“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”
“For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order.”
So. This is a discussion I had with myself recently with regard to change and creating a new order of things.
The mental discussion centered on two questions:
- is it really chaos <blank slate change> ?
- or is it more often reordering <assigning disparate ‘things’ into a new alignment> ?
I thought about this as I scanned the words of two of the most skewered policy makers of all time – Machiavelli and Kissinger. King makers and country breakers are thoughts that come to mind with those two names.
And, yet, both Diplomacy <Kissinger> and The Prince <Machiavelli> are must reads for anyone interested in foreign policy and diplomatic leadership. They both made me rethink some things I have thought about change and leading it.
The main thing I thought of was … well … the ‘leading’ part. Leading is what leaders do. That’s what you get paid to do. You see where you want the business to go, look at what needs to change to make it happen and then start leading the change.
Both Kissinger and Machiavelli discussed this as ‘shaping the arc of history.’ I would imagine neither would balk at a statement like this … “we will move forward, because if we do not move forward, what is to be said about us?”
If you read any Machiavelli he can come across as an arrogant immoral power hungry egotistical asshat.
If you read any Kissinger he can come across as an arrogant immoral power hungry egotistical asshat.
But both also can be read as incredibly smart insightful global thinkers whose mindset was always shaping the arc of history and countries rather than adapting to the world at hand. It is within the ‘shaping’ where both of them identified leadership. Their version of ‘shaping’ meant doing things to instigate change as well as envisioning what could be and stepping in to guide toward it or stop it from happening <which is easy to criticize in reflecting>.
Machiavelli unequivocally espoused an amoral approach to obtaining power and counseled the ambitious Prince to be prepared to commit heinous acts, acts most of us would not consider viable actions to take, in order to rise in position.
I am not espousing that.
The bigger learnings arise as you dig a little deeper into what he writes where you will find the wiser kernels of truth.
The biggest truth? To be a reformer, to be a change agent, to lead in the introduction of a new order of things, well, you have to shape the arc of change that others are instigating.
Ah. Now this is where I had to start doing some rethinking in my own head. While I do prescribe to the ‘shape the arc of history & change’ leadership thought, I, as most of us do, see this as envisioning and creating the necessary change not shaping the arc of change. This is where change leadership gets tricky <if you accept that a leader wants to shape the arc of change>.
There are millions of articles, billions of pieces of advice, hundreds of designed programs and dozens of studied cases with regard to leading change. Leadership change is big time business.
Well. Here is the problem with all that change wisdom.
Most change is actually not leader driven, but rather people driven.
Yeah. Sometimes we, as leaders, are so focused on the change we want to make or encourage we ignore, or are oblivious to, the never-ending embers of change within the population of the business.
And, yes, I purposefully used “embers.”
Every healthy organization is teeming with ideas of what should be done as well as about what is being done — let’s call these ‘the embers within the population.’ Inevitably the embers will die, flame up and then out or become a forest fire. Part of what a leader needs to discern is which fires will flame out on their own, which flames may start burning uncontrollably and which fires should be nurtured.
But, suffice it to say, embers exist in any organization and population worth a shit. Some is discontent, some may simply be passion that just needs to be directed & focused and some, well, some are the embers of a real revolution <real change>. And even revolution can take on different faces.
There can be an organizational changing revolution — one which demands leadership to change or die.
There can be an organizational shifting revolution — one which demands the leadership to recognize a new & better way of doing things or thinking about things.
But when change comes from the population … leaders get uncomfortable. This discomfort is beyond the simple ‘it was not my idea’ crap.
Think about it this way.
A leader’s natural reaction to almost anything is to control.
Out of control = bad.
Control = good.
The difficulty with people driven change is that it automatically falls into the ‘out of control’ bucket in a leaders head because they <a> didn’t think of it or <b> they didn’t instigate it or <c> they didn’t even create the arc.
This is where I really needed to think. Because, as a leader, I could discuss leadership driven change until the end of time. But managing and guiding and fostering population driven change? Well. That’s different. Other than ‘idea boxes’ and ‘brain storming meetings’ and ‘organizational improvement ideas’ most of us leader types don’t actively think about change management as ‘employee revolution management.’
It demands a different set of skills. You would have to dump many of the tried & true tools. You would have to maybe not throw out the old handbook of ‘change management’, but you certainly have to put on more of a ‘herder cap’ and a ‘respond to the context and situation hat’ rather than leading and ‘linear responses.’
