Change – The One Constant in Leadership

By Rick Forbus, Ph.D.

Change is the one constant these days. Going back a few years to the beginning of the economic downturn, change and uncertainty have been constant occurrences. As I heard a client say so eloquently once, “The economy and doing business is like good ‘ole Southern weather -Just wait awhile and it will completely shift on you.”

Leading through change and crisis is the pinnacle of great leadership.  Many of my coaching clients aspire to have management and leadership agility with discernment, as they lead their organizations and teams through change. One of the significant discoveries I have made in my coaching practice with executive leaders is that emotion and feeling are more of a consideration than many would reveal to their management teams. Why is this an important consideration when examining the core competencies of leadership? Emotion is a “wild card” when it comes to leadership style and choice. We will look at this again.

There are nine core competencies of leadership in our coaching sessions and workshops at Trove, Inc.:

  • SETTING DIRECTION
  • ALIGNING PEOPLE
  • MOTIVATING AND INSPIRING
  • LEADING TEAMS
  • COMMUNICATING
  • BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS
  • FACILITATING ETHICAL CONDUCT
  • NEGOTIATING
  • LEADING CHANGE

These nine proficiencies are the result of our investigation of core leadership competencies from business schools, government agencies, the military and companies. At Trove, we taken the competencies of many organizations and distilled them to these.  They are in prerequisite order. Notably, leading change is last. Change is one of the core competencies that are normally fraught with emotion. At Trove, we do not attempt to coach, consult or even train apart from the human emotional factor. No matter how hard a leader tries, emotion is the “unseen hand” that leads and guides us into certain management and leadership choices.

The order of these leadership competencies is very specific. For instance, setting direction is a necessary first step for any manager. If a leader is not clear of the mission, purpose, vision or outcome and cannot clarify that vision with a course of action, there’s no need to attempt to lead through change. Again, to coach with only well-worn formulae and trite attempts at mapping a strategic plan, is futile. Knowing mission and purpose gives a calibration benchmark to the other core competencies. Setting direction clearly for others comes from a leader strategically, tactically and even emotionally understanding mission and purpose. One leader taught me in a coaching session this idea. He said. “I have to first buy-in to the mission, emotionally and strategically, before attempting to get anybody else’s buy-in.”

Secondly, why attempt to align people and talent, resources and strategy with something that’s not clear. The importance of the nine capabilities is only trumped by the importance of the exact order in which these competencies are developed. For instance, to align people to purpose presupposes that the leader and others have a clear understanding of what they are aligning to: mission. Motivation and inspiration can easily be leveraged when direction and alignment is achieved. Again, motivation is a “secret sauce” that most leaders seem to want to find for their teams. Leadership success appears to fall out much more easily when a leader has developed good direction-setting skills, alignment capabilities and motivational acumen. As you look down the above list of specifically ordered competencies, then it is easy to see how leading teams, communicating, building relationships, facilitating ethical conduct and negotiating are dependent on the prerequisite order. With my clients, it is evidenced that with each improved competency, inertia and traction toward the competencies are more manifest.

Leadership skills and human behaviors, coupled with the situation-at-hand, bring these core skills into motion with fluidity and spontaneity. After the vision is set, a leader may certainly find that relationship building, communication and leading teams are features of the immediate leadership need. Situational leadership is a well-worn topic, but it still factors into how these core skills will unpack against everyday leadership challenges. As a leader develops these skills, the choices to move to a specific core competency, will become flowing and nimble, rather than, in any specific order. That’s how life is.

Leading through change, or around change, is frequently the top priority for our clients. Trove uses professional development plans, leadership assessments, team interaction scenarios and retreats to bring about positive leadership results. In coaching sessions, clients are often put into “work” scenarios and encouraged to create a change plan. Often, decision-making styles and stress behaviors are important components of the coaching conversations. Human emotion and resistance to change can easily trump a well-laid plan. Of course, executive coaches, peer coaches and in-house accountability will make the journey easier.

Stress impacts leadership on a good day, but when change is added to the mix, leaders are sometimes tempted to succumb to their stressors, rather than deal precisely and strongly with the change. Stress can range in intensity from pressure to trauma and include feelings of anxiety, worry, nervous tension, fear and doubt. Addressing your own stress while leading others through their stress is a huge accomplishment. In a client session recently, we delved into the impact of stress on this individual’s mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. She realized that her physical fatigue, brought on by stressors in a change in her responsibilities, was causing problems in her decision-making skills. We arrived at some diagnostic goals that have led her to some good solutions.

Leading through change requires coaching and development in:

  • Strategy and implementation skills (risk, sequencing and tracking)
  • Communicating the plan effectively
  • Employing soft skills, like recognizing diversities in human behaviors and then synergizing the parties involved.
  • Managing and marginalizing the affects of stress (This may include holistic physical strategies like meditation, intentional down time or a sabbatical.)

Most times, the use of powerful leadership skill and behavior assessments give coaches data necessary to give direction and the ability to confront certain blind spots with a client. One client’s stress behavior was to “dial up” his assertiveness and lead through change as Attila the Hun. Another client had the tendency to go into introverted and withdrawn stress behaviors during change. Both styles of stress behavior, especially as one leads through change, can be incapacitating and harmful to the relational environment. Each client had their own coaching opportunities and the coaching plan contained different goals, but resolution was achieved.

Change is not going away. Change-leadership efficacy requires that all the other eight competencies are developed well. Just as an aspiring leader must develop the skills to set direction, communicate with strength and clarify the vision, so must a mature leader develop the competency to lead through change. Change seems to be on the lips of most of my clients. Change really is the one constant these days. Leaders should take the ninth core leadership competency and make it the first priority in their leadership development plan.


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