Category: Leadership

Taking a Leadership Stand is Necessary for Organizational Transformation

When an organization is undergoing a transformational effort, employees’ commitment to their own transformation is crucial to success, starting with the executives. More good management will not inspire the changes that will be necessary. The changes in an organization’s transformational effort will include process changes, cultural changes, and personal changes in ways of working. The changes needed will move along at an accelerated rate if the executives of the organization are modelling their own commitment to creating and implementing a new way of being a leader of the business. This starts with the executives inventing and executing a new future state for themselves.

Taking a Stand

What we mean by taking a stand is a simple concept, but quite challenging to implement. When you think about it, there is one speech act that creates a possible new future―a declaration.

There are many historical examples that we all recognize as declarations that changed the course of human history:

  • “We hold these truths to be self-evident―that all men are created equal” – Declaration of Independence for the United States of America
  • “Put a man on the moon by the end of the decade” – President John F. Kennedy

When these declarations were made, the current reality of the times did not match what was being said. For example, all men were not created equal in the 18th century when this statement was made. One’s state in life depended on what family you were born into. In early 1961, the U.S. was losing the space race, with no prospects for making any step-changing advances. There are many examples of a leader making a bold declaration that inspired and motivated large numbers of people to take new actions to make this new future occur.

By making a declaration – that is, to speak into existence a possible new future – it’s the first step in creating a new reality that is a break from the current one. But making a declaration is not enough. Committing to that declaration is required. Committing oneself to making the new future occur will begin the generation of new actions that will usher the new future into reality.

So, our definition of “Taking a Stand” is: Making a Declaration, plus Committing to it

Here’s the good news – as human beings, we take stands a lot. When people examine their own lives, they can recall times when  significant changes in the direction of their lives were taken. Frequently, people remember these times as moments when they “decided” on something. Looking back, they can see that they actually envisioned a new and unpredictable future for themselves and started taking new actions to fulfill it. So, when we are working with individuals inside an organization on taking a stand for themselves as a leader, they are able to draw on their own experiences in life.

Taking a Leadership Stand

Creating and implementing a new way of being a leader is taking a leadership stand. The process of creating a leadership stand is shown in this simple graphic.



Imagine that the orange circle represents all of “who you are” currently as a leader. For the most part, executives have far more leadership traits that work well for them. In taking a stand, recognizing some of these traits can be really useful in distinguishing “ways of being” a leader.



Shaded in this illustration are “areas needing improvement”. These areas are usually well known by the executives because of various feedback mechanisms through their careers. Traditionally, people approach their leadership development by taking on these areas needing improvement and converting them to successful changes in their leadership. We have found, and there is a lot of research data showing, that “fixing” elements to improve are not the most successful ways to develop one’s leadership. Fixing something starts with a negative – that is, fixing implies changing something that is currently bad. Taking a leadership stand is not about fixing something, but rather creating and executing something.

The larger bubble in this illustration is a visual on a leadership stand. You will notice that taking a leadership stand is about expanding one’s leadership. There are some key variables to consider when creating this leadership stand.

  • Inspirational
  • Desired
  • The Wow factor
  • Would make a difference to you and to the organization
  • Actionable

Inventing and committing to a new way of being a leader must be inspirational to the person. Without this element, the new way of being a leader will be difficult to execute. The changes required will be hard to make because it becomes a “have to” rather than a “want to”.

The new way of being a leader must be desired by the leader. If the person doesn’t really care if the necessary changes are made, then the new actions and ways of thinking will be difficult to implement.

A leadership stand must be a game changer for the executive to be most effective. This wow factor needs to be a sufficient jolt out of the current box that they are in. The leadership stand needs to be big enough to generate the uncomfortable changes that are necessary.



Since the executives are committed to making a difference in their organizations, the leadership stand must be a significant change that will contribute to the organization as a whole.

Finally, the leadership stand must be actionable. Only describing this new state of being a leader will not give the leader the thoughts about how to make the changes desired in real time. I often ask the person I am working with to do a litmus test. “Imagine a meeting or a recent time when you were involved with a group of people. Notice how you are being and your actions in this situation. Now install in your head this leadership stand. What would you do differently, if anything?” This view allows us to observe significant changes or not. If not, we must keep working on the expression of the leadership stand so that the leader may make changes, moment by moment.

