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Leading Change – Bryce A. Smart

by on October 9, 2007

One of the core truths of change is that it must be managed. Simply allowing hundreds of different employees, motivated by a sense of urgency (assuming we adhere to Kotter and Cohen’s 8-step model), to follow their own vectors of action would result in the entropic deterioration of the organization as a whole. Order and direction must exist for any change to produce a successful result.
How is this change supposed to be managed? According to Kotter and Cohen, the sponsor of the change must build a guiding team. In several of the book’s case studies, guiding teams needed to be aggravated into openly and honestly sharing their personal viewpoints, agenda, and feelings. Once this blunt communication is in the open and the team members are interfacing effectively, the change vision, plans, and other preparation can commence.
In a graduate school class discussion led by Professor Kevin C. Desouza, several weaknesses in the Kotter/Cohen model were raised. First of these was the question: does an organization need a guiding team?

A Charismatic Leader
While environmental conditions may facilitate one approach over another, one could effectively argue that all change must be led by an individual with a single vision that others can buy into—effectively, a charismatic leader. This model has been successfully demonstrated throughout history by people from all social stations:
· Moses, the enigmatic prophet who permanently changed the cultures of two nations
· Confucius, the meditative wise man who created the baseline of Asian thought
· Jesus Christ, hailed as the Son of God, from whom the entire Christian gamut stems
· Muhammad, PBUH, the prophet of Islam, whose teachings guide nearly 1/3 of the world population
· Innocent III, the Pope who called for a volunteer army to aid of Byzantium, initiating the Crusades
· Lilburn Boggs, the Missouri governor who ordered an official genocide campaign within the United States
· Mahatma Gandhi, the pacifist leader whose example led to the independence of the Indian subcontinent
· Martin Luther King, Jr., the southern pastor who led the civil rights movement in the United States
All of these cases deal with the changing and leading of what is, effectively, a mob. The disorganized following inspired by all of these world-transformers lacked set procedure or structure but followed the two-step flow of information (from a source to opinion-shapers and from opinion-shapers to opinion followers). Once a charismatic leader emerges, the mob begins to think collectively, rather than individually and the will of the leader is projected across the followers. Change can be swift and decisive when this happens.
The conditions necessary for a charismatic leader to single-handedly emerge must include a state of societal or organizational pain. In terms of brain chemistry, the group to be manipulated must be experiencing overload in their prefrontal cortex, the portion of the brain that handles parallel, quick calculations and is tied closely to a person’s “fight-or-flight” mechanism. In this state, agitation, irrationality, and even outright anger underlie the functioning of the entire system. This is a state of psychological pain. In this state, the charismatic leader can communication his or her vision for a better future. By providing this path, the brain chemistry in followers will literally change. Rather than trying to weave one’s own way through apparent chaos, which uses large amounts of glucotic energy (blood sugar) and overtaxes the prefrontal cortex, members of “the mob” can follow someone else who can deal with the strain. Following is easy on the mind, as most people are used to the behavior and can transfer that functioning from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdale, the portion of the brain that can store very large quantities of data and handles habitual, or routine, behavior. This mental transition literally takes less energy and alleviates very real psychological and physical pain.
From this perspective, Kotter and Cohen’s previous chapter on creating urgency gains legitimacy, as overloading the prefrontal cortexes of employees with an extra-organizational stimuli creates the agitated state necessary for producing an effective charismatic leader with the vision that can alleviate that mental overburdening.
In the business world, as well as in history, a charismatic leader is one of the most important catalysts of effective change. Attempting to lead with only a council, but no clear head, hedges the guiding teams’ bets, but shows their lack of conviction to the employees. More importantly, it does not provide that same alleviation of psychological overload, as each member of the guiding council will inevitably present their ideas with a slightly different facet, creating a different chaos as employees see the company moving in several directions and not knowing where it will really end up. The guiding team’s only recourse would be to select an official spokesperson. Ironically, however, this spokesperson will become the new charismatic leader and end up driving the change through his or her own force of will, with the overall council relegated to a background role. We think of King Arthur frequently, but it is always “King Arthur and his knights”. Yet shouldn’t the Round Table have rendered them equal, such that we could say “Sir Gallahad and his knights” or “Sir Lancelot and his knights”? Their station at the Round Table was as high as that of King Arthur. King Arthur was the voice of the Round Table and it is his name with which we recognize the legends.

The Council
The counterargument, however, is that despite King Arthur being the charismatic leader, the Knights of the Round Table are the true change drivers. Examples of this can be seen throughout history as well:
· Pericles, the greatest of ancient Greek rulers, was elected by popular vote
· Before Gaius Julius ousted the democratic system, the Roman Senate appointed their figurehead rulers
· Edward I of England obtained his power to change based on his appointment from his father, King Henry
· Popes are elected by the conclave of Cardinals after the death of their predecessors
· Lenin and Stalin could only have come to power in Russia with the support of the Bolshevik, or the sustaining support of the Communist Party
· Adolph Hitler only obtained power because the Nazi party helped plan and support his bid
· Saddam Hussein relied on the Baath Party until they gave him enough power to make an effective coup
In all these examples, it was the organization, the party, who instigated change in their societies. The Greeks voted, the Roman senate convened, from the Preferiti a Holy Father is chosen.

