisations in every sphere of society need good managers.  Today however, they urgently need leadership. Leadership that is concerned with empowering people and demanding their best and staying out of their way while they get on with the job; Leadership that is not about control but about environmental adaptability and integration; Leadership that is ready to break the mold and reinvent the organisation.  Today all organisations are, whether they know it or not, on “death ground”.  A great manager will plan a great funeral, while a great leader will find a way forward to a new day.

Back to Articles overview

  1. Handy, Charles, The Empty Raincoat, Hutchinson, London, 1994.
  2. Hock, Dee, Birth of the Chaordic Age, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., San Franciso, 1999.
  3. Katzenbach, Jon R. and the RCL Team, Real Change Leaders, Random House, 1995.
  4. Manzoni, Jean-François, “How to Avoid the Seven Deadly Sins” (an article in the series Mastering People Management in The Financial Times, 15 October 2001).
  5. Senge, Peter, et.al. The Dance of Change, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, London, 1999.  

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