July 26, 2017

You probably cannot lead change

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‘Leading change’ versus ‘leading stability’ may be two quite different leadership skill-sets. According to the findings of a 2015 survey from PricewaterhouseCoopers, even if you are in a leadership position, there is only a 7 per cent chance that you will be able to lead your organisation through a major transformation. If you are a woman or if you are over 45, your chances increase. But not by much: 3 per cent or so.

PwC’s findings show that those who do well coping with day-to-day problems and bringing efficiencies to existing structures, have different capabilities than those who successfully lead major organisational change. The report states of this minority of transformational leaders:

“These leaders tend to have several common personality traits: They can challenge the prevailing view without provoking outrage or cynicism; they can act on the big and small pictures at the same time, and change course if their chosen path turns out to be incorrect; and they lead with inquiry as well as advocacy, and with engagement as well as command, operating all the while from a deeply held humility and respect for others.”

These findings parallel my personal experience in organisations where a few people were successful at leading major transformations but were not well suited to managing the newly changed organisation’s stability. It seemed that someone who was a good firefighter could easily become an arsonist when there were no more fires!

PwC also suggests that there are ways in which organisations can structure themselves in order to develop and retain these so-called ‘Strategists’. One of our Australian MBA students, Charles Street, has suggested that the characteristics identified by PwC (the ability to distribute responsibility, to make it safe to fail, to be honest and open, etc.) closely parallel the five leadership practices that Kouzes and Posner have been writing about for nearly 30 years in their series of books on The Leadership Challenge:

  1. Challenge the process;
  2. Inspire a shared vision;
  3. Enable others to act;
  4. Model the way;
  5. Encourage the heart.

But Kouzes and Posner write that these are specific practices that can be learned … which would seem to contradict the PwC findings. Can we develop more ‘Strategist’ behaviours in most leaders or are such characteristics really innate leadership traits, the domain of only a few?

The answer to this question would have a major influence on how we manage our leadership talent within today’s fast-changing organisations.

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