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Once More from the Top: becoming the tool for change

The architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller once said:

“If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don't bother trying to teach them. Instead, give them a tool the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking”

Humans are naturally social creatures. We crave company, and seek out like-minded individuals with whom we work towards common goals. Our innate ability to pull together is, however, limited: we cannot maintain close social bonds with everybody. Each of us can count a maximum of approximately 150 people (Dunbar’s number) in our inner circle. Much of that is used up by family and friendships, leaving a restricted “budget” for work colleagues.

It follows that once a business has grown beyond the cosy atmosphere of a start-up, we need more than personal leadership to give it coherence and direction: we need organisation. Roles, relationships, duties and processes all become more formalised as the enterprise seeks to become something independent of, and capable of enduring beyond, the individuals of which it is composed. Yet hierarchical organisation, although necessary, has one inescapable downside: unlike a relationship with another human being, which is fluid and constantly evolving, it is a dead weight, static and unchanging. Little wonder that formally organised businesses constantly struggle to enact goals, for goals imply change – “same again” is not a goal.

Leading change is hard because change in individuals is hard: people are not the programmable, interchangeable robots that formal structures present them to be. Simply telling people to change doesn’t work; ordering people to change doesn’t really work either. At best, we get a grudging compliance; at worst, sabotage. It can be tempting to side-step this reality and steer towards a goal through organisation alone, creating ever more carefully defined procedures, measurements and incentives to coerce unruly humans along our desired channel; but people are not such simple devices. Stimulus in, behaviour out: everyone we know – our inner circle of 150 or so – isn’t like that; but we can forget that everyone else is just as complex.

We can instead work with human nature rather than of in opposition to it. You have a social relationship with the colleagues that are close to you in the organisation’s structure. They in turn have relationships with others, and so on: a set of overlapping circles of influence. Although the business’s rules and procedures prevent groups with little or no direct contact from experiencing culture shock when they do interact, it is the social group that transmits change.

Delivering change is about altering habits. Habits change through repeated action. Actions are learned by example. An effective leader, then, produces change by first embodying the goal as it relates to their role, and demonstrating the benefits to their own circle. Crucially, as these people take up the goal in turn, the leader backs them up through the inevitable challenges and missteps. New habits spread down and through the organisation, as each individual is allowed to retain their individuality in the way they deliver the goal. In this approach, there is no place nor need for “do as I say, not as I do.”

Leading from the top does not begin and end with a grand gesture pointing towards a “sunlit upland” (to borrow a phrase du jour); the leader, by exemplifying and supporting their goal, by being the rock against which others can brace themselves to resist the pressures of expediency, becomes the tool that allows new ways of thinking and working to evolve.

If you found this post interesting then you may like to check out our personal change management and other courses here.

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