“Get the resisters on board–that’s why we’re bringing you in” is what I often hear from leaders when change processes aren’t going smoothly. In most cases, though, a few simple yet profound changes in leadership attitudes and practices are what is really needed. Here are three mind shifts I’ve seen in effective leaders:
1. Instead of Leading, Think Leading and Listening
As a school leader I know stepped into a new principalship, he told the staff, “I’ll be spending this first year listening, watching and dialoguing with you to understand the strengths and needs of this particular community of learners.”
No one believed him.
“When are you announcing your big initiatives?” everyone kept asking him. “Right, you’re listening, but just like all the other principals, you’ve already got a plan chock full of changes.” This leader honestly didn’t. He had clear values regarding teaching and learning, but one of those values is that it takes time to understand a new culture. And, to change without understanding is dangerous. Once he understood the culture, he worked with his leadership team to carefully choose what would change.
2. Instead of Change, Think Continuity and Change
That leads straight to my second mindset shift–too many leaders believe that the way to make their mark is with big changes. They throw out everything, ignoring at least two key realities:
- Change takes time. Too often, new leaders toss out initiatives that are barely underway–many deep changes (think establishing a new sales culture or mathematics curriculum or team structure) need three to five years to show real results.
- Usually, at least a few things are working well. Tossing out what truly works via this “make-your-mark” mentality simply fosters resistance to good things in the new leader’s agenda.
After 3 years of intense effort, one team I had been working with was just beginning to see results with the new strategies that had challenged their beliefs and gone against deep-seeded habits. Then, in came a new leader who dismantled the team and discarded the structures. The result?
- Deep discouragement
- Lack of energy for new ideas
- Extinguished hope that hard effort would bring results
- Fear of change.
Quite a handicap for that new leader, created by her own actions…
3. Instead of Instant Results, Think Short-Term and Long-Term
As stated above, effective, sustainable change–the kind that involves habits and beliefs–may take 3-5 years before significant returns are seen. Given how frequently leaders come and go, and their tendency to over-focus on change to the neglect of continuity, is it any wonder that “new strategic initiatives” breed cynicism and resistance rather than excitement and engagement?
Yes, you need short-term measures of whether a new strategy is working, but short-term goals tied to bottom-line profits or student test score gains can lead to poor strategies, or unsustainable practices, rather than long-term success. Instead, consider what research-based “proxies” might work as short-term indicators. For example, a recent study showed that while it took years for standardized test scores to improve when students participated in an intensive support program, classroom grades improved almost immediately. The test score gains were eventually huge, but what if that was all that mattered to the school? They’d have dumped the program after a year and gone in search of something “more effective.”
Note that all three mindshifts above are polarities–interdependent systems of values where long-term success requires paying attention to the best of what each has to offer in terms of solution sets. Yes, we need leadership, change and short-term wins, but one can’t truly move forward without also listening, seeing what should continue, and taking a long-term view.
Dealing with these kinds of polarities is what our Intentional Leadership model is all about. It isn’t easy to juggle the opposing ideas and priorities that these mindshifts capture, but no one ever said leadership was easy.