Sunday, 10 January 2010

Viral Change (TM) is good leadership in action

Continuing my series on Viral ChangeTM, I wanted to consider the role of leadership in the process of such a cultural change programme.

The Leadership Paradigm
Firstly we need to unpick our paradigms of leadership. When you hear the word – leadership –what immediately comes into your mind? What do you see, hear or feel? For most of us, if we are honest, we see person(s) in some position of authority who are directing, controlling and guiding the organisation. If we are Gen-Xers rather than baby-boomers (and I do recognise that I am guilty of generalising here) we perhaps see these people as ‘enablers’ too.

So what is leadership? It is a word that has become a generalisation or rather, a nominalisation. This means that what is actually a process word, which implies movement and doing, has been turned into a fixed form of a noun. This is a lazy way for our brains to give a label to what is actually a complex process. But in so doing, our language forms our reality and this means that we over simplify and miss the deeper meaning of ‘leadership’ or rather the process of leading.

Who’s the Leader?
How many of those lucky people designated as ‘leaders’ are now rallying for more example of leadership from the ranks? How many claim that ‘everyone is a leader’. Yet as Mike Cook says in his recent blog post; how many of them actually mean that they want to see more ‘do as I want you to-ship’.

Now, you already know that Viral ChangeTM is not linear, mechanistic, top down change but organic and spread through peer to peer networks. Of course, different challenges and contexts require different processes for leading but at its very heart leadership is done through example: being the change you want to see (to quote Gandhi). And, as Warren Bennis says “Letting the self emerge is the essential task of leaders”.

Do you notice two key words here:
• Being
• Letting (or allowing)

How many of us do you think truly understand, yet alone embody, the concept of leadership as ‘being’ as opposed to ‘doing’ and ‘allowing’ rather than ‘directing/controlling’?

And this is exactly why Viral ChangeTM is the process of leadership in action! And it is also why many leaders are actually VERY uncomfortable with the whole idea of Viral ChangeTM and certainly what presents itself as the main challenge for leaders undertaking a Viral ChangeTM project.

The true leaders in Viral ChangeTM are the employees ‘chosen’ to be the change catalysts. As leaders they need to be ‘allowed’ to influence change in their peer networks, to challenge the status quo and to rally action. Essentially they become the change that you want to see in your organisation.

So what do the ‘traditional’ leadership (senior management, CEO etc)have to do to ‘allow’ this to happen:

• They need to live and breathe the non-negotiable behaviours – they are examplars and it will all flounder if they don’t ‘walk the talk’
• They need to learn to feel comfortable with feeling uncomfortable
• They need to put mechanisms in place to allow the new leaders – certainly at first this means overt support mechanisms to nurture and support the change catalysts
• They need to be seen to be supporting them
• They need to proactively reap the fruits of the change that the new leaders achieve – for example have ways of solidifying and reinforcing new processes and ideas

In short, they need to let go and notice how, in such letting go, how change is allowed to happen!

Further reading

1. HBR, How Gen X Leads

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