The arrows in this illustration show the new actions the leader can invent and take from the expression of their leadership stand. Declaring a new way of being and committing to it is how a leadership stand is generated. Considering new actions and behaviors is necessary to give the person the best chances of success in their leadership stand.

Ways to Get There

When in the process of creating a powerful leadership stand, there are several things to consider during the process.

  • Someone you are inspired by, that you admire, that you have thought about wanting to be that way as a leader

We all have people in our lives who were role models for us. These people were being certain ways that were inspiring and motivating to us. They may be teachers, coaches, managers, and/or executives that we found to be motivating to us. In fact, they often were instrumental in our advancing into new roles or opportunities.

  • You might have a burning desire to be this new way

Frequently, people we are working with have thought to themselves “I wish I could be that kind of a leader”. These areas that are desired are a good start in inventing a leadership stand that will be very effective for the individual and their organization.

  • Is there a recurring theme in feedback or annual reviews that occur

When there is a recurring theme, or an element in feedback that is mentioned, this can be a starting point to inventing a leadership stand. The outcome from this work will not be about fixing this element. Rather, it can illuminate a direction or approach to an effective leadership stand.

A Few Leadership Stand Examples

Here are a few examples that illustrate what an effective leadership stand could sound like.

  • An effective project manager promoted to a new strategic project whose project members were peers:
    • I am an inspired and inspiring leader

For this project leader, we didn’t want to change the many ways of being and behaviors that were highly successful as a project manager. However, something was clearly missing in the ways the project manager was executing this critical strategic project. After thinking it through together, we came to the realization that the project manager was only focusing on controlling the project. Since the team members were this manager’s peers, this command and control way of being was just not effective. Getting the manager’s attention on their team, in addition to the project management, helped them become a much more effective leader of the project.

  • A highly successful sales person was promoted to national sales executive:
    • I am a centered and thoughtful leader

Some of this leader’s strengths in sales were getting in the way of her being an effective national sales executive. The person’s sense of urgency, decisive and quick responses, and the take charge attitude necessary to be successful in sales were some of the strengths. However, when leading other sales managers, these were undesirable, causing some unwanted turnover and unsuccessful sales efforts. By committing to being centered and thoughtful, the leader was able to adopt new approaches to being a national sales leader. These new approaches were added to the strengths the leader already demonstrated.

  • A soft-spoken scientist in his first leadership role:
    • I am a bold leader, always making a difference

This manager was literally a rocket scientist. Their strengths included a ton of smarts and brilliant project management. But consistent feedback included “being too quiet and withdrawn”. This manager took this leadership stand of being bold, which gave him behaviors that created more expression and “out there” approaches to leading the team.

Execution and transformation require something “exceptional”. Simply being the same-old-same-old ways is unlikely going to be successful.


Any transformational change for an organization will be uncomfortable. Old ways of being and ways of working will be ineffective in realizing this transformational change. Execution and transformation projects move about as fast as the development of the executives who are accountable for them. Executives must step up as role models for all of their employees, showing that they are also committed to making changes in the ways of managing and leading the organization.

When executives take their own leadership stands, and demonstrate their stands in public ways, they will serve as sources of inspiration to others throughout the organization. This includes the opportunity for anyone in the organization to take their own leadership stands out of their commitment to advancing the transformation for the organization. It is essential that the senior executives are fostering this kind of mindset and behavior from everyone in the organization, and that examples of “being a leader” are recognized and appreciated.

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Denial Ain’t Just a River in Egypt: Leadership Team Development

Mark Twain is commonly given credit for this saying, although there is not conclusive proof of his authorship. It does sound like something he would have said, especially if he observed contemporary management meetings.

This saying about denial is a humorous way of describing a situation in which a person or team refuses to see what is obvious to others as a means of avoiding confronting a painful truth. This behavior is seen too often in organizations where the executives live in denial about the competitive position and performance of a business. A classic example of this is the statement: “But our customers love us”, which is said in meetings to discuss declining sales and margins on sales.

