LEADING IN TIMES OF TRANSITION
When you get into a position of leadership expect time for crisis. Every day is not Sunday and all days are not Christmas. Every crisis is followed by a season of transition. There are decisions to be made and questions to be answered. How will life look following the crisis? How will we make the “transition” from the old to the new?
On September 11, 2001, Americans faced a grave crisis – the impacts of which are still unfolding. Americans will never be the same. They can attempt to force the new back into the old – and remembering something I read about wineskins, that is not a wise choice. A new life will not flourish in an old lifestyle anymore than a butterfly can shed its cocoon and decide it liked the old way of crawling better. The butterfly is a new creature, never destined to crawl again.
My desire within this chapter is to offer some leadership thoughts about transition that will help you not only negotiate life in these more dramatic and traumatic days, but serve as a leadership model for any leadership transition that you make in the normal course of leadership.
Not every transition is preceded by a crisis, but any level of change involves transition.
My primary source of study is a book I read several years ago titled “Managing Transitions” by William Bridges. I have found myself referring over and over again to its primary theme and principles. I will give this material to you in outline form in case you want to use it in a teaching or training environment yourself.
“Change comes more from managing the journey than it does announcing the destination.”
Change and transition
“It’s not so much that we’re afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s that place in between that we fear… There is nothing to hold onto.” Change is situational – a new building, new boss, new policy.
Transition is the psychological process people go through to come to terms with the change. Change is more external and transition is more internal.
America is not fearful of the new, they are pioneers by nature. It’s the internal trauma of being in transition and dealing with the unknown. Americans are not sure what to do. They are not sure what we can do. That’s the power of effective leadership. Remember when President Bush addressed Congress on September 20th – and all Americans felt better? Why did they feel better? Nothing had changed from the time his speech began to the time it ended.
Americans felt better because a leader rose up and said: (summary paraphrase) “I will take you from the old to the new – and we will succeed.” He basically, in some 40 master-crafted minutes took them through this first phase of transition. He didn’t pretend to know all the answers, but was confident about the outcome.
Transition involves a journey from one identity to the other (for major changes), and that takes time. There are some things in life you just can’t rush. It takes nine months to have a baby no matter how many people you put on the job!
Think about the wilderness experience with Moses and the children of Israel. That took 40 years, not because they were lost, but because the generation that had known Egypt had to die off before they entered the Promised Land.
It won’t take 40 years for any change your society needs to make – we hope! But people’s outlooks, attitudes, values, self-images, and motives don’t change overnight.
Moses caused the ending when he led his people out of Egypt, but it took 40 years of transition to get Egypt out of the people. The transition time is not a meaningless waste of time; it is where the battle of change is fought and either won or lost.
1. Acknowledge that loss is the first step to progress.
Transition begins with an ending. Transition begins by letting go of something. The suffering in New York is largely due to the trauma of loss. Your leadership transitions may not be that dramatic, but the leadership principles are the same. (Not to mention the fact that we are all affected by the terrorism in New York.)
* Identify who is losing what.
Psychologists tell us that all people perceive change as a loss. Church Pastors ask people to change their attitudes, their lifestyle, and how they spend their money. One of the first questions people ask is, “What will I lose as a result of this change?”
Transition begins with the letting go of something or someone. For example, relocation involves letting go of familiar surroundings, and the change of a staff member involves saying goodbye to a friend. This process of letting go is tough.
Losing a Sunday school room may be silly to you as the leader, but not for the person who has shared meaningful relationships in that room for years. It’s not the new room they resist; it’s the insecurity of the transition.
* Accept the reality and importance of the subjective losses.
People aren’t reluctant about the change; it’s the losses and endings they are reluctant to embrace.
Don’t argue with what you hear from the people in the society. That will only stop conversation and damage communication.
Don’t try to convince them that everything is fine. Losses (endings) are subjective. God is still in control, but people are human, with human insecurities.
It’s good to give them hope, proper perspective, and your positive viewpoint, but don’t reject their frame of reference.
* Acknowledge the losses openly and sympathetically.
Discuss the pending changes without getting defensive. Remember, when anxiety rises, motivation falls. Tend to the people’s hearts. This doesn’t mean baby-sitting, but a little hand-holding goes a long way!
Don’t accuse the people of overreacting. Remember, people “overreact” to a change when they react more than you do. This may come in the form of anger, denial, bargaining, sadness, low output, foot-dragging etc. Don’t mistake these signs of grieving for low morale or trouble-makers. The key here is to be sensitive and explore their personal losses with them. This may be as simple as genuine listening.