This is, perhaps, most widely seen in contemporary corporate America. On October 8, 2007, the Wall Street Journal reported that the CEO of Sprint Nextel, a telecommunications company that has been steadily losing market share at an alarming rate, has been fired by the Board of Directors. They have installed an interim CEO and are actively looking for their next charismatic leader. In this case, the leader is not the CEO, as he can be fired or hired at will, depending on his performance. The true leaders are the Board of Directors. They decide the overall course of the organization on a level far above even the CEO. This is a prime case of where a council, or guiding team, changes the future of an organization.
The United States Supreme Court is another excellent example. The august body of seasoned judicial experts assesses cases brought up from lower courts and makes a decision on how the case (and the law associated with it) should be interpreted. Although there is often disagreement, the ruling they pass is unified and ultimate. The dissenting opinion may provide support for future judgments, but the verdict is final. It is a guiding team that interprets the constitutionality of the laws of the United States of America.

Double or Nothing
An example given in The Heart of Change revolved around a corporate merger where leaders of each business came with their personal agenda and tried to play a negotiation game with their cards held close to their chests. Dubbed the case of the “Blues versus the Greens”, the collective group proved inept until an individual managed to instigate change in the change group. Mr. Lockhart, who related the incident, described the efforts of a facilitator they hired to initiate change within their group. He relocated them from the company headquarters to a neutral off-site location. He then had to cut through the manipulative “politeness” that ensued. Finally, in frustration, the facilitator declared the entire exercise hopeless unless both parties would engage in honest exchange. The team responded and filled the entire next day with open conflict. As the hidden agenda, fears, concerns, and conflicts were exposed, the cards were all laid down on the table and an honest game could ensue. The change team was able to put together real solutions for the issues the companies desperately needed to resolve.
In this case, an individual instigated a change within the group that guided the organizational change. One could well argue that this proves that individuals must drive change, or that an open, honest guiding team is an effective change solution.

The Best Possible Team
Kotter and Cohen also made a point of the general truism that individuals who are pulled in must have the right set of skills. Of course they should. The problem, however, is that the change instigator (say the CIO) must know who the best people are. The problem then emerges that the CIO will choose those people with whose thought patterns he or she agrees or values. The CIO will select those people previously identified as leaders and team contributors. Unfortunately, this may well exclude other potential leaders and innovative, valuable contributors whom the change sponsor overlooks.
One of the most key of the overlooked leaders in an organization is the vocal change resistor. These leaders are often considered a dissident element in an organization and are labeled as “not a team player” or “loose cannon”, etc. The reality may be, however, that those who lead a “resistance” movement within the organization make some of the most important people to include on a change team, as they will be critical analysts of proposals and strategies, supporters of the eventual change roll-outs, and will no longer resist change, as it is their own idea. Furthermore, these resistors will better ensure that the product is usable, useful, and correctly aligned with the needs of the organization.
In the company at which I work, a new ERP system is currently in implementation. As negativity began to spread at the end user level, the success of the implementation was threatened by potential resistors refusing to use the tool. Fortunately, the underperforming project manager was replaced by an experienced, intelligent senior manager. As part of her taking the lead in the project, she began an aggressive campaign to have the software test group provide extra-thorough evaluations and ensure that the software as virtually bug-free. Concurrently, she assigned a mid-level manager who had worked with this system before and was particularly leery of it to find an effective way to customize the project reports, a feature that caused a large portion of the distrust. As she worked to develop a solution to the ERP shortcoming, she not only stopped resisting and spreading negativity, but became a proponent of the system, creating and evangelizing truly helpful functionality.
In short, the best possible team is not likely to ever be formed. Because of personal bias and lack of ability to recognize “unlikely assets”, the perfect team will remain a utopian fantasy.

The Hearts of Kotter and Cohen
While Kotter and Cohen’s advice in Chapter 3 contains some significantly dubious elements, the core concept is valid. A team, when necessary, should be carefully selected from a group all of the same seniority level who have different and complementary skill sets and effective contact networks. Furthermore, they do recognize the necessity of a central voice, or leader, but neglected to discuss the concept in its necessary order. They touch on the idea in Chapter 4: “Get the Vision Right.” Here they emphasize the need for the guiding team, especially the change sponsor, to develop a compelling and communicable vision of where the company is headed. The change sponsor, as he or she communicates this message, becomes a charismatic leader by default. If sincere, his or her message will provide the opportunity for employees to transfer much of the strain in their prefrontal cortex to their amygdale, enabling them to follow with a sense of calm and ease. Although other parts of the change process will still prove difficult, employees can maintain that underlying current of peace provided by an effective guiding team working in conjunction with their de facto visionary.

· Kotter, John P. and Cohen, Dan S. 2002. The Heart of Change: Real-Life stories of how people change their organizations. Harvard Business School Press. Boston, MA.

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