Denial is perhaps the most primitive defense mechanism seen in people. If a person thinks that a circumstance will be difficult or painful, the person simply pretends that the circumstance does not exist. In some cases, the person is aware of their pretense, while many others are not. This last category is the most dangerous for an executive, as the executive managers convince themselves that the circumstance and condition simply do not exist. Denial is the polar opposite of accountability.

Too often managers live in denial rather than having action and commitment based conversations. In public there is a pretense that everything is going smooth and nothing has happened, but in private the managers will admit knowing about the issues. Denial serves to remove personal accountability and avoid the need for action. Denial is a primary means of explaining and justifying the lack of results, e.g., “you do not understand”.

Denial is a “rot that is waiting to invalidate accountability”. Given that it is a primitive mind mechanism, logic often does not work. It usually requires a more compelling and forceful approach which simply says that this level of thinking is not appropriate from an executive or manager in your organization. While that may be difficult at the time, the consequences of not dealing with it will be much worse.

Justification and Rationalization

Justification is an act of providing reasons for complaints and defenses. In business it is the act of trying to defend and is most commonly used to defend lower than expected performance and results.

A humorous example of justification was on a t-shirt worn near Christmas by one of my favorite baristas. The slogan on front of tee shirt was “But Santa, I can explain”. This reflects how justification is often used to explain events and performance which does not meet expectation. Justification used by executives may provide a short term “pass”, but actually works against those executives over time. Employees often can see the actual performance as well as the hollowness of the justification. Instead of justification, Kouzes and Posner (1993) say that when accountable leaders see that mistakes have occurred that it is important that the leader:

  • openly admit the mistake
  • avoid the temptation to deny it or make justifications, and
  • apologize to those who were affected by the mistake.

They add that covering up or denying any wrongdoing actually assures more damage to the leader’s reputation than admitting the mistake in the first place.

Rationalization is another defense mechanism in which one’s true motivation is concealed by offering an explanation which is expected to excuse the behaviors. While rationalizations often appear “logical”, others see through the attempted explanation. Accountability is the enemy of justification and rationalization. Accountability calls for a concise description of what was promised, what happened, and what is next. Being accountable for a result says:

  1. I promised X.
  2. I achieved X, or I did not.
  3. If I achieve Y this is what I am doing to close the gap between X and Y, and how and when I expect the gap to be closed and the missing amount to be made up.
  4. If I see that I can no longer close the gap and make up the missing amount, I revoke my original promise and now make this new promise. (If the new promise reduces a key operating factor like earnings, margin and volume, there is a promise to explore what other results can be increased so as to keep the overall operating commitments and promises.)

Denial in Action Example

I consulted with a company which held monthly performance reviews in corporate headquarters. Each month the executives running the business units would go into a large conference room in which the tables were arranged in a U-shape. At the head of the table were the Chairman/CEO, COO, and CFO. Sitting on each side were a cadre of corporate staff. Each business unit would go in, present their results, and then be interrogated by the C-level executives as well as corporate staff. This practice of revising monthly performance could sound like good management, until you hear the rest of the story.

First, the business units were complex and quite large, so there could be substantial variability in reporting from month to month. This natural variability between months significantly reduced the accuracy of monthly numbers at the time of this meeting, so the attempt to assess performance on a monthly basis was of limited value. Further, the staff executives appeared to view this monthly meeting as their opportunity to appear smart and adding value in front of CEO and COO. As a consequence, when the business unit heads prepared for these meetings they spent more time preparing for “thrust and parry” from the staff groups than understanding the details of the financials. If the expected results were not achieved, the focus was on excruciating details as to why. As I observed this tradition several interesting things emerged:

  1. The conversations were always focused on reasons, not on results.
  2. The quality of the presentation and conversations were based on how well the executives could spin an interesting tale of reasons. Promotions in the company were a reflection of skill in making up reasons, rather than producing results.
  3. The environment was one of blame, excuses and justifications, which produced silly conversations and decisions. Missing was the basic integrity of the results.

Results Matter

If a leadership team uses denial, justification and rationalization, over time the actual business results will seem not to matter. Ironically these conversations will become overly past-based, with attention on “why didn’t you do better”. While understanding gaps in performance is useful, it matters only if this information can benefit future behavior and performance. Keeping the past separate from future and dealing with commitments for actions and results in the future will strengthen a leadership team.

