For years practitioners in the development field have fought for a transformation in the mindset of business leadership. Agents of change have known that when the challenges they faced were technical in nature solutions were possible. However, when the problems they were charged with solving were leader induced or at least affected by leadership behavior in some way the probability of success would plummet. The tip off of course was when they were asked by leadership to “fix them”, meaning others, and report back. “Them” of course being the employees who were seen as failing to perform to expectations.
Having leaders be unwilling, much less able to see themselves in any way part of or the source of the problem in organizations has led to literally millions of dollars being spent for limited or no benefit.
If this sounds like business leaders have had an attitude problem when it comes to their own responsibility for issues in their organizations then that would be an incorrect interpretation. Yes, maybe some leaders display hubris to a great extent, maybe most display hubris at least some of the time. That, however, is not a shortcoming of leaders, it is a limitation of being human. In the simplest of terms…it is nearly impossible to see your own point of view, not merely your opinions, but “the point” or origin of your opinions. Moreover it is as difficult to see how this fact of human life impacts the actions we take. When things aren’t going well, or the way we had intended it is unnatural to look at yourself first as the source of the problem. Even when we suspect that we might be in part responsible for a problem we are facing it is equally difficult to see our own perspective without the aid of an outside source.
Years ago, early in his practice Dr. Edwards Deming offered his observations that a system simply cannot objectively observe itself. And so it has gone for nearly fifty years since he began, business leaders wanting the results practitioners like Deming claimed were possible yet unable to see how their behavior and perspective were limiting the return on the investments they were making. Meanwhile many around them helplessly knew the truth was not possible to expose. Painful, expensive and true as anyone in the field of organizational development will admit. Yet, persistence is paying off to some degree.
It seems the time for an idea’s time to come never really happens all at once, rather it is a gradual process of endorsement by sources respected by the audience at large as “credible.” With the appearance of the article ‘Change leader,change thyself’ in the McKinsey Quarterly in March it might be time to declare that the work of organizational,leadership and management development have entered a new era. Business change professionals get a real boost from this article regarding the value of their work, especially as it relates to the need to understand the perspective of the actors in the business environment.It is not so much that the content is new, the most remarkable feature of the piece is how familiar its message is beginning to sound and the source of the message. Here are a few excerpts…
“Taking accountability as a leader today includes understanding your motivations and other inner drives.”
“Simply put, change efforts often falter because individuals overlook the need to make fundamental changes in themselves.”
“A new strategy will fall short of its potential if it fails to address the underlying mind-sets and capabilities of the people who will execute it.”
…and I would add…Duh!
But here’s the thing and what is so exciting about seeing this written about in a McKinsey publication, which I might also add uses several references to work being done at Harvard! See, that sells it, McKinsey and Harvard in the same sentence, instant credibility.
But I digress…what is so exciting, if you have hung in there with any attempt to change a business leaders mind about anything or to have them SEE what they cannot see…you can now share the article with that very same business leader and now have an increased possibility to have them recognize themselves in the mirror it provides. At the very least you can use the article as an excuse to have a conversation with others about the concepts discussed and whether anyone can see themselves reflected in the message.
…With the efficacy of reflective thinking going mainstream does that mean there will be no more obstinate business leaders or an end to the need for change agents;hardly. There are always going to be plenty of problems to solve. What may be different is that they can be approached with the optimism that real solutions rather than bandages can now be achieved.