Leaders Have to Go First in Any Change

Leaders Have to Go First in Any Change

2018, Oct 29    

A lot of “change initiatives” or “transformations” are either driven top-down or bottom-up. But where to start?

No matter if you “go Agile” (which I would not recommend as a sole purpose!), or strive for other improvement: You need to get your system moving. In a lot of cases that I worked on, this is the most difficult part. Like in the world of physics, any complex system expresses inertia when it has settled for once. This is the initial reluctance to change or even think about changing the status quo. All known and proven models for change management have something in common:

Kurt Lewin calls the first step unfreeze. Jon Kotter asks you to create a sense of urgency first. Even in the ADKAR model the first steps are Awareness and Desire. No question that you need to get some energy pumped into the system to get it moving!

In the last months I came around a lot of discussion about where to start with getting this energy flowing. It is necessary to unfreeze the whole system. But where to start?

Finding Linchpins

Choosing the wrong starting point for a change initiative can shut it down before it even gets going. In any case you should aim for those people who connect the social network of the organisation. This is a matter of company culture. As expected, you will find these linchpins in management positions. By design, they centralise communications, responsibilities and opinion. At least this is true for most traditional organisations. However, we are not focussing on the formal hierarchy organisation here, but on the social network the people compose. So, keep your eyes open for those emergent leaders, who are not in positions of power.

Emergent leaders share some characteristics, that may help you identify them:

  • They shape opinions within their range of peers.
  • You will find them invited into meetings to get their opinion.
  • Sometimes their ideas generate a lot of buzz. Both, negative and positive.
  • They are often criticised and offering a lot of criticism regarding the organisation.
  • Many emergent leaders are very well connected, spanning multiple layers within the system.

These individuals are highly connected. Thus, they generate a lot of pull, when moving into a direction. If they are not in favour of the change, you are up for a tough fight. You’ll want to focus on the early adopters. Target only those linchpins, who are willing to go ahead, and lead the change by example.

Leaders Shape Their Culture-Bubble

Apart from acting as a linchpin, every leader who has authority of others shapes the culture of his or her co-workers. The way a leader interacts with others is a mould for the way individuals on lower levels will interact. Any leader can protect his or her people by acting as protective shield towards the outside world. This does not work by centralising communication. It does by being a living example for and creating an environment that supports their behaviours. Thus, this is not a hard and heavy metal shield, that blocks interconnections. It is more like a bubble that contains and supports a specific culture.

However, mind that this not a voluntary effect! It happens whether you want or not. By the mere fact of being a leader, you will be an example of and foster specific behaviours in your co-workers. You can’t turn it off.

What impact does this have on change initiatives? By transforming the behaviour of leaders, you impact their co-workers. Imagine a leader who fostered fear and the Blame Game™. Recently he or she learned to appreciate positive communication and psychological safety. As a result, the bubble will slowly change to adapt to the behaviours and examples given to its leader.

Where to Start?

So, in the end, the posed question “Top-down or bottom-up change?” the answer is more complex: Start on all sides! Well, maybe I should state it more clearly: The direction of the change does not matter that much. It is much more important who you involve in the beginning! As leaders in the organisation act as highly connected linchpins and shape behaviours of their co-workers, they must go first. They radiate and spread the behaviours you want to see in the whole organisation. Others will walk in their footsteps after them!