Leading change is hard. It is hard because it to change we have to adapt our behaviors and actions—something most of us aren’t too fond of (myself included). Leading change is also hard because few of us have a good understanding of the different roles change leaders need to take. Our country is full of stories of the innovative pioneer who sets out on his own to disrupt the system. In fact, our culture and economy are so deeply rooted in these stories there’s little room for other narratives.

Yet when we find ourselves in the midst of change, we need other stories and alternative definitions of leadership to help usher in change that allows each of us to grow and adapt in dignified and self-affirming ways. Here is one story from Gaye Lynn Fisher that inspires new ways of understanding what it means to lead change.

You Are Not Defined…
Gaye Lynn Fisher

Affinity mapping is a tool used to group similar ideas.

I’ve worked with the same group of people for a number of years. Our work is to mentor providers in early education settings, and because we work in the social service sector we are definitely not here for the money. What drives most of us is the feeling that the work we do makes a difference in the world—and that’s important to us.

The women I work with are passionate, capable, strong and knowledgeable. Although they are “my” team, I don’t usually call myself their boss. I view our work as a collaboration, with each of us playing a role and, hopefully, playing to our strengths. As the leader of this group my role is to keep the big picture in mind, tie the pieces together and write the reports. But my favorite part of the role is to think of ways I can support the professional and personal growth of my team of women.

A few months back the morale of the team was lower than it had been in a while. We had faced a budget cut each year for several years, so everyone was being asked to do more for the same amount of money. New educational requirements for the job were forcing some people to return to school to get more credit hours of training. For two months we had to reduce the number of hours each person worked each week to make up for a budget deficit. It is a wonder that no one quit immediately.

When I began to sense the morale was lower than usual, I had two reactions. The first was to think (somewhat selfishly) about all the work that goes into rehiring for a position when someone leaves—the interviews, the trainings, trying to integrate the new person into our team, and, of course, the cost. But my second reaction was to worry about how everyone was feeling about themselves. They were taking these things very personally. To many on my team, the budget cuts spoke to the idea that our work wasn’t very valuable. Others felt being asked to go back to school indicated they didn’t have the right education or they were somehow not good enough. Since I was feeling many of these same pressures it was hard to be a positive leader. We were stressed. We were sad. The passion that drove us was gone, overshadowed by the day-to-day challenges.

We could not continue on this way if we wanted to function well (as individuals or as a team). We were allowing the many systems we were part of to define how we saw ourselves. The idea that so many people felt “trapped” was frustrating. Since we couldn’t expect the many (and rather bureaucratic) systems to change, we had to change our perspective instead.

To do this we spent some time defining who we are (professionally, personally) and then deciding if our jobs (this job) was still a good fit for us. It was a little scary to think this might come across as an invitation to “fluff up the resume”, but I have always tried to be straightforward and honest with the team. And I’d rather have them happy and fulfilled somewhere else instead of unhappy and stressed my team.

Crazy 8s allows everyone to rapidly brainstorm.

Using some of the fun brainstorming tools I had learned at LeadLocal (Crazy 8’s, Affinity mapping) I asked them to answer the following questions:

  • Think about your growth as a professional and as a person in the last six months…. one year……or since you were hired as a coach. What is one thing that you have gained in that time (something that you can do now that you couldn’t before, something you are better at now)?
  • What do you do that brings you joy (work or home life)? What makes you happy?
  • What kinds of jobs or workplaces do you not want to do/be in?
  • What are you passionate about (work or home)?
  • What skills do you have that are valuable?

For the last question, we had an entire white board filled with diverse, tangible skills; skills that any employer would view as valuable. Some of the other questions had reconnected people to the belief that they needed to work in a job that aligned with their values. We also had a much clearer idea of the jobs we did not want to work in.

When I asked how this had been helpful, several people said they had no idea that they had so many skills. They said it had been extremely helpful in thinking of their future based on what they wanted instead of what others are telling us we should be. I said,

“So this is the deal. Remember how valuable you are and how lucky we are to even have you working here. Do not let the job description, the project or even the agency define you. If you chose to continue to work here it’s because you want to be here, not because you don’t think you can go anywhere else. Because you can—very easily.”

My ideas about leadership have evolved over the years. Where I once saw “leadership” as setting a vision and telling others how we were going to get there, I have come to see that sharing the leadership can get us a lot further down the road—the one we choose together. Likewise, I’ve come to understand that most of my leadership should be to benefit others, rather than elevate myself. This experience helped me realize the power I have in creating the right conditions for others to thrive when faced with massive uncertainty and doubt about the future. It is my responsibility (not optional) to help create these conditions, and I shouldn’t take that responsibility lightly.

Expecting systems to stay the same is unrealistic; teams and projects and agencies are never static. But as a leader, my role is to help others remain successful during change—no matter what external conditions we’re experiencing. And when there needs to be a transition out of the work, each person should leave feeling valued, competent and positive about their next adventure.

For more thoughts and ideas on the different roles of change leaders, check out the work of Deborah Frieze and the Berkana Institute.


You must be logged in to post a comment.