My Evolving Model of Leadership & Change
Working on refining and editing this. Feel free to highlight that which is too jargon-y.
During my week in Charlottesville at the end of April, I synthesized both what I learned about change leadership, change processes, and individual approaches with the long experience I had both at NPR and Kaplan through times of extreme internal system and external market change. Similarly to what I found in my research, I found that both the status quo and change are both best viewed through the lens of a system of combined forces, rather than as individual cause-effect relationships.
Fundamentally, my model for change is congruent with my model for leadership, as I believe that leadership is setting the path and inspiring others to change with you. I have tried to find an archetype of a successful leader who did not in some manner advocate some form of change. A leader has to articulate and embody a future state to invite people to work to achieve, to include them in the shaping of that path and vision, and to inspire and empower individuals to change themselves.
All change, and therefore all leadership is due to a challenge to the dominant system of thinking, which often manifests itself as inertia. The inherent resilience of the status quo is due to the power of the dominant system of thinking. This system has effects that are not directly tied to a proximate cause found in the input of the system. For example, a talent recruiting system does not have causes that reduce and disincentives diversity in its inputs. However, there may be factors in the dominant system (decision-makers not checking unconscious bias and assumptions, requiring certain matriculation or test scores, requiring pre-requisites more accessible by those with privilege) that have a disproportionate impact on those with a characteristic unrelated to the system, and the unintended effect of building a less diverse talent pool. To be effective, we need to understand the effect that these assumptions and rules have on our outcomes.
My change model has to include both mapping the conscious inputs of a system, a way to measure that scope of that system and its effect on the aggregate experience of individuals and the effectiveness of our strategy, and a process for identifying and questioning those assumptions that unconsciously shape a system. As we shape experiments and efforts to effect change, we need to measure the effect of each solution on the status quo, and its alignment to our strategy, vision, and goals.
We accept that no problem has a single cause and no system can be changed fundamentally changed with a single solution. We also accept that since the system is the aggregate experience of each individual in the system, we can’t extrapolate a picture of the system from an individual experience, and we can’t use a system to perfectly extrapolate an individual experience. We also acknowledge that these systems are made up of people, and their collective actions, including ourselves, therefore we need to be able to measure the effect of our changes on the system as a collective whole or representative sample. We posit that change truly comes from the changed behaviors of individual actors within that system, including ourselves, and therefore for change to be effective, we need to invite individuals impacted by the system to change, invite them into shaping those solutions, and inspire them to stay on the path by making clear the outcomes of the change they have undertaken.
This leadership model also acknowledges the emotional and human aspects of change. Sales and communication are important tools in the leader’s toolbox. Acknowledging that all change involves some kind of loss — even if it is just that of the stability of the status quo — is key to effective leading change. Often that status quo is baked into individual identity, and how each individual in the system defines their success. This empathy is essential to being an effective leader, and an effective change agent.
The other tool that is assumed in every aspect of my change model is empowerment. I believe each individual has an opportunity to consciously choose what stimuli they process, how they shape their worldview, and how they choose to act. To make change in a system, we need to invest in helping people recognize their own power, and their own responsibility. We also need to acknowledge the impact that the system has on dis-empowering individuals, and the active role the leader needs to take in creating the space for individuals to step up.
Overall, the phrasing I’m using and the pieces I am emphasizing are being informed by my classwork, but also are shaped by long experience in the middle of organizations experiencing risk, fear, and change. I suspect that this thinking may evolve with new language or tools and processes, but I believe this illustrated the foundation for how I approach leadership and change.