Now. I will suggest that any leader who wants to keep their sanity shouldn’t invest a shitload of energy trying to uncover embers. I would rather suggest time is better spent continuously feeding oxygen into the population so that the embers which could flame up do so and the ones which will inevitably suffocate and smother themselves will do so on their own.
<everyone should note that dictator and autocrat type leaders would absolutely hate that last thought>
Good leaders just need to face the fact that sometimes opportunity does not always arise when you want it to. Sometimes you need to create the opportunity <because it is the right time for you> and sometimes you have shape the opportunity that is placed in your lap.
I will say that population revolutions, more often than not, are grounded in some real pragmatic and positive thoughts. The direction may be misguided but the embers are real and warm and worth nurturing.
I say that because this means revolutions driven by people more often than not exist in a structured world, not chaos, defined by some natural laws of behavior which are sometimes missed because of the revolutionary weird, incredible things that begin happening. A leader has to try to make sense of all aspects and bring the worlds together to create the necessary change <in this case … this is where the leadership occurs and not in the definition of the change>.
I will also suggest, as I think about his, it is often not productive to try to understand and explain the origins and consequences of ‘embers’ in any sensible way.
It is not productive because where you isolate the ‘logical beginnings’ you will most likely be creating ‘logic’ which wasn’t really there — it only exists in hindsight. That thought can be maddening to a leader. We like logic, pragmatism and reasons to point to. But change, when driven by the population, is not your change to define … it is to guide.
The reasons are the reasons, their reasons are their reasons … but as long as the change is reasonable and offers a reason to encourage … the origins have little relevance. You have to jump on board, buckle up, hold on tight and shape an arc of history, of change, which you do not instigate but want to ‘lead.’
In all of this <going back to both Kissinger & Machiavelli> I am not advocating suspending commonplace ethics as a means to achieve your ends, but I will suggest innovating and radical change is hard. It’s hard not because people don’t like change but because, more often than not, real change translates into real loss to those embracing the ‘old order.’ Humans, in general, have a strong aversion to loss and those who actually have a lot to lose … well … they have a lot stronger aversion to loss.
That means they will do their best to resist and block it.
Uhm. That includes us leaders too.
If it is revolution change, change driven by the population and not by us, we actually have the potential to lose a lot. And to grasp this opportunity you have to face your natural strong aversion to the potential loss. This is where I believe Kissinger& Machiavelli missed a point <well … they may not have missed it … their vision was always to shape and not adapt to what is being shaped>.
You cannot always control everything. Sometimes you have to choose what you will control and accept what you cannot.
And that is why I vehemently balk when Machiavelli counsels leaders to avoid the common values of justice, mercy, temperance, wisdom, and love of their people in preference to the use of cruelty, violence, fear, and deception. That is a sign of ‘control everything’ to, me …and control at any cost.
I don’t buy it. I don’t like it. And I will not do it.
While Machiavelli certainly views implementing a ‘new order’ under the guise of a realist or a pragmatist, I believe there are certain rules of engagement that must be maintained to insure an outcome that retains some purpose <and soul> beyond simple greed or personal enhancement.
Change comes from a variety of directions. And I can almost guarantee that you, as a leader, are not the only ones facing major strategic decisions – in general and with change. You can assume all actors in the play are contemplating change & decisions <hence the embers>. And every ember is building to their fire in some fundamental way. Deciding its place in the order of things. deciding the goals of any confrontations. Deciding its purpose. Deciding its meaning and, ultimately, deciding the meaning of their revolution and grappling with an aftermath often difficult to envision.
That is where this type of change leadership occurs. Envisioning the aftermath of something you didn’t instigate. Envisioning your relationship to a revolution not fully settled and not fully defined.
You have to assume the responsibility of a signpost to an awakened change which is being driven by the needs & wants & desires of the general population/people. This actually means you have got to fundamentally rethink who you are as a leader as well as how you envision your role as a leader. In this case leading means envisioning where it all goes rather than having thought out where it goes <and pointing the way>.
A change agent leader responding to a desire for revolution needs shed some of the current situation where it’s appropriate and convert the embers & fire into efforts to stop the bad and force the good.
Taking the lead in the introduction of a new order of things can take on a variety of leadership vectors. One is creating & shaping and another is guiding & shaping.
We often talk about the former.
But maybe we need to talk about the latter more often.
Originally posted November 2015