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Leadership: To Change or Not To Change?

“We change when it hurts too much not to change.” That statement is attributed to Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the author of many books on change and its effect on organizations. This sentiment certainly applied to both Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney in the wake of their resounding setbacks in the Iowa caucuses; both were trumped by avowed candidates of change, Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee respectively. The next day both Clinton and Romney were framing their campaigns as ones of change; neither seemed convincing because both candidates are clearly establishment candidates.

“We change when it hurts too much not to change.” That statement is attributed to Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the author of many books on change and its effect on organizations. This sentiment certainly applied to both Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney in the wake of their resounding setbacks in the Iowa caucuses; both were trumped by avowed candidates of change, Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee respectively. The next day both Clinton and Romney were framing their campaigns as ones of change; neither seemed convincing because both candidates are clearly establishment candidates. While both are still very much alive in the presidential primaries, if they do win, it will not be because of their recently adopted change messages.

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Change is the buzz word of presidential politics. It is not surprising given the unpopularity of the current president and the significant challenges facing the nation in terms of an unpopular war, a weakening economy, and a general sense that things are not going so well for our country. So a when candidate has built his message on change, as Obama and Huckabee have done, he finds people willing to listen.

Most times change is not a popular topic, chiefly because it is unsettling to those in power. However when their power is eroding, as it certainly does when things are going poorly, then change becomes an imperative. However, if you are going to push for change, there are some fundamentals to observe.

Be credible. If you push for change, you better know of what you speak and why. Change is rooted in turmoil and discomfort. It takes a special breed of leader to handle and manage. Being an outsider helps. For example, Obama began his career as a community organizer; he grew up challenging the status-quo. Same applies to Mike Huckabee. He’s a poor boy made good, first as a minister and later as governor. Those who reside in the corridors of power often do not make good change agents. Hillary Clinton is a child of the establishment and has spent the last 15 years in the White House and later the Senate. Mitt Romney grew up in wealth, and after Harvard Law and Business schools joined Bain and Company where he made a name (and fortune) for himself as a mergers and acquisitions specialist. So if you push for change, it is good if you know of what you speak.

Be realistic. Corporate leaders excel at making things better for the company (and by extension senior managers), but less good at improving the lot of employees. Case in point would be a merger. Those at the top get new jobs or golden parachutes; those in the middle or below may be on the streets. On the other hand, politicians do well at convincing individuals that things will be better for themselves and their families but less good at convincing the populace that things will be better for the nation. For example, the Bush Administration pushed for lower taxes which are popular with individuals. But those cuts, coupled with wasteful spending, exacted a toll in the form of huge deficits that resulted from wars on terror and as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan. If you push for change, you must explain the consequences to the whole as well as to individuals.

Be hopeful. Change is scary. A leader is asking people to give up what they know and find comfortable for something that is unknown and less comfortable. The leader must portray the change, either political or corporate, as something that will benefit not only the organization but also individuals. It is essential that the leader draw a clear picture of what life will be like when things change. Make that picture tangible to everyone.

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Regardless of whether a candidate or a corporate leader espouses change, change is inevitable. The most successful companies are those that continually change; we call it innovation. Innovation is the application of creative ideas to the organization and what it does. Famously General Electric has changed throughout its 120 year-plus history, even after its terrifically successful run under legendary CEO, Jack Welch. The GE under Jeff Immelt is significantly different in its business model as well as innovation drives the company as does a quest to capitalize on green technology.

The fact is whatever your business unless you change you die. Or as Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald’s put it, “When you are ripe, you rot.” That statement summed up his philosophy of trying new and different ideas not simply product wise but also in his relationship to franchisees. You listen, learn, and implement the best of the best ideas. Change is ever with us. It simply becomes more palatable or even fashionable during times of turbulence or crisis when the alternative, as Dr. Kanter observed, is less painful.

[Note: The change message did not help Romney in New Hampshire. He placed second to John McCain. However, one form of change did seem to work for Hillary Clinton. Despite poll predictions, she placed first. One might argue that voters may not have believed her change in message, but instead liked her change of tactics. Voters in New Hampshire witnessed a Hillary who took questions from her audiences, demonstrated more give-and-take with the media, and even exhibited some vulnerability. This was certainly a change from her buttoned-up professional exterior that she has perfected over her many decades in public life.]

John Baldoni • Leadership Expert:Executive Coach/Author/Speaker • Baldoni Consulting, LLC • www.johnbaldoni.com