Choice is a critical element in being a leader. This choice is made daily, during challenging times, moment to moment. The choice to be a leader can be thought of as choosing between the comfortable and familiar vs. potential discomfort and unfamiliarity. Articulating this choice so as to be understood is challenging.
Robert Frost gives us a wonderful analogy for this choice, and the journey which follows in his classic poem, “The Road Not Taken”. This poem describes the story of a person walking in the woods who comes to a fork in the road and has to choose one of the two paths. The choice is between the familiar and comfortable vs. the less familiar and therefore less comfortable. This poem speaks to the heart of the matter for being a leader. The poem reflects a personal choice that is faced, like a fork in the road. The road less traveled is the only one that will create sufficient possibility for enrolling and inspiring others. The road frequently taken is the comfortable, familiar road that will feel good but not produce the desired outcomes.
The “Road Less Traveled” begins with personal choice, which is essential in being a leader. Becoming a leader requires choosing to change personally. This change includes letting go of prior assessments of others and self and being open to new ways of thinking. Altering mindset is often the biggest change to be made. These personal changes could include:
- Creating possibilities for the organization that are innovative. That is, have not been done, are not predictable at this point, and could well fail.
- Commit to be and do what is needed to provide the leadership that will engage others in making these possibilities for future available to explore.
- Once a choice to pursue a new future is taken, to provide the leadership to mobilize your core leaders to get into action.
- Be willing to try new approaches, rather than insisting that we have always done it that way
- Allow new people to emerge as leaders
- Giving up deep resentments about how management of the business has acted in the past. This can include executives, managers and supervisors.
- Allow “legacy issues” to remain in the past, rather than continuing to be brought into the present as well as trust into the future
- Letting go of biases about corporate headquarters, other departments and groups
- Minimizing the various agendas that occur between union leaders and various members of management.
Unfortunately, some executives approach transforming their organizations as if it was like conducting a United Way campaign. An announcement is made as to who is leading this year’s campaign, and that person follows the existing script for running such a campaign. The predictable steps include putting posters around the offices and installing a large “thermometer graph” that visually displays the progress to goal. As long as the pledges come in as expected, the executive in charge of the fund drive does little, other than maybe a lunch meeting here or there. If the pledges do not come in as expected, then the executive begins talking to the managers of the departments where the pledges are lower than expected. Assuming the pledges pick up from that area, little else is done. If on the other hand, the pledges do not pick up then the executive in charge begins “leaning” on the managers to get their attention. These managers in turn talk to their employees to make at least a token contribution. Please understand these comments are about how organizations manage programs, not anything to do with the United Way. United Way is a wonderful organization that does much needed work in communities.
Most organizations have a well establishment methodology for conducting programs. Programs are the 'Road Most Traveled'. This familiar path works for programs, not organizational transformation.
In the programmatic approach to change, executives agree that improvement in performance is needed. Usually there is also a concept or general idea of how performance will be improved. There is not, however, a sufficient understanding of how this concept or general idea will actually change the organization and improve performance. Instead, this loose association with the need and actions is translated into superficial statements about how change and performance improvement is needed. What is unrecognized and unsaid is some version of “but don’t take much of my time and do not upset any of my direct reports”. What is communicated is “I’m too busy to be involved”. Whether it is purposeful of not, the executive(s) launch a change program with a design that is familiar and safe. It is, however, unlikely to produce meaningful change, and certainly not transformational change.
Transformational change requires leaders to:
- Become personally involved
- Understand that transformation requires more than a memo and a speech
- Appreciate that transformation will produce dramatic changes, which will be upsetting to managers who have become successful under the old way of working and see any change as a direct threat to their comfort and positions
- Commit to get involved in all “the mess” that comes with providing transformational leadership.
Usually the executive is unaware that absent their active leadership, the transformation project is essentially doomed. While the intentions for starting the transformation may have been good, the executive took the wrong road … they took the Road Most Traveled.
Leading Transformational Change
This choice between the Road Most Traveled and Road Less Traveled is the path of leadership to be taken. It is the choice between,
- comfortable vs. uncomfortable
- familiar vs. unfamiliar
- safe vs. risky
While the executives often view this choice as “What it means to me,” it is also a choice which will affect the lives of many employees and stakeholders of the organization. While the Road More Traveled is comfortable, familiar and safe, the probability of successful change is low. The greater probability of success comes from taking the Road Less Traveled, but it is unfamiliar, uncomfortable and perceived to have greater risks.
