Leaders are visionaries. They see the future where others don't. They lead either from the front or from behind. They lead others along with them to their destination. All leaders do this and history is full of examples. In more recent times we have Martin Luther King breaking down black barriers in the United States; Mandela seeing his people freely participating in the South African political discourse; and, Gandhi visioning an India without British rule. All these leaders had difficult challenges and were caught in the cross fire of backlash, push-back, resistance, often with violent consequences. They also experienced frustrations, grumblings, conflicts, and discontent in their own following; often times, because some followers didn't agree with their methodology, or they were not moving fast enough, or because of fear of the consequences. This is when these leaders were caught in the middle, between their vision and those conspiring against their vision.
The vast majority of leaders, however, are not the Martin Luther King's, Gandhi's or the Mandela's of the world. These are the people leading change within their organizations. They have a vision of where the organization ought to be - they see a future different from the present. Take for example, a leader who sees an organization where people are engaged, work inter-dependently within independent teams, take ownership, responsibility and accountability for their actions, and where bureaucratic barriers are removed so that communication is freely exchanged, and work gets done in flow rather than in fits and starts. The difficulty they face are with people who are stuck in the past, who fear the ambiguity of change and drag the process backward rather than forward, or as one CEO told me, "we do the two-step shuffle, one step forward and one step backward, then two steps forward and one back - we don't seem to be going anywhere fast!" He is caught in the middle, always juggling the realities of the present with the vision of the future state.
The cycle of organizational change goes like this: Leaders explain their vision, people are initially excited as they see the possibilities of what could be; a leadership team is formed and becomes passionate and aligned with the vision; part way through the change process they encounter difficulties exhibited by frustrations, grumbling and push-back, both overt and covert, from those who were comfortable in the old paradigm; and, then with leadership determination, engagement, and persistence breakthrough gradually solidifies and a new way of doing things finally takes hold.
It's during the middle part - where back sliding, back biting, and undermining occurs - when leaders and their leadership team begin to become frustrated, discouraged and wonder if its worth the challenge. Sometimes they begin to coast and they too begin to back slide. They are caught in the middle - between the vision and pull-back to the old comfort zone.
It is precisely during these times when leaders and the leadership team need resolve, resilience and the re-commitment to their vision. They need to bridge the gap from where they are to the other side, over the river of negativity that flows beneath them. The bridge cannot stop in middle of construction or else the other side will never be reached, and all the gains made will tumble into the raging waters below. The naysayers will have won.
It is puzzling for some leaders and managers why people, who initially seemed extremely excited about a new prospect, fall back to negative undermining. My next post will explore this reality found within the change process.
Author: Richard P. Fontanie, MSW, FCMC.