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The Words Leaders Use Can Greatly Impact Performance

In getting their jobs done, executives and managers primarily deal in communications. This includes the spoken and written word, along with the behaviors associated with those words. Words in the English language are full of richness in meaning. Yet for all the richness, we in business tend to bend, borrow and, in some cases, overtly distort the meaning of words to fit our purposes. While this convenient borrowing serves near-term purposes, often the long-term consequences are that the implied meaning of words we use in business are confusing if not compromised. This increases the complication of situations and can lead us astray.

Words are full of meaning and message, and in business are theoretically assumed to describe behavior. When the behaviors of executives and managers are consistent with their words, a powerful dynamic is created. Consider that an operational definition of integrity is behavior that is consistent with words. Doing what we said we would do, or not doing what we said we would not do is an essential part of establishing credibility and integrity as an executive or manager. Conversely, saying one thing and behaving differently is a surefire way to send mixed messages to a group, organization or team. At the end of the day, communication, which is comprised of behavior and words, matters greatly.

The clarity and crispness in the meaning of words is important for executives and managers now more than ever. The challenges and complexities facing businesses continues to grow, which in turn demands accelerated changes, creative strategies, innovative business models, and new models for organizing. Yet many of the words which could be used in accelerating change have been used up. For example, breakthroughs are often what is needed in the business.


In the early days of organizational transformation, our firm piloted the use of language-based breakthrough principles. As an example, using breakthrough principles we contributed to the transformation of Ford Motor company in the 1980’s. Even with this outstanding success, we were very hesitant to use this term since it made many executives uncomfortable. When the word breakthrough was used, it was to delineate and designate an extraordinary accomplishment which would open huge new possibilities for the business. Then the term became widely used to describe products, most of which were anything but a breakthrough. Rather, they were unremarkable if not overtly forgettable. Along the way, a powerful word for use in describing organizational transformation was weakened. The cruel irony is that a word used to describe an important distinction in the transformation of Ford Motor Company was later used to describe a completely forgettable Cadillac product!


It is now widely accepted that an organization’s culture is important. Two leading scholars (James Heskett and John Kotter) from Harvard Business School conducted a study comparing the business outcomes for companies with good cultures and bad cultures. The results were stunning as can be seen in the chart below:

Average Increase for Twelve Firms with Performance-Enhancing Cultures Average Increase for Twenty Firms without Performance-Enhancing Cultures
Revenue Growth 682% 166%
Employment Growth 282% 36%
Stock Price Growth 901% 74%
Net Income Growth 756% 1%


Most of us agree that a good culture promotes change and success, while a bad culture stifles innovation and promotes bureaucracy which, in turn, inhibits growth and performance. While the word culture is widely used in business, its meaning has been compromised to become synonymous with principles and values. The assumption has become that the way to change culture is to change values. This is not accurate and contributes to many failed change projects. While values are one part of culture, they are not the part that drives most behavior and lays the foundation for culture.

Leadership & Management

Perhaps there is no better example of the misuse of terms than the words leadership and management. A quick glance at a good dictionary will demonstrate that the two terms have quite different meanings.

Leadership: “the actions of leading a group of people or an organization” and “the state of being a leader”

Management: “the process of dealing with or controlling things or people”

Both functions and roles are important in business organizations, yet they are different. Leadership is critical for success in creating strategies and implementing change. Yet in many organizations the two terms are used interchangeably. The management team is called a leadership team, yet all the topics and work are concerned with management, not leadership. The people on the leadership team do not possess leadership skills and show little interest in acquiring them. Calling a team of managers ‘our leadership team’ serves only to confuse the organization and reduce the probability that actual leadership will be exhibited, even when it is desperately needed.

Organization Design

Unfortunately, the two terms organizational design and organizational structure have also become synonymous terms. Both terms describe an important element for executives, yet what I consider the most important element of organizational design has by and large lost its meaning. Organizational structure deals with how formal authority is delegated and managed. For example, is the company organized around business units or does it function as one large company organized around functions? Further, the term organizational structure is also used to describe the reporting relationships within the organization. This is the most common use of the word, which translates to boxes and lines on an organizational chart. This structure is important for administering the functions and reporting relationships as well as providing clarity to employees. The structure is commonly thought of as the boxes and lines which depict the organization.

