As I have seen numerous times before in various settings, the folks at this meeting were bemoaning the loss of the “good ole days” and were trying to figure out how to get back to them. Of course, if we really think about it, the good ole days weren't always so good and even back then there were those who were missing the good ole days. But you know what? Time is a funny thing. It only goes forward, never backward. I like what Peter Drucker understood about this. He said, “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence - it is to act with yesterday’s logic.”
My background gave me a high degree of tolerance for change and undoubtedly I developed some good coping mechanism as a result. Now as a leader of a nonprofit in a rapidly changing industry I live with it on a daily basis. Either by personal experience or from studying the subject I think I have come to recognize when change is good and healthy and when it is not.
You know, the fear of change can paralyze, even kill, a business or organization. Like it or not, change is going to happen. Accept it or not, change is going to happen. Plan for it or not, change is going to happen. As it has been commonly noted, change is the one and only universal constant. John F. Kennedy said it this way, “Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”
Since change is going to happen the best thing to do is to meet that change with change. The best way to predict the future is to create it. Instead of resisting it, the best thing we can do is harness the change that is out of our control and use it to create the change we desire. That’s what good leaders do.
Effective leadership, requires anticipating change, adapting to the rhythm and flow of the particular change, and structuring the business or organization in ways that allow the inevitable change to be a benefit rather than harm to it. Cursing the wind doesn't change the wind.
Leadership naturally requires some risk-taking. Nonprofits max out their mission, not by taking a defensive posture - by cowering down and stubbornly gripping on to tradition - but rather by embracing an open and offensive attitude. Businesses gain more market share, grow, and expand their territory by taking risk. Caution is good. Timing is valuable. But taking a risk can pay rich dividends. It can, however, also take huge tolls.
A good leader understands this, accepts this, and plans for this. A strong leader anticipates change and plans for the inherent risks that comes with change. But a visionary leader creates the change every other leader must respond to. The visionary leader takes the ultimate risk.
History has shown that there are as many, if not more, leadership failures as there are leadership successes. But if it were easy, if success was guaranteed, then there would be no need for leaders. Anyone could do it. And in truth, anyone can. But they don’t. Only leaders lead. Only leaders are willing to take the chance, embrace the risk, and accept the outcome.
The renowned patriot and revolutionary thinker Patrick Henry captures the requirement for all leaders when in his famous “give me liberty or give me death” speech he said, “…the battle sir is not to the wise alone but to the vigilant, the active, the brave.”
Leaders aren't necessarily smarter or wiser than others. They are not necessarily more talented or skilled than everyone else. The only thing they have that others do not is courage. For a leader to lead change they need the ability to operate in despair and keep going. They need to have the stomach for the journey. If they don’t have it they need to get it. The times I have failed as a leader happened because I couldn't stomach the flack I was getting from those resisting the change and so I gave up. Truth is, change creates losses, even casualties. The leader has to decide how much damage they are willing to inflict. That will depend on how much pain they can stomach.
Why is it so hard for people to deal with change?
Because people get stuck in their heart, not in their head. People may see the necessity to change, they may be able to logically understand what is going on but people make decision with their hearts as much if not more with their hearts than with their heads.
Jesus was many things but in light of our subject today we must recognize that he was a leader who brought about a great amount of change in his time. The change he lead was so transformational and the consequences of the change so revolutionary that he was persecuted and killed for it.
Jesus, in response to those having a hard time with the change he was leading said in John 14: 1 Let not your heart be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. There's the answer. A troubled heart keeps us from changing.
A troubled heart is caused by at least two common human temptations: anxiety and discouragement. Left unchallenged, these twin troubles of the heart can be costly. They sap energy, steal away courage, interfere with compassion, and worst yet, they can destroy vision, as squash much needed reform.
Sometimes the cure requires tenderness and sometimes it requires toughness. Either way, anxiety and discouragement are not to be tolerated by those who believe in God. They must be fought. They must be brought under the submission of faith. Think about it this way. Anxiety is worrying about what might or might not happen. Discouragement is worry about what did or did not happen.
But let not your heart be troubled Jesus said. Our heavenly Father has the future covered. There is no place for anxiety. And, our Savior has the past covered so there is no value in discouragement.
These two trouble makers can be especially bothersome when organizations are making adaptive or transformational changes. These kinds of deep changes in an organization can threaten stakeholders’ beliefs, habits, and loyalties and by stockholders I mean those who hold power and authority like trustees, staff, and donors. It is during these times of change that people get stuck in their stomachs and their hearts, not so much in their heads.
This primarily happens because:
1. Adaptive changes, meant to cause growth in an organization, will ironically result in some loss and even casualties. The resistance to change is really the resistance to loss. Any resistance and fear to change needs to be seen in this light. If a leader understands this he or she can be more empathetic during the change process.
Think of change like a death. People will either be angry, depressed, or in denial about it. The job of the leader is to comfort as much as confront those who fear the change. I think the goal for the leader in this case is to be a guiding force instead of a forceful guide.
2. There is usually a shift in power and influence in the group when change comes. Some people fear the loss of power. That power may be real or it may be perceived. Either way it is a loss. This is often where the leader has the greatest challenge. The power brokers of an organization will naturally resist change if they believe that change will negatively impact their position or their authority in the organization. Woodrow Wilson said, “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.”
This too must be handled with care. The real power in an organization may not be attached to a title or position. The leader must know who has the real influence in the group and convince them to take the lead in the new change. If not, the leader risks the chance of failing before even starting.
Leadership is like dancing on the edge of authority. Leadership is not about meeting or even exceeding expectations. True leadership is about challenging those expectations. It’s about challenging the status quo, raising taboo issues, it’s about pointing out the contradictions in the organization. It’s about getting their organization out of it’s comfort zone and challenge it to do all it can do and be the very best it can be. That can be very scary and sometimes it will seem like the leader is dancing on the edge of authority. Leadership is scaring people without getting fired.
3. Changes can result in many digressions, detours, mid-course corrections, and even pettiness. I think people anticipate these issues and are just too tired, too busy, or too discouraged to deal with them. But the leader job is to help the group push through these difficult and unpleasant things.
4. By its very nature adaptive change will cause incompetence throughout the organization. Those who were once proficient and even celebrated by the organization for their abilities often discover they are not particularly suited to the demands and requirements of the change. Those already on the edge of their competence are going to resist any change that may finally push them beyond what they are capable of doing.
All four of these realities I just outlined produce levels of anxiety or discouragement that lead to troubled hearts. It is at these times of change that organizations, like individuals, must press through the negative emotions, act on faith, and move on toward the higher goal. Anxiety and discouragement must not be allowed to stand in the way of the mission. Unfortunately this is where many groups get stuck. They let their hearts be troubled rather than letting their hearts trust in God.
Please consider that anxiety and discouragement are just more “user friendly” forms of fear. And like any kind of fear, they should not be tolerated. Fight them. Rebuke them. Remind them that God is working. Be of courage. Be brave. Press on. Stand by faith. Never fall to their wicked temptations.