A common mistake that executives make is to start off on the familiar Road Most Traveled with the assumption that if this does not work out well, then a change will be made to the Road Less Traveled. These executives like to think they can retrace their steps if they discover the chosen path is not satisfactory, yet rarely is that the case.
When an executive chooses to be a leader of transformation, a major hurdle in organizational transformation is cleared. This sets in place the opportunity for others to choose, which as it turns out is a key ingredient for success in transformation. Choice is necessary if people are to commit and become enrolled. Absent choice, people feel that they are forced to accept, which leads to compliant behavior but not commitment. Feeling forced to do something is also the origin of resistance, which is literally pushing back. Successful transformations involve creating a “pull” from people in the organization who are committed to achieving something better for the business.
While it may seem odd to hear that having executive(s) choosing to commit is one of the most important steps in transforming a business, nonetheless that is the case. Choice is the crucial first step in the journey. What’s more, there is a preferred sequence of the executives choosing first. That is, the executives who are accountable for the business and its results being the first to come to the realization that a transformation is needed and choosing to step forward to be the source of the transformation. In those cases where the executives are the initiators and acting, willing participants, the transformations have high chance of success. The opposite is also true.
Being an executive leader of a successful transformation begins with choice. It sounds simple enough. Yet in practice it is where many attempts at transformation get started heading off the tracks.
The Road Less Traveled
Beginning this Road Less Traveled is actually quite simple. It begins with thinking about the fork in the road and the consequences of the two paths. The leader who is enrolled in the possibility of the future for the organization and has enrolled others will absolutely choose the Road Less Traveled.
Transformation requires many people to choose to go down a road less traveled. Yet it is best when the executives and managers set the example by being the first ones to go down a different road. The road less traveled for executives begins with a choice to be personally involved in the transformation. This is leadership in action, not just in title. This is when an executive chooses to become a transformational leader and provide what is needed so that the transformation will be successful.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference
The road less traveled is to choose to become a transformational leader and begin a unique journey as an executive leader in the business as it executes transformation. It is to be willing to be open to learning while:
- Engaging and develop other leaders,
- Creating a compelling future for the business that can be achieved only through engagement of others in the transformation,
- Communicating commitments for the future of the business so that others can hear and experience having a choice of becoming involved
- Engaging others in a manner that “wins the hearts and minds” of employees and other key stakeholders
- Inspire other people in being great
- Developing organizational capabilities to work in new ways
- Sustaining involvement and action even when the going gets tough and people want to wander off and do something else
- Deliver exceptional business results
The Road More Traveled
For those who are not enrolled in being a leader, the Road More Traveled is preferred. The comfortable and familiar is the most common path taken in planning organizational change. This familiar path has worked in the past. Getting agreement on familiar approaches to change is easier. Executives and managers say, “this change is a good idea” and “I’m all for it”. While this speaking sounds positive, the speaker actually has little personal investment or involvement in the change effort. There is assumption of delegation of the change project to someone else, often to a staff group. This allows the executives and managers to be only marginally involved. This titular involvement is the comfortable choice to take at the fork in the road. By taking this fork in the road, few personal changes are required. Too often, however, the comfortable, titular approach does not achieve the needed changes and the organization falters and falls further behind.
Given the magnitude of competitor innovation, disruptive technologies, and fierce global competition, playing it safe with familiar approaches to change simply does not work. The “road most often taken” does not end well. Instead what is needed is to take the new path, or the road less often. The “titular involvement” of executives and managers is not leadership, now will it produce organizational transformation. An executive or manager using their title as support, without intense personal involvement is common. It is also at the heart of why so many organizational transformation efforts fail.
The unfamiliar path involves transformational levels of change, which in turn requires real leadership. Choosing to be a leader involves personal change, which is at best unfamiliar. Choosing to lead also requires becoming involved and getting your hands dirty.
Yet, the Road Less Traveled is the path for leaders who are committed to transformation of their organizations.
Growing a business is a daunting task for many, if not most, executives. While growth is considered fun, and what executives dream of being engaged in, achieving sustainable growth is another story.
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