Pretender or Contender?: A Leadership Case Study

I have good news. You need far less than you think in order make a fundamental change: personally, professionally, or organizationally.

The tough news is that making a firm decision to actually change is hard. In fact, it’s the hardest part of any transformation process.

Very few leaders have had the life-experience or the deliberate mentorship to learn how to do this strategically, deliberately, and on demand when circumstances require it. Most of us do not confidently sail into the future - at least in all areas of life. We are dragged into it. If you're like me, often kicking and screaming.

And yet, this is one of the key factors that separates a good-enough leader from a great one.

You can’t buy resolve from a consultant. There’s no packaged program of defined steps that will download determination into your psyche. When it’s time to change, you either will or you won’t. It’s entirely in your hands.

As my favorite little green mentor said, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

What the master from Dagoba meant with the above advice is that you must decisively put yourself into a position where you will either definitively succeed in making the change or fail boldly.

To “try” is to hedge your bets, or rather, your ego. To “try" is to leave yourself an out. It’s an attempt to bet on yourself, while wagering as little as possible. It's the mental equivalent of hoisting the sail, casting off your mooring ropes, putting one foot on the boat, and leaving one foot on the dock. You won't be going anywhere except into the water.

In Lead from the Future: Leading Conflict Principle 9, I discussed how to lead change in an organization by behaving “…as if the thing you want to be true has already happened. Then work backward to fill in the relational or cultural architecture that will cement that reality into place.”

The central fallacy around which many organizational culture-change programs and leadership consultants build their product is that the order of change activities looks something like this:

Present --> New Skill/Process/Program Acquisition --> Change to Desired Future

In reality though, the psychology of change looks more like this:

Present --> Change to Desired Future --> New Skill/Process/Program Acquisition

This means that there’s a definitive, though often overlooked step that comes long before the acquisition of new skills and abilities.

This is the step where a leader must make a definitive decision to step into the future before it is fully formed. This is not simply a trick of “mindset”. It is the tangible and concrete ability to selectively and usually prudently say, “This is happening. Come what may.” Then, back it up with action.

This is hard to teach, which is why most mentors don't sell it. It's the part that most clients want to avoid, often in the vain hope that they can outsource the risk, fear, and doubt related to change.

However, proficiency in this stage of change can be taught or learned from experience. The first step is that leaders and organizations must face what makes this stage hard, namely:

The more you practice those four fundamental principles, the more ready you'll be to make a move and lead from the future (Principle 9) when needed.

If this early step is skipped, no new practice or program will stick. In fact, if this stage of change is neglected, the organization will likely attempt to import change from the outside. This might be framed as needed expertise, insight, or technical support.

In reality, the use of outside resources will simply be an attempt, consciously or unconsciously, to offset uncertainty and the possibility of failure. In other words, the organization will blame the program or experts they hired, and not the real problem, their own leadership proficiencies and internal culture.