Inside out: lead yourself before you lead organisational change

Friday, April 22, 2016 - 13:53

By Michell Gibbings

Conscious change leaders are not one dimensional.  They work across boundaries, challenge dominant paradigms, and lead others to thrive through change. Most importantly, they know that successful organisational transformation involves personal change for them.

Start from the inside out

It’s much easier for a leader to sit back and identify how team members or colleagues need to change, than to identify what may need to change in them. To effectively lead change, leaders need to firstly understand themselves and then be open to shifting their mindset, operating style and behaviour to suit the context of the change. Harvard professors, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, who have studied why many crucial change efforts fail, found that one of the core problems is the gap between what is required and a leader’s own level of development.

In their book, How the way we talk can change the way we work, they state: “…it may be nearly impossible for us to bring about any important change in a system or organisation without changing ourselves (at least somewhat)…”

Understanding what changes are required goes beyond pinpointing new technical skills.  It’s about delving into the meaning that drives a leader’s behaviour, and the mental models they apply to the decisions they make.  The prism through which a leader views the world shapes how they think, react and act. 

Mitigate the bias

Bias pervades decision making, and most of it happens at the sub-conscious level. This is because people don’t make decisions on facts alone.  They make decisions on hunches, feelings and gut reactions.  The brain discards information that doesn’t fit with its world view.  It takes short cuts when it makes decisions, and it can be easily influenced. Conscious change leaders are aware of this. They invite diversity of thought, and welcome challenging ideas and dissenting opinions, knowing it will lead to better discussion and ultimately, more progress and sustainable business outcomes.

Adopt a growth mindset

A leader’s mindset will impact how the change is initiated, implemented and sustained, depending on whether they are adopting a fixed or growth mindset. These terms were coined by the world renowned Stanford academic, Carol Dweck. People who have a fixed mindset see intelligence as static – a fixed trait.   They want to always look smart and have all the answers, believing that success is based on talent alone – not work.  In contrast, people with a growth mindset believe that intelligence can be developed through effort.  They are more eager to embrace learning, take on challenges and persist, despite setbacks. 

It is the growth mindset that helps the leader be best positioned to support their team through change, and to navigate the inevitable complexity and ambiguity that arises.  Adopting a growth mindset creates an approach where the leader is more open to feedback, trying new things and reflecting on their behaviour.

Match words and actions

People notice what a leader does and doesn’t do, particularly when there are variances between what they espouse as their leadership values and their actions.  

Perceptions of inequity, unfairness, and poor or absent leadership become intensified during periods of change. It becomes more important than ever for leaders to consider: 

  • What they pay attention to and prioritise
  • How they react when things go wrong and are under pressure
  • How they allocate resources and rewards, and recruit and promote

What they say and don’t say, and what they do and don’t do shapes and defines their brand.

Get focused

It’s easy to get excited about a new change initiative. As the work starts, challenges will inevitably be encountered.  What looked easy in the beginning, seems much harder in the middle. The leader has two options: lose their nerve, or confront the challenges head on.

Conscious change leaders step up to this challenge, focusing on:

  • Eliminating the friction in the system that makes the change harder than it needs to be
  • Being clear about the project’s goals and what every person needs to do to get there
  • Problem solving and looking for different ways to make the change happen
  • The progress that has been made and keeping it visible

If leaders want to accelerate their progress in complex environments they embrace their role in the change and empower those around them to act.  They don’t delegate leadership to someone else – they step up and lead.

Michelle Gibbings is a change and leadership expert and founder of Change Meridian.  Michelle works with leaders and teams to help them accelerate progress. She is the Author of ‘Step Up: How to Build Your Influence at Work’. For more information: