Still Moving Leadership – The Inner Game of Leading Change

In my first book, Sustaining Change, co-authored with Malcolm Higgs, we wrote about the four external practices needed to do change well: Attractor (a pull towards purpose); Edge and Tension (amplify disturbance); Container (channeling of anxiety); and Transforming Space (changing the now). These were backed up by solid research. At the time, we also hypothesized that the leaders in our study who were consistently able to do these practices effortlessly – also possessed inner state qualities. They had a certain quality of being. They just seemed to be operating from a deeper, calmer, more intentional and self-aware place.

Since I wrote Sustaining Change I returned to executive leadership myself, and led two major restructurings. In these experiences, I certainly learned what not to do, as well as what to do! But it gave me a deeper insight into what it takes to lead change from the inside. I had to cultivate a certain quality of being at ease with all of experience, to face the tough task of leading complex change in highly uncertain environments. And then, and only then, could my skill as a change leader flourish. Leading change is never easy, but it can be more effort-less.

This led me to go back to the research drawing board. I was curious, what exactly are the inner state qualities a leader needs in today’s uncertain, disruptive, and increasingly uncontrollable world? And how can these qualities best be cultivated?

Over the course of a year I and a research team ran in-depth Behavioural Event Interviews with senior leaders from across the globe and covering multiple industries. Their stories were subjected to rigorous qualitative and quantitative scrutiny. In the stories of high magnitude change where the outcomes were successful, what kind of leadership made the most difference?

Here’s what we found.

Being before doing: we found four inner capacities highly correlated with success in leading change (see below), and, these capacities anteceded and enhanced the four external practices I wrote about in Sustaining Change. Put simply, great change leadership must start on the inside. I had always maintained that ‘change starts with self’. What I had not realized was that this does not mean changing yourself, but, accessing your highest and most conscious self. I strongly believe there is a transformational/servant leader in every one of us – even when our conforming leadership instincts catch us out!

It’s more than mindfulness: the first two inner capacities, Staying Present and Curious and Intentional Responding, relate to what I call ‘pure mindfulness’ capacity; the ability to not get distracted and act impulsively, or be on autopilot. We found these two inner capacities were essential starting points. If leaders stay stuck in habitual response, so will their organizations. However, these were not the differentiating capacities. What did differentiate the leaders who could successfully lead large complex change were two further inner capacities, Tuning into the System, and, Acknowledging the Whole. All four are necessary though and build on each other. Here they are described.

Staying Present: leaders who have this capacity pay close and continual attention to the here-and-now moment without getting distracted or thrown by experience. They can observe what is going on for them (their inner thoughts, feelings, sensations and impulses) calmly and objectively. It’s as if they can “stand on a balcony” and observe themselves – while they are in action. The key skill is a noticing skill – what is here, now? By being able to bring focused and non-judgmental attention to the present moment leaders build a keener awareness of reality, they don’t miss the vital signs occurring in current experience that point to where change is needed. Given today’s world is in constant change, not being present is a serious liability. But it is a challenge as latest Microsoft attention span research shows us that the average time we can now stay focused on one thing before our minds wander is just 8 seconds (down from 12 seconds two years ago)!

Reflect: how much of your waking day is actually spent being present, or, being elsewhere?

Curious and Intentional Responding: leaders who have this capacity use deep awareness and personal intention to slow down the period between what they experience and how they respond to that experience, staying curious and open minded to what arises. They switch their minds from impulsive habitual reaction to creative intentional response. The key skill is a choosing skill. By being able to notice and regulate their emotional and cognitive response to experience, especially troubling experience, they move off autopilot and through resourceful responding can powerfully shape new contexts for themselves and others. Our default mode in stressful changing times is usually anxiety, and when our brains are anxious the fight/flight/freeze coping mechanism from our evolutionary biology kicks in. This doesn’t help us lead change. It keeps us rigid and stuck in defensive behaviour. On the other hand, Curious and Intentional Responding (and boy, it can be an effort), unhooks us from avoidance of difficulty and switches us to a place from which we take disturbance in our stride.