The challenges facing most business continue to increase because of accelerating rates of change, disruptive innovations and technologies, expanding expectations and sophistication of customers, increasing global competitors, regulatory changes, shareholders who want near term results, etc. In order to act on those challenges, executive must rethink how their organization can see and respond to these challenges. The executive must be intentional in designing their organization to increase its capability to explore possibilities, identify opportunities and threats, and ultimately act in extraordinary ways. Organizational design can be described as:

“Change the company’s most fundamental building blocks: how people in the company made decisions, adopted new behaviors, rewarded performance, agreed on commitments, managed information, made sense of that information, allocated responsibility, and connected with one another.”

The issues or problems come when organizational structure is misused by executives thinking about strategic challenges and creating strategic execution. The executives who confront external dynamics and strategic challenges move quickly to questions of how best to structure the organization. At times it appears that when executives are facing tough external challenges and changes in the market, they instead change the organizational structures, or restructure. It often appears that reorganization is chosen because they are not sure what else to do.


Redeployment is a special case for me. I was working on a book with my colleague and good friend, Francis Vidal. We were developing methods that companies could use to mobilize their organizations during times of change. I relocated my family to Paris so Francis and I could work together as consultants and develop our methodologies. We chose the term redeployment to describe our methods since the word redeployment is the same in both English and French. Unfortunately, during the time we were working on the book and building our common practice methods, the term redeployment took on new meaning in the U.S. Companies began using the term ‘redeployed’ to denote downsizing of employees. The term became synonymous with getting fired and outplacement. That simple change in the meaning of the word was the kiss of death to this practice in the U.S. and the usefulness of the book for KingChapman. So, we published the book in France, but not in the US.


Words are a primary tool for those in business. Words are full of meaning and message. Words are the basis for leadership. We use words to create new futures, bring clarity, raise awareness and inspire people. We must, however, remain alert to when our favorite words and terms have taken on additional meanings or lost their value to properly distinguish our intent.

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Spotting Leaders to Promote Growth and Innovation


Firms that want significant growth and innovation will find that organizational transformation is an essential element in executing their strategies. Without this large scale change the factors which have been limiting growth and innovation will persist. Acting to promote growth and innovation without organizational transformation is the embodiment of the popular definition of insanity:

Insanity is doing the same things over and over while expecting a different result.

Organizational transformation is required to alter the organizational context and culture. To better understand the word context, think of it as assumptions, beliefs, and experiences which, while in the background, actively shape how a person perceives events and phenomenon as they occur. While we are largely unaware of our contexts, these contexts shape our experiences, perceptions and thinking. As an example, if you are in a business conversation, the term leadership will be shaped by your experiences in business as well as how the organizations with which you are engaged use the word leadership.

Context occurs in language. The context in which words are used clearly shapes the meaning of that word as well as the sentence in which it is used. Consider, for example, how the word beauty takes on very different meanings given the specific context. “Beauty” can be used to describe an attractive woman as well as “beauty products”. However, the same word (beauty) can be used to describe a physical injury to the eye (as expressed by “that shiner’s a real beauty”), and many physical objects such as an auto, classic sailboat, etc. Same word, but very different meanings given the context in which the word is used.

Growth and Innovation are two words with intense meaning in business. Growth is directly related to value creation, which is why businesses exist. Shareholders punish and reward executive and management teams based on growth achieved and sustained. Some management’s attempt to achieve short term growth through a combination of acquisitions, cost cutting and financial engineering. However, for long term sustained growth the organization must demonstrate organic growth, which is based in part on innovation. Organic growth and innovation require organizational transformation. Organizational transformation requires leaders throughout the organization.

Leadership in Growth & Transformation

A business exists to create value and the only sustainable way to create value is to continually expand the business’s capacity to grow, innovate and achieve results. Growth and expansion of capacity for results does not happen by accident, it is caused! The cause is leaders working intensely to engage others in making this happen. In most cases the actions required to achieve the growth and sustainable capacity occur because of the capability, good will and hard work of front-line workers throughout the organization. Leaders engage people and people in turn enable the business to achieve outstanding results while changing to meet the needs of customers and demands of competitive markets.

