Myth 1: We live in a period of unprecedented change
It is not the first time in human history that people have believed that they live in a period of unprecedented change. Heraclitus (who gave us the famous quote about change being the only constant) was an ancient Greek who lived in the fifth century BCE. Millenarians in the seventeenth century believed that conditions had reached the point where Christ was about to return to earth.
In the twentieth century, people from different perspectives repeatedly argued that everything has changed. In the 1930s, for Communists and Fascists alike, global capitalism and liberal democracy were spent forces. The world was racing to a new future.
In the 1960s many felt a new age of social and economic liberation had dawned. In 1990, with the collapse of Communism, there was the so-called ‘end of history’.
The absence of a proper historical sense is profoundly dangerous. Organizations that have no sense of history do not know where they come from or who they are. It means people have no perspective and are prey to every passing management fad.
Myth 2: Change is good for you
Ignoring the past, disdaining the present and fleeing into an imagined perfect future is what totalitarian regimes have done, from Stalin onwards. The gap between reality and the ideal vision is perhaps typical of organizations and societies dedicated to being blindly rational, efficient and plannable. Such organizations also tend to live for the future and denigrate the present as part of a bad past. Change becomes compulsory in the service of a better future and is no longer seen as evolutionary; as a mechanism of adaptation to deal with altered circumstances.
Leaders also need to focus on continuity, the other side of organizational development. Change and continuity are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other. Individuals and organizations need change in order to sustain their essence. They need to be clear about what this essence is. And they need continuity for sanity and safety.
Change is not always good. Constant upheaval can damage and destroy the social fabric that holds organizations together and makes them special.
Leaders need to trust themselves more, to be kinder to themselves and accept the world more as it is. They would then come to a more realistic view of what change is needed and what continuity.
Leaders need to see themselves as part of the change (and continuity) process. They need to model the change (and continuity) they want to see; to find out what’s needed as they develop their own behaviours and values. It’s the example people follow, not all the PowerPoint presentations and speeches.
Myth 3: People naturally resist change
‘Change’, in the abstract, has been reified and made into an object. Leaders are often keen on recommending change for others. It is less clear what change they are taking on themselves.
We suggest that the business schools and consultancies re-join the rest of human culture. Change is not a thing that stands alone in life. It is part and parcel of everything we do. From the moment we leave our mother’s womb we are all familiar with profound changes. We experience the whole range of responses, from joy to deep sorrow or denial.
We also wonder why leaders want to paint ‘them’ as hostile to change and ‘us’ or ‘me’ as able to lead change. What is it about themselves that causes some individuals to split people in this way? Many leaders seem to project their feelings of inadequacy onto others and the world at large.
Leaders need to trust their people. They should reach out and ask others: What change and what continuity do you want? What matters most to you? What is your vision?
Myth 4: The role of leaders is to drive change
Leaders expected to drive change, yet the change that follows is constantly disappointing.
The picture of the lone hero at the centre of the stage, coming up with the strategy and forcing change, is seductive; particularly to the highly driven, personally insecure individuals who reach the top in many companies. But at what cost – to organizations and those in authority?
Magical transformations require magical leaders. Often leaders are expected to wave a magic wand and solve social and organizational issues that have developed over many years. No wonder so many leaders go from ‘Hero’ to ‘Zero’ in public estimation.
We have seen the failures when well-intentioned leaders talk about the need for ‘change’ in the abstract, and it is heard by many as an attack on what they do and who they are.
Organizations are not machines. They are living entities with dynamics of their own. Cause and effect are complex and unpredictable.
A more doable, less fanciful idea of leadership is needed; one that takes account of the interdependence of leaders and those around them. One that acknowledges that many of the factors that lead to success are the properties of collectives, not individuals, and of the cultural and institutional infrastructure on which organizations depend.
About the Authors
George Binney (binney.info) is a coach and consultant at Ashridge Hult Business School. He entered business after qualifying as a barrister and worked for GEC, Courtaulds, and as a consultant for McKinsey. He is the co-author of Living Leadership (2012) and Leaning into the Future (1997).
Philip Glanfield is a consultant and coach at Ashridge Hult Business School. Previously he was a social worker, a probation officer and then a hospital director in the UK’s National Health Service.
Gerhard Wilke is an anthropologist and group analyst. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of General Practitioners and co-author of Living Leadership (2012).
Binney, Glanfield and Wilke are the authors of Breaking Free of Bonkers: How to Lead in Today’s Crazy World of Organizations (Nicholas Brealey, 2017).