Leading Change: The Courage to Listen


Leading Change: The Courage to Listen

Today’s organizations are beset by the pressure to change and to change fast. Some changes come from shifts in economic policy, the ASEAN integration, for example. What would happen to talent development and retention when any organization in the ASEAN could recruit the best of the best? How can an organization take advantage of a regional value chain? Other changes come from technology advances. What is the impact of such advances in developing, manufacturing, distributing, and retailing products and services? How would organizations know what customers want and give it to them at the time they want it? More changes are coming from the changing employee profile with younger generations entering the workplace and bringing with them new ways of working, new ideas, and access to other means of employment and enterprise. Many of them will rise to management positions and lead those older than they are. Many of them will have a better understanding of global commerce. The employment profile would also change, given that some jobs are slowly being automated and turned over to artificial intelligence.

What does this all mean for the organization? More importantly, what does this mean for the leader of an organization? What stance must a leader take? Times of great change require a leader to ask important questions and to listen – and to invite the rest of the organization to do the same.

What must a leader listen for?

  • Listening for the pulse of the system. The balcony and the dance floor. Heifetz and Linsky [1] created this metaphor in their book, Leadership on the Line.Many leaders are on the dance floor where the action is – sometimes, too close to the action. The best leaders spend away time and go to the balcony – to observe patterns on the dance floor, to rest, to generate new ideas. Business literature is replete with examples of successful leaders who took purposeful breaks – Warren Buffet, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Sir Richard Branson. The literature also is littered with examples of leaders who did not take a step back and made costly – if not fatal – decisions.
  •  Listening for one’s role in the present system. [2] Oftentimes, leaders look outwards only for what needs to be changed – the organization needs to be changed, employee mindsets need to be change, consumer preferences need to be change. A leader, however, is part of the system that needs to be changed. Hence one who leads change should ask: What is my role in the current system? What do I bring to the change? How do I get people to be more involved? By looking inward, a leader learns to acknowledge where he has contributed to the status quo by choosing invulnerability over trust, harmony over conflict, certainty over clarity, popularity over accountability, and status over results.[3]
  • Listening to the whole and not just the parts.[4] Many change efforts fail because it is focuses only on changing one part of an organization – the part faced with the challenge. People get sent to workshops: Boomers and Xers learn how to “handle” millennials; R&D guys get sent to innovation school; promising yet troublesome executives get sent to coaching on emotional intelligence; and a new retailing system is installed that uses more AI technology than real people. Organizational reality, however, is more complex. Millennials do not like being handled.  Successful innovation [5] involves more than producing cool products and includes changing the innermost workings of the organization and the way customers experience the organization. A leader thus asks: how is one problem connected to other parts of the organization? How must others be involved in developing solutions? Do I need to know all the answers?

What is your system telling you?

[1]Heifetz, R. and Linsky, R (2002). Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading.

[2]Senge, Peter (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. Chapter 8: Personal Mastery.

[3]Lencioni, P.(1998). The Five Temptations of a CEO.

[4]Senge.The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. Chapter 2. Does your organization have a learning disability?

[5]Keeley, L. (2013). Ten Types of Innovation: The Discipline of Building Breakthroughs.