The Strategy of Change
One of the toughest challenges facing leaders is that the job requirements can change dramatically and unpredictably, as the past two years have amply demonstrated. Of necessity, leaders had to divide their attention between responding to the pandemic and managing a remote workforce and have been even further stretched by issues such as social justice, supply chain disruption, climate change, hybrid work arrangements, and geopolitical instability.
It would be easy to conclude — as many commentators have — that the key requirements of leadership are flexibility and empathy. While these qualities are certainly beneficial, especially at this specific, stressful moment, the enduring requirement of leadership is to be contextually effective. Effective leaders are those who adjust their leadership approach to suit the context and challenges they face.
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History is replete with examples of individuals who displayed extraordinary leadership under certain circumstances but were unable or unwilling to subsequently change their leadership approach. In business, it is frequently observed that a founder is rarely the leader best suited to run the business once it achieves a certain scale because it requires a different style of leadership and skills. Alphabet’s success is in part a testament to the self-awareness of Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who recognized the need to step away from the CEO role. Facebook’s current travails, in comparison, are partially caused by Mark Zuckerberg’s failure to acknowledge this necessity.
Three Imperatives for Leading Effective Change
In our work with leaders, we encourage them to think of contextual effectiveness as comprising three main tasks:
Drawing the map: The late publisher Arnold Glasgow observed that great leaders recognize an issue before it becomes an emergency. They consistently map the changing dynamics of the company’s environment and create a clear, prioritized vision for where the business should be headed.
Establishing the mindset: The second task of leadership is to ensure that the executive team has more than just a cognitive understanding of the map. The leader’s mindset drives a shared conviction about the necessity of change and an enthusiasm for the improvements that successful change will bring about. This enthusiasm is vital because achieving change is harder than maintaining the status quo.
Communicating the message: If the map credibly identifies the needed change, and the mindset creates the appetite for change, the message is the key tool for activating that change among the broader population of employees.