Leaders are the starting point. Leaders create clarity of purpose, appreciation of shared values, and an articulation of the future that engages everyone in the organization. The leaders enable employees to take actions that will lead to results. Leaders create clarity of purpose based on the results that are needed and promised for the organization. Leaders get their own being from their Foundational Commitments as well as the commitments that they have made in regard to the business. The shared values that are articulated and come to be appreciated by the people in the business come from the leader’s commitments as well. The values say what we believe in as an organization, what is important to us, and what we can be counted on. Values for leaders will always have a couple of elements. One is doing what we say we will do. The second is results, or as one leader told me “Results, Results, Results”. It is not that leaders are not compassionate people who don’t care about their employee’s safety and well-being. Most do care quite deeply. In addition, they appreciate that employees’ safety and well-being is intimately related to achieving excellent business results.

Leadership is the reason organizations achieve results that were otherwise not going to happen. If the desired level of results could be accomplished through doing nothing out of the ordinary or maintaining the status quo, there is not a need for leadership. Leadership is required when the needed results will not occur absent some intervention. The intervention that produces the results is the role of the leader, and the evidence that a leader was there. If the results are not being accomplished, then the leader is not getting the job done. While that statement may seem harsh or judgmental, I invite you to think along with me as to what that statement makes available and possible to a person who is committed to be a leader. It puts in stark relief the reason for the being of a leader and a measure that is most valuable.

“Being a leader requires being a leader.”

This simple statement goes to the heart of what is required for success in implementing a transformation. Those who are accountable for strategic execution must be leaders. That is, on a moment to moment basis the person in charge is called on to be a leader. Notice that this statement speaks to being. Being a leader is not the same as sitting in the office thinking about what should be done. It does not necessarily involve getting a group of people together to discuss what should be done next. Simply convening a group of people does not necessarily imply the presence of leadership. When a group of people are inspired and taking actions that will produce unprecedented and unexpected levels of results, that is the evidence that leadership is present.

Let’s look at some of the behaviors that you will want to look for in identifying real leaders.

Personally Involved

It is essential that the leaders are personally involved and demonstrating personal commitment to the employees and the business. Employees are inspired by seeing their leaders personally involved and committed. At MacMillan Bloedel, Tom Stephens met directly with the various union leaders to challenge them to get involved in transforming the company. Some of the leaders cooperated while others did not. However, to the employees it was clear that Tom was stepping out and personally getting involved in taking on the hard issues related to the transformation. Tom also had meetings with environmentalists from Greenpeace and other environmental constituents as well as governmental leaders to chart a path by which MB could be successful. In all of the situations, the employees could see that the leader was making a personal commitment to the employees and the future success of the business.

Committing to a Desirable Future

Leaders think from a future that will be created for the business and the employees. Further, leaders look for other leaders who are already committed to a bright future for the business. Ironically, those who will be the most effective leaders may be quite different than you. They may not articulate it like you do, but their commitment is authentic and intense. You are not looking for people who need PowerPoint slide decks to be able to talk about the future and their commitments. You want those who are so authentic and genuine that they are their commitments. When they talk, people listen. They do not need props. They speak from their commitments and their heart. These leaders are so respected that when they speak about the future, employees feel like they can trust and they can listen. I heard a description for a leader like this. The statement was “If he tells you it is Christmas; you can go hang your stocking”. That is the kind of credibility that you are looking for.

In addition to credibility, you are looking for leaders who can commit to a future without knowing all the details of how that future will be achieved. This person is able to communicate a future that will be the basis for communication and engagement of others.

Completed the Past

Leaders are focused on the future, not the past. Ironically, the leaders you are looking for have often had difficult experiences with this organization, or a similar organization in the past. The knowledge of the prior difficulties makes these leaders more credible with some groups of employees. What makes these leaders powerful is that they are able to complete experiences from the past. The leaders you are looking for have completed the events of the past. They are not influenced or shaped by events of the past. They do not hold a grudge or are seeking retribution for events from the past. People who do hold a grudge and/or seeking retribution are not trusted by their colleagues and will not be effective as leaders.

