For the past 20 years, I have served high-level leaders in ministry and the marketplace, offering content, coaching and consulting to move vision forward. In almost every case, these leaders were pursuing a bold and courageous vision, navigating a critical moment of change or trying to recover missional clarity and momentum.
These leaders often become frustrated when they struggle to see their visions manifest. When leaders hold a picture of the future in their heart, the only thing that matters to them is getting from “here” to “there”. But there are often myriad challenges facing visionary leaders who are leading change, especially in these uncertain times.
In my experience, the most important lesson I have learned about change is that change is different from transition. Change is what happens, whether we desire it, create it, prepare for it or not. The world will change, economic conditions will change, social conditions will change, our bodies will change and they will do so with or without our participation.
Change happens to us, but transition is how we respond when change happens. We decide to transition when we realize that something has changed, will change or must change—and the decisions we make will determine how we move forward.
In my work with senior leaders of high-impact organizations in transition, I have recognized four key “transition dilemmas” that create some common barriers to forward moving change:
Setting change expectations without change preparation
Most leaders are brilliant at making a compelling case for change, but they often underestimate the psychological cost of change. In his book, Leadership Pain: The Classroom for Growth, Dr. Samuel Chand states, “There is no growth without change, no change without loss and no loss without pain.”
When leaders cast powerful visions, they develop within their organizations the expectation of change, but often miss the opportunity to develop a preparation for pain. Before people can be led into the future, they must be willing to leave the past and, in doing so, be prepared to negotiate with the loss, the struggles, the difficulties, the disappointment and the frustration that will unfold in the process of change.
This may require an investment of financial resources in training and development to equip people within the organization to embrace these experiences a normal part of the transition process. No matter how compelling the vision, failure to prepare an organization for transition can either stifle or stop the transition process.
Putting the what before the why
Once during my first pastorate, I made a hospital visit to a middle-aged congregant who had just experienced a heart attack. While I was there, her primary doctor and a surgeon came into her room and suggested that she have open-heart surgery. When she asked about the procedure, the surgeon explained the details of the surgery to her in a cold and direct manner. My congregant looked away; her lips pursed to say no. At that moment, her primary doctor interjected with a few questions.
“Would you like to play with your grandchildren and not lose your breath?”
“Would you like to work in your garden and not feel tired?”
“Would you like to be able to walk up a flight of stairs again without feeling faint?”
After those questions, my congregant nodded. She was able to agree to the process of change once she was able to connect to the “why.”
Many leaders move too quickly to the “what” of change. They talk about big goals, outline the strategies and assign the action steps. But wise leaders who understand transition know the importance of developing a heart connection before they develop a head connection with change.
A demand for innovation but a disdain for failure
Years ago, I worked with a leader who wanted to understand why he wasn’t seeing more creativity and innovation from his team. After a few meetings, interactions and interviews with team members, it became clear that people were afraid to fail. They had been discouraged so many times by the senior leader’s constant, scolding critique whenever something wasn’t done “right.”
When I finally sat with the leader, I said to him, “I think the issue is that while you might be expecting innovation, the expectation that you convey is for perfectionism.” I explained to him that perfectionism, by definition, removes the opportunity for people to learn and grow, which is required for innovation. True innovation, however, is a process that involves failure, learning from mistakes and constant adaptation.
In this process, people don’t simply need the freedom to fail, they need the encouragement to fail forward. Leading transition means creating a culture of learning in the organization in which failure is embraced as part of the growth process, and the lessons learned from failure inform the new things that are created as the team moves forward.
Driving organizational change while avoiding personal change
In the 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, Dr. John Maxwell describes the Law of the Lid. He states that the lid determines a person’s level of effectiveness, and the lack of leadership ability is a serious limit to the productivity and success of that team. The sad reality for many leaders driving change in their organizations is that personal change and organizational change are inextricably linked. In other words, the organization’s limits will often mirror the limits of the leader.
As leaders, we cannot expect the organizations we lead to grow beyond the point of our personal resistance to change, and our personal resistance to continuous leadership training and development. As we grow in our ability to resolve conflict, the organizations we lead will develop cultures of healthy conflict resolution. As we grow in our capacity to grieve loss, the teams we lead will grow in their ability to grieve, embrace change and move forward. As we grow in our ability to handle ambiguity and uncertainty, the organizations we lead will grow in their ability to face adaptive challenges with curiosity, candor and courage.
Managing transition is one of the most difficult responsibilities of a leader; but it can also be one of the most rewarding. When leaders navigate people and organizations through the treacherous terrain of change, they help people realize the power of hope to create new futures, building powerful momentum for sustainable success.
This article was extracted from Issue 5 (Spring 2021) of the AVAIL Journal. Claim your free annual subscription here.
Shaun Marshall is a thought leader and consultant helping leaders navigate transition. He is the author of the book Transition Decisions: How to Get Unstuck, Embrace Change and Make Your Next Move Now. Shaun is also the Founder of Manifest Network, a movement that exists to help people live the life they were created to live. Shaun and his family live in the Chicagoland area.
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