Fifteen years ago, John P. Kotter wrote his seminal book Leading Change. It is one of those rare books that I try to read every year. It reminds me in fresh ways of the need to be a leader who is a change agent and one who understands the times of change in which we live.
I doubt that Kotter could have predicted fifteen years ago the types and pace of change that confronts leaders and organizations today. From multinational organizations to nonprofit companies to churches to community organizations, the challenge of change can seem to have a heaviness and burden that is difficult to overcome.
Many leaders with whom I speak share with me that their primary concern is keeping up with change. I know their sentiments. I lead an organization that is challenged by increased digitalization, growing globalization, changing customer practices, and the seeming omnipresence of social media.
A New Kind of Leader
Some leadership principles are unchanging. For example, true leaders will always be people with strong character and morals. But the fast pace of change of today demands a new kind of leader. That leader must meet the challenges head on with resolve and courage.
Of course, it’s easy to make such declarations in the comfort of a blog. It is another story altogether to become that type of leader. Most leaders, if honest with themselves and others, will admit that there are times that change seems to be taking place too rapidly. It seems like we are barely holding on to the train that is passing by.
Observations of Effective Leaders in the Midst of Fast-paced Changes
Anyone who reads my writings knows that I love research. Facts are my friends even if the facts are difficult to grasp and more difficult to manage. The research of which I have been a part includes both large objective studies and more anecdotal interview studies. It is the latter that has most informed me about effective leaders today.
Leadership is far too complex to reduce principles to a linear checklist. Nevertheless, there are certain characteristics that embody the most effective leaders in times of rapid change. Look at a few of the chief traits that define them.
They assume that change is taking place at an increasing pace. Because of their assumption, status quo leadership is not an option. Most of these leaders believe that, despite their aggressive assumptions, they will err on the side of under anticipating change.
They put the organization they lead above themselves. Certainly these leaders are human, and they have career, personal, and financial concerns like most of us. But their personal needs and desires are trumped by what they perceive to be good for the organization. They are not waiting on a retirement date, trying to preserve a salary, or obsessed about job security.
They are willing to look in the mirror. No one likes to see the imperfections a well-lit mirror shows. But these leaders know they are far from perfect, so they are willing, if not eager, to learn about their own imperfections so they can make needed adjustments.
They don’t think they have all the answers. This characteristic hit home for me. I lead a company whose history has been dominated by print products. I must lead the organization forward into the digital world. To that end we are moving in the digital world rapidly and working toward a comprehensive digital strategy. But I do not have the foreknowledge to grasp where all this will ultimately lead. I must be willing to move forward with some degree of uncertainly, and I must depend on the wisdom and expertise of others.
They are courageous. Leaders in rapidly changing times cannot overanalyze and fail to decide. They must move forward. It’s not always comfortable to move in a direction without all the facts. While fools can certainly rush in at times, most leaders today are moving too slowly. Change is outpacing many leaders. Courageous leadership is critical.
Haunted by Numbers 13 and 14
They don’t have household names: Shammua; Shaphat; Igal; Palti; Gaddiel; Gaddi; Ammiel; Sethur; Nahbi; and Geuel.
They are the ten men who spied the Promised Land with Joshua and Caleb. And they were the ten who led Israel to stay in the wilderness. They voiced fear and negativity. They did not want change. Instead of seeing God’s possibilities, they saw their limitations. And they led by fear instead of a faith.
What happened to the ten with a negative report? Just as God said, “their corpses fell in the wilderness” (Numbers 14:32). The leaders of faith, Joshua and Caleb, would enter the Promised Land at later date.
The pace of change is faster than any point in history. It can be frightening and intimidating. But it can present opportunities like our organizations have never known.
May we be leaders who are not fearful of change nor outpaced by it. It’s time for a new kind of leader. May we have the courage to be just that.