2. Compensate for the losses.
This is not handled with integrity by telling people about how wonderful the future will be. First, they don’t know that for sure, and second, only leaders think in the future, followers live in the now. The question is, what can you give to compensate for the loss?
* Genuine concern
* An opportunity to participate in and shape what is new
* Recognition for past contribution
* New programming that is better than the old
* A new team member that leads them to the next level
(Remember that when making an emotional leadership transition, the change is never complete until the new leader is on the campus; and the change is never successful unless the new leader is likeable and has the potential of being “better” than the previous leader.)
* Opportunity for personal growth
* Good old fashion honesty
(This does not imply lack of truth or candor as routine in your leadership, but emphasizes the value of human connection, understanding and empathy. In short – offer yourself.)
3. Give people the maximum amount of information with large doses of hope.
Hope is the foundational principle of all change. Information is not a commodity with which you should be exclusive. Don’t form exclusive information clubs! Be inclusive – share as often as possible with as many people as possible. But remember, as you lead, always give hope. Don’t only give “facts” from your head; deliver hope from your heart. Remember President Bush’s speech again – what was the key ingredient? Hope. Communicate creatively. Communicate clearly. Communicate consistently. But above all, communicate hope.
Again, let me emphasize the importance of leadership. If ambiguity increases so does the desire for answers. That is why people in transition are so prone to following anyone who seems to know where he or she is going.
4. Clearly define what is over and what isn’t.
At times good leaders will simplify change. In the process of, for example, relocation, you might hear things like: “Everything is changing” or “Nothing will be the same.” Of course that’s not true. So in a non-defensive way, communicate all that is not changing. For the few things that are, honor the endings with an appropriate kind of celebration. And always treat the past with respect.
Launching a new beginning
Rarely if ever is there a clean line between the old and the new. Transition is a challenge because it’s gray, it’s a blur, and it’s unclear and unknown. You and your society will not go to sleep one night with the old and wake up to something completely new. You can’t turn the key or flip a switch to effect change, but you can cultivate the ground and provide the nourishment conducive to a successful transition.
1. You can explain the need for a basic purpose and outcome you seek. People need to understand the logic of the change before they turn their minds to work on it.
2. You can paint a picture of how the outcome will look and feel. People need to experience it imaginatively before they can give their hearts to it.
3. You can lay out a step-by-step plan for phasing in the outcome. People need a clear idea of how they can get where they need to go.
4. You can give each person a part to play in both the plan and the outcome itself. People need a tangible way to contribute and participate.
Steady to the course
Dear leader, nothing is more challenging than leading through times of transition. Candidly, you are not likely leading if you seldom face issues of transition and change, for that is the nature of leadership. At the same time, however, nothing is more rewarding than successfully guiding your people “to the other side.” Know where you’re going, why you’re going, and hang tough through the process. God has given you this opportunity to lead His people, according to His plan and for His glory. Lead on!
Surviving an organization Split
Here we may talk about a political organization as any other organization. Let us talk about the earthquake-like phenomenon in the organization that can rock your leadership world: A political organization split. No matter how good a leader or faithful a follower you may be, sometimes political organization splits will happen. There will likely be casualties, but you can survive – and so can your organization. This chapter will focus on what happens after the earthquake has hit.
* When the dust settles
Emotions may be flying high; people can be hurt; and of course, the crusaders will be looking for allies. Do your best to rise above the clutter and seek the truth.
As a leader, you are responsible to protect your people. Do everything in your power to regain unity and lead the people toward reconciliation. I know this isn’t easy, but neither is leadership – the tough times as well as the good are part of the territory. You will lose some people, but make sure that it’s their choice not yours. Let them know you love them and would like to work things out. Don’t hold a grudge. Don’t lose faith in people; they really are worth all the heartache.
As a leader, your friends may press you to side with them – but do not blindly follow. Don’t become part of a political mess. Ask questions. Do not allow yourself to get dragged into petty little issues that don’t matter. Try to understand every point of view before making a decision and taking action. Above all else, put the good of the society before any personal agendas.
Remember that anger doesn’t solve anything. Forgive those who hurt you, as well as those you perceive are responsible for what has taken place.
If you are a young leader and can’t understand how such a thing could happen, please keep in mind that all leaders are human. They are good but imperfect people. They are working hard and doing their best, but sometimes “humanity” can get the best of even the best of people.
* Brace yourself for aftershocks
Growing up in the Rwenzori region caused me to quickly learn that just because an earthquake stops, it doesn’t mean it’s over. There will be aftershocks, which can do substantial damage. Even if the damage isn’t obvious, the havoc wreaked at an emotional level can be devastating. Aftershocks stir things up, keep people on edge, and make it difficult to let the dust settle. So brace yourself, because there will be aftershocks from an organization split.