The kind of leaders you want will acknowledge mistakes of the past. This acknowledgement does not require involvement of these past events. Rather, this person works from the business future in responsible ways, whether they happened to be individually involved or not. This willingness to be responsible is essential for credibility and effective communication.

If the leaders were involved in past mistakes, that needs to be addressed clearly and forthrightly. I am often surprised by how many people are unwilling to admit that they made a mistake, or that mistakes were made “on their watch”. People will pay an enormous price to maintain the “illusion of infallibility”. What is sad about this is that it is an illusion, and not a well-hidden illusion at that. Usually it is widely known that the incident or situation occurred, and yet much energy is spent in maintaining the illusion. It is like the old story of the king who is walking around naked, and yet the loyal subjects complement him on his beautiful suit of clothes.

Leaders often find that they also have to deal with events and perceptions from the past for which they were neither involved nor responsible. You can imagine how much resistance I receive from people about this point. It is common for managers to blame the employees and the union for the problems of the past. Of course, the employees sit around in the lunchroom and the union halls and blame the managers for the same problems.

The task is to get whatever happened in the past resolved for those involved. The term I use for this is completed. Completed means that whatever needs to be said and done to complete the past is done. If there is misbehavior from the past, it needs to be acknowledged and addressed. In most cases an authentic apology is appropriate. In some cases, there is action that needs to be taken as well. The leaders should take whatever actions are appropriate to be able to resolve matters from the past and get them complete. Getting matters resolved is essential so that these topics do not continue to come up in discussions. The leaders want for all to have matters from the past left in the past, and not injected into conversations and deliberation of the future.

For example, at MacMillan Bloedel Ltd., at the time Canada’s largest forest products company, one aspect of Tom Stephen’s leadership was that he discussed openly that the past failures in business was not the fault of the employees. In the first meeting with employees and union leaders, the executive running the business unit made a plea for involvement of the unions in a Co-Design™ project. After the executive spoke, a union leader gave a well-documented treatise on the prior failings of management in dealing with the employees and running the mill. In the midst of the treatise, Tom interrupted the speech with a very colorful and direct acknowledgement that prior management had thoroughly messed things up. The union leader was shocked at the candor of the acknowledgement and speech, and a possibility for transformation was established.

The closed mills and mediocre performance was attributed to management, and Tom was open that he was accepting the shortcomings of the past so that the employees and management could move forward to achieve better results. What Tom was doing was role modeling the desired mind-set of taking responsibility for what had happened in the past, even though he was not part of the company at the time. However, when he became CEO he “inherited the good and bad of the past” and thereby could take responsibility for what had happened in the past. By accepting responsibility himself, he was able to avoid the blame and finger pointing that otherwise was predictable and move on to transforming the situation and creating a future that was not possible prior to his intervention.

Walking the Talk

You want to spot leaders who “walk the talk”. If you are considering someone as a possible leader and they do not walk the talk, take them off your list of candidates. You have neither the required energy nor time to rehabilitate people’s reputations. Employees are very savvy about who walks the talk and who does not. You cannot “spin” or smooth talk credibility for those who have lost it on their own. You want people who are known to walk the talk because other employees will challenge everything in the transformation, including well established practices and processes. The leaders must be credible and willing to engage in the same challenging thoughts and discussions. If the leaders are not credible they will not get candor and openness from employees, and there is little chance that the employees will engage and participate.

Willing to Make Personal Changes

Leadership of a business in transformation requires personal change. A transformation requires dramatic change by the people in the organization to learn to work in a different way, to alter processes and most of all, to raise the level of performance. Most employees will experience some discomfort with giving up old ways of working and having to learn new ways. Leaders are not immune from this change, and in fact need to be out front in making the personal changes. Employees are aware of many of the changes that their leaders will need to make if the transformation is to be successful, and often keep a close eye on the leader to see what happens. The leader’s actions speak much more powerfully that their words.

Being leaders will require personal change and leaders often experience this change as uncomfortable. I must admit that I am still amazed at how frequently leaders are unwilling to face their own discomfort with changes and dig their heels in rather than make the needed changes. Needless to say, change efforts led by