Stepping Up to Lead Collaborative Change

By John B. McGuire

Across our cities, our countries, and our world, leaders are in crisis. They – we­ – struggle with practical fiscal and policy issues while wrestling with deep, values-based questions: Who and what do we represent? What do we need to do to work across all the boundaries required to be effective–how do we need to behave as organizations? How do we survive in challenging times and move toward an uncertain future?

 Permeating many of our challenges is a fear of change.  This fear itself is a boundary beyond which lurks the unknown. Business, political and community leaders alike are overwhelmed by the rapid change they’ve experienced already and the complexity and ambiguity that the future holds. Many of us hesitate to lead in the face of change, uncertain of the both the process and the outcomes.

 To face the challenges of the future we must learn to work together across myriad boundaries, and to do this our ailing systems need to be transformed. Local institutions, governments, educational institutions, non-profits, and businesses (both large and small) must be able to shift and adapt as organizations – which requires leaders who will step up to lead in fundamentally new ways. We need leaders who are able to change mindsets in order to change behaviors in order to change organizational practices in order to transform their businesses, their communities and the future.

 Sound too far “out there” to be practical? Maybe so, but when the stakes are high and no one knows what “business as usual” means anymore, we’ve found that investing in leadership transformation is a powerful strategy. The question is, then, how does this transformation take place?

 At CCL, our research and work with executives has revealed some fundamental facts about how transformation can happen in organizations – and that work offers a roadmap for our local and regional leaders as well. Here’s some of what we know:

 You can’t wish away change and uncertainty. Transformation in organizations begins when leaders embrace ambiguity and uncertainty rather than hiding from it, or dismissing it with a well-rehearsed response. Instead of trying to master uncertainty and avoid complexity through tactics, procedures, micro-managing or denial, leaders need to accept the VUCA world. Describing the context of leadership as Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous is almost a cliché in some circles, but surprisingly few leaders understand or accept the implications that a VUCA world has on their organizations, customers, supply chains and communities.  The post-global financial crisis is a mega-example.  Every community faces the ripple effects of fiscal challenges and shrinking resources.

 You can’t ask others to do what you won’t do yourself. Leaders who want their organizations to change and adapt must change themselves first. They need to grow bigger minds to deal with bigger issues. They must stop looking outside for someone or something else to change and take a hard look at their existing beliefs. They need to develop the ability to spot what no longer works and replace them with better ideas.

 KONE , a global leader in the elevator and escalator industry, needed to build trust and openness within the senior leadership team in order to address business challenges. As CEO Vance Tang says, “We had to appreciate that we had to change ourselves first in order to change the culture.”

 You must cultivate interdependence. Now is the time to pursue a new leadership culture, one that enacts (not just pays lip service to) collaboration, flexibility and boundary spanning. For several years my colleagues and I have been focusing on leadership culture, driven by the core idea that we need to develop not only individual leaders, but also collective, interdependent leadership.

 Here’s what we’ve learned: leadership is a social process, and there is a hierarchy of leadership cultures – from dependent to independent to interdependent. Each advancing stage of culture is more capable of dealing with complexity, working effectively across boundaries and leading change. So, if you need to solve complex problems, adapt quickly, generate future-ready strategies and drive change, you need to develop interdependent leadership.

 Senior managers of a global consulting organization put their goal for leadership culture change into writing:  they wrote and posted a “Declaration of Interdependence” as a commitment to their connectivity and shared success. They understood that they needed to truly collaborate, using dialogue, beyond debate, to deeply understand the problems they and their clients face. Collectively, the senior leadership agreed to model the mindset and the behaviors that will lead to multiple options, creative solutions and a highly flexible organization of groups working collaboratively with each other.

 Transforming leadership culture begins with senior leaders taking these three steps. But how that takes place and where those steps lead is not quick, easy or formulaic. But it can be done. Do you wonder what it would look like if it were done in your own organization and community?

 John McGuire is a senior faculty member and Transformation Practice Leader at the CCL and co-author of Transforming Your Leadership Culture.

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