Keep your guard up – don’t be paranoid, but don’t get caught sleeping. This is one time when, as a leader, you don’t get to take a break.
* Look for the good among the destruction
Watching films of firefighters and other rescue workers walk through the rubble of a major earthquake is heartbreaking. They are looking for signs of life. They are looking for anything that can be salvaged. Scientists do the same; they search for clues of what caused the quake and what they can learn to prevent the next one – or at least be better prepared.
As public leaders we are also responsible to “walk through the rubble” looking for good. Don’t discard people who have hurt you and left your organization. Humble yourself to discover what you can learn. I’m not suggesting that you lower your standards or drop your convictions; but do let go of any pride that would prevent further growth as a leader.
* Begin to rebuild
It’s tough to be a leader during an organization split. You too need time to heal the hurts, betrayals and abandonments you’ve experienced. But at the same time, you must function as an agent of reconciliation and as a society Reconstructionist. This is a lot to carry, but I strongly encourage you to keep both of these aspects in mind.
The following are a few basic steps to get you headed in the right direction:
First, form a very small group (about five people) that can serve as your support to whom you can vent, heal, and gain wisdom and perspective.
Second, discover who the new core leaders are. Gather and plan. Don’t waste time talking about others and discussing whose fault it is – invest your time into productive and creative thinking.
Third, assess the damage and stabilize the situation. Like in a hospital emergency room where doctors quickly figure out what the critical points of damage are, the focus is on stabilizing the patient. That is the job of the core leaders. Focus on things such as grace, forgiveness, unity and community – they are your best tools.
Fourth, begin to think through and design a plan to rebuild. Your plan will include things such as finances, morale, people, momentum, vitality, and trust.
My hope is that you’ll never have to put this chapter to practice, but just in case, you’ll be better prepared. Or perhaps you know a friend caught in this tough situation, and some of these thoughts will be helpful to them.
Assessing Your Own Character
As discussed in the last chapters, self-assessment is tortuous, but crucial to our development. Learning the laws of leadership is an essential part of every leader’s growth. These laws are foundational for teaching us how leadership works. But effective leaders have more going for them than a set of skills. The best leaders are effective because of who they are on the inside. Any attempt to lead apart from character is assured of failure.
Gulf War hero, General Norman Schwarzkopf was once asked how soldiers in the field react when their leader is taken down. His response! “Soldiers are naturally inclined to follow the person with the highest character.” This reality transcends war. If the designated leader in any organization is perceived as having character flaws, his or her team will inevitably begin to follow another person in the organization whom they see as having more integrity.
To ascend to and stay at the highest level of leadership, we must develop essential character qualities from the inside out; constantly evaluating ourselves for any flaws that could shipwreck our abilities.
By becoming the leader you ought to be on the inside, you will become the leader you want to be on the outside. When that happens, you’ll find there’s nothing in this world you cannot do!
The key to transforming yourself from someone who understands leadership principles to a person who successfully leads in the real world is character. Your character qualities activate and empower your leadership ability – or stand in the way of your success.
There are many obstacles to an accurate character assessment: pride, our remarkable capability to lie to ourselves, an unwillingness to receive feedback from people who love us and want to see us grow are just a few.
Trusting Your Intuitive Instincts
Survey after survey has noted that top leaders are able to make tough decisions, in part, because they have learned to trust their intuitive instincts. Henry Mintzberg of McGill University said, “Organizational effectiveness does not lie in that narrow- minded concept called rationality. It lies in the blend of clear headed logic and powerful intuition.”
Intuitive people tend to be able to plunge right into a problem, gathering information and facts on the run while also listening for that inner voice that speaks truth. People looking in from the outside might interpret these actions as impulsive. In reality, they are able to make quick decisions based on a lifetime of accumulated wisdom and understanding.
While intuition does appear stronger in some people than in others, I believe that any leader can learn to be more intuitive. It is simply a matter of learning to trust your heart.
Sometimes the first step toward trusting your heart is simply acknowledging and letting go of our absolute trust in logic. Roy Rowan said, “This feeling, this little whisper from deep inside your brain, may contain far more information – both facts and impressions – than you’re likely to obtain from hours of analysis.”
I don’t have to know how an internal combustion engine works to drive a car. Neither do I have to know why I know what I know! Intuitiveness will also be stifled if we believe we cannot change, should not change, or if we refuse to cultivate a flexible attitude. There is a certain element of risk in intuitive leadership, but that is the very nature of leadership.