Reflect: can you question your pre-programming?

The next two inner capacities shift the attention from how you show up in experience to your capacity to interpret that experience through a systemic lens. Mindful leaders are alert clean tuning forks to wider systemic dynamics.

Tuning Into the System: we are wired since birth to tune into others and leaders who sustain this capacity, free of personal projection (when your own story clouds what you see), can tune into the emotional climate of self, others and the wider system and put this into an interpretation that accurately and sensitively resonates with others. The key skill is a perceiving skill. By being able to drop into a deeper level of seeing reality they are able to interpret what is being directly experienced as a property of the system, not just the individuals present, leading to powerful diagnosis of what needs changing. This skill was the inner capacity most correlated with successful change leadership. Again, it’s a capacity that our egos wrestle with, as it is far more natural to perceive what we see at face value (“there they go again, resisting the change”) rather than see the deeper structures that are at work (“until we uncover competing loyalties and name them there will always be a “hand brake” on this change).

Reflect: how much of what goes on beneath the surface of your organisation do you miss?

Acknowledging the Whole: this inner capacity was the rarest in our study, yet, the most important for senior leaders who are stewarding change of high scope and high complexity. Leaders with this capacity are able to see that all that arises in experience – and in particular difficulty and disturbance – needs attending to and being given a place so that the whole system can be seen and gain strength. The key skill is an integrating skill. When leaders find the wisdom and capacity to sit with all of experience – including being open to what is not wanted – they can sense and shape the system’s intentionality. By incorporating wobbles (e.g. a meeting in which there was violent disagreement and breakdown) as revelatory and developmental material (“that meeting helpfully showed us what is most dear to people”) they can powerfully guide a system across dangerous yet transforming threshold experiences. Systems are strengthened when diffculty is seen. This skill was in particular associated with successful top leaders of large complex systems.

Reflect: what difficulty might you be excluding right now from your vision, and how can you respectfully give it a purpose and a place?

To summarise, my latest research showed again conclusively that your personal leadership remains the single highest leverage tool to survive and thrive in today’s continually changing world. From it I created a new change leadership framework – Still Moving – that explains over half of the reason why big complex change can be led well. Put simply, by not consciously cultivating its skills you half your chances of achieving successful change outcomes.

Still Moving leadership requires the mastery of eight interconnected skills. The four Still skills I described above are the inner capacities, qualities of being; the four Moving skills are the four external practices, qualities of doing. My research showed convincingly that the inner capacities antecede the external practices. Stillness is first required in order to move well. Change leaders therefore need to work on their own source of behaviour before they can begin to work on the source of their system’s routines. So when I define change as the ‘disturbance of repeating patterns’ this applies equally to your own way of perceiving and acting as it does to the system you are seeking to change.

In the 2017 Thinkers50 Radar Deborah Rowland was named as one of the new generation of management thinkers changing the world of business.

Co-author of Sustaining Change: Leadership That Works (Wiley, 2008), and now, Still Moving: How to Lead Mindful Change (Wiley, 2017), Deborah is a leading thinker, speaker, writer, coach and practitioner in the field of leading large complex change.

Share this article:

Subscribe to our newsletter to keep up to date with the latest and greatest ideas in business, management, and thought leadership.

*mandatory field

Thinkers50 will use the information you provide on this form to be in touch with you and to provide news, updates, and marketing. Please confirm that you agree to have us contact you by clicking below:

You can change your mind at any time by clicking the unsubscribe link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or by contacting us at . We will treat your information with respect. For more information about our privacy practices please visit our website. By clicking below, you agree that we may process your information in accordance with these terms.

We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By clicking below to subscribe, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing. Learn more about Mailchimp's privacy practices here.

Thinkers50 Awards Gala 2023

Join us in celebration of the best in business and management thinking.