Want Change? Start With the Leadership!

Organizational success depends on a willingness to adjust to varying conditions. Much the same way a professional baseball player must improve in his area of weakness if he wants to remain competitive, organizations must be willing to change if they are to remain successful. However, oftentimes the biggest hurdle to change is the leadership of the organization. Changes can be made, leadership expert John Maxwell has said, when we realize changes are necessary, why it is so difficult to effect them, and how to successfully implement them.

The first step in changing the organization is to change to the leader. But it is important to know when the leader needs changing. Maxwell identified twelve characteristics of a leader in trouble but, in my experience, I find the following five to be the most crucial: he has a poor understanding of people, feels secure and satisfied, passes the buck, is insecure and defensive, and has no team spirit. In summary, these traits describe a leader who sees employees as servants to do his bidding and, subsequently, sees himself in charge of these people, perhaps even ruling by intimidation, confident his “charges” will submit for fear of losing their jobs. He is never responsible for mistakes, always blaming someone else for the failures of the organization. Because people are afraid to lose their jobs, he believes, they will accept this blame without complaint. Should an employee ever challenge the way things are, or recommend they be done differently, he will react as if he is being thought incompetent, or that someone is trying to take his job. The primary concern for this type of leader is to protect himself and his authority; there is no concern for his employees.

There is no tougher climate than that listed above in which to enact change within an organization and, I fear, most organizations will fail rather than change for these reasons. Hopefully, the organization has a structure in place to hold poor leaders accountable. But if a willingness to change exists, any organization can be turned around. Even so, a leader who is willing to change will face significant challenges. He must know what is required to bring about change and how to motivate the members of the organization to accept it. Since people are notoriously resistant to change, for a leader to break through it he must understand why people are this way.

Fundamentally, people are creatures of habit. As employees, people fall into certain routines; they are comfortable with what their jobs are, and they feel they have control, however little, over them. An important element to this routine, I believe, is that people develop the ability, once they have settled into their routines, to do the minimal amount of work in the allotted time, while still justifying their position. As a result, people will resist change to protect what little control they have over their jobs and to avoid having more responsibilities placed on them. Change will be perceived as a threat to job security, job responsibility, or job satisfaction. There is a real fear that jobs will be eliminated, restructured, or staffed with new personnel. Trying to combat and overcome resistance in an organization with this frame of mind poses several challenges for the leader seeking to make changes.

Leaders can influence followers to accept changes in the organization by understanding some basic principles. First, it is imperative that leaders establish a reputation for being trustworthy. They must dispel the perception that they are self-serving, paranoid, and unaccountable bullies. People must see leaders as willing to solicit input, willing to make decisions with the team in mind, and willing to lead with a steady, but softer, hand. This can be done by leading by example rather than dictating to others what must be done while doing the opposite. If change is to be made, the leader must demonstrate that he is willing to walk the same road he expects of others. But he must do this knowing that change will be resisted. In knowing this, the leader must plan for incremental success. Setting small goals that have a high probability of success initially can prepare people for larger, potentially more difficult goals with a higher level of cooperation if they have had a taste of success. These seemingly small successes are like making small deposits in a bank. Small and incremental deposits eventually grow and provide the capital necessary for larger withdrawals. If the bank is secure, the people will trust who is running it.

People also have a need to be part of something they can be proud of. I have found that people are much more open to change if they are asked what change is necessary. The wise leader will take note of this and make it part of his vision. Soliciting the input of underlings, incorporating their ideas, and giving them credit when they are successful makes change that much easier to implement and accept. Involved employees are more likely to influence other co-workers to accept, and participate in, change as well. Leaders should hold meetings where all can participate and voice their opinions on the perceived positive and negative effects of proposed changes and given a period of time to ponder changes before they are enacted. Once changes are enacted, the people should be expected to help integrate the changes. Having a key part of the process gives people a sense of pride and ownership in positive changes they helped to materialize.

Willingness to change, in a changing world, should be the constant mindset of any organization; change is the opportunity to improve and grow. The responsibility to institute change rests with a vigilant leader who is on constant guard to improve on those things that are no longer effective. Without him, an organization can only strive to achieve mediocrity, a maintaining of the status quo. This is not acceptable in any organization, especially an ethical one. We do not get the opportunity to go back and correct our mistakes; we only get the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and improve moving forward. This should be our goal.

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