A friend in a position of leadership recently wrote a post where he described how he affected a major change in his organization over a multi-year period. He provides a brief summary of the steps he took and the attitude he adopted in trying to promote the change. One point stands out:
“You must attempt to win over your critics. Notice, I didn’t say, ‘win your critics.’ As Jesus wasn’t able to win over everyone don’t think for one moment you’ll be able to. But you can seek to win over your critics by engaging with them and not avoiding them; by lovingly, tactfully and appropriately answering their questions; by being approachable and most importantly, by exuding an attitude of humility—no one likes an arrogant (leader).”
Every business, church, and marriage I’ve seen struggle over the past few years seems to have a symptom of the leader not following the “engaging” advice and instead choosing a path of “avoiding.” He has some problem in the company he wants to address, or a new idea he wants to try out, but runs into the problem of having to get multiple independent wills to act in unison with his. He encounters skepticism and resistance— maybe publicly. The other parties don’t notice the problem, have never heard of the idea, and don’t share the leader’s sense of urgency.
There is insecurity involved that often manifests itself in what we call “pride.” The leader feels frustrated, disrespected, unloved, and perhaps he feels overwhelmed if task is daunting and he feels time is against him. Then what happens?
I observe a “fight or flight” behavior. Too often, there is a resignation on the part of the leader— his insecurity tells him that if he pushes the issue he may lose the battle, and no one likes to lose. He fears loss of respect or friendship. “She will never change her mind,” he resigns himself to believing. This attitude breeds contempt. Contempt for the partner, spouse, employees, or followers. There comes a fanciful wishing that some members of the organization did not exist or would just leave. The leader then retreats into his shell. He looks backward in time and says “We’d have been better off in we’d changed, and I regret it, but I told them so and it is what it is.” Neither the organization or the leader perform at 100% after that. Too often, the leader walks away or the couple divorces.
Other times, the leader adopts a “fight” stance. “This is how it is going to be.” A confrontational tone is held, and the insecurity the leader feels draws him to make the battle personal. The change he wants comes at the expense of the people on his team. What was once a cohesive organization becomes a “holy huddle” that may also adopt the leaders’ “you’re with us or against us” mentality. Or the leader just resigns angrily, poor-mouthing the organization. Neither the organization or the leader perform at 100% after that. The bad blood created casts a stain on the reputation of everyone involved.
Leadership, like it or not, is always conditional. You may outrank other soldiers but that is no guarantee that they follow you, or that they should follow you 100% of time time with no questions asked. Anyone who expects that kind of loyalty always ends up bitterly disappointed.
I recently heard a story about a director who walked into a board meeting and was unexpectedly told that he was no longer the director—he was out. This story was told to generate sympathy for the leader whose followers apparently connived against him. But I see it differently. If the majority of your closest employees and advisers think you are unfit for the job, and that information completely surprises you, what does that say about your relationship with them? How well did you really get to know them?
The best leaders do no take their position for granted; they realize they serve their employees as much as their employees serve them. They meet with them individually on a regular basis. They get to know their families, their concerns, their dreams, their fears. They learn how the individuals prefer to be communicated with— a one-size-fits-all method of communication does not work in any organization. If the leader is able to connect to each follower on a personal level, it develops trust. The follower feels free to offer ideas up for the boss’s criticism, and to criticize the leader’s ideas.
This always takes a long time, but it starts with a simple step— lunch. If you want to make a major paradigm shift in your company, start by meeting with stakeholders individually. Don’t even bring the idea of change up until there is a great level of trust and even friendship. In marriage, you learn your spouse (or children) is not open to receiving criticism unless she feels loved unconditionally. Your followers should feel that you care for them and their best interests regardless of whether they agree with you on an issue or like what you are doing. Let the winning-over process take months or years, don’t fall for the myth that “time is not on your side.” As my friend pointed out, you will not win every battle— but you should not see every change as a battle. Don’t fall into the “fight or flight” mentality--dig deeper instead.