Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Formula for Leading Change

Effective leadership has become a topic of great debate and discussion. As we try to define leadership, we often find ourselves drawn to the classic words used to describe leaders. However, leadership is really about change and leaders are tasked with managing change in an efficient and effective manner.

Like an artist who creates a masterpiece to be interpreted in various ways by those who experience it, leadership is also recognized through the eyes of others. Like art, leadership is often interpreted through experience, environment, and aesthetics. Despite efforts to define and limit our understanding of leadership, it exists beyond a singular, fixed interpretation. Again, like art, leadership is not so much the skills you want to convey, but more about the skills perceived in you by others.

While it can be argued that leadership is more of an art than a science, the quantification of leadership is not without merit and precedence. Science has provided much insight in how our brain works and the characteristics common among leaders. In fact, the study of leadership has expanded into the fields of psychology, neuroscience, sociology, and other academic disciplines providing an ever-increasing base of knowledge.

While I submit to the idea that leadership is more of an art than a science (the science, I think, helps us better understand the art), leadership, being the product of action, courage, and instinct, equals change. Let’s explore this simple formula for effectively leading change:


Leadership is simply the ability to affect change in others and this can be accomplished in many ways. I submit that three characteristics stand out when leading change: action, courage, and instinct.


Action is best understood in terms of doing rather than saying. Like the physics principle suggests, a body in motion tends to stay in motion and this is true of leadership as well. Tom Stevens, in his blog Think Leadership Ideas suggests seven leadership actions that allow leaders to model change behavior. Our actions are often more important than our words and the more active and present we are, the more we tend to remain “in motion.”


There is a long-standing debate about leaders being born rather than made. Despite where you stand on this topic, I believe that leadership is more about becoming who you are rather than changing into something you are not. It takes courage to develop into the leader you are supposed to be. It is much easier to change with the times and conform to what others want and expect. In the words of President Gerald Ford, "In the age-old contest between popularity and principle, only those willing to lose for their convictions are deserving of posterity's approval."


Like the hierarchical power structure seen in much of the animal kingdom, leadership is about power and influence. In the chimpanzee world, the alpha male uses his instincts to remain in the leadership spot. In organizations, our instincts help us discern our strategy for leading others. In her book The DNA of Leadership, Judith Glaser suggests that extraordinary leadership is built around understanding and unleashing our instincts. “Good instincts usually tell you what to do long before your head has figured it out” (Michael Burke).

As leaders, the actions we model are important in building trust and leading change. It requires courage for these actions to be authentic, and for us to be true to who we are as leaders. And all of this relies on our instincts and our ability to not over-think the situation at hand. Change is only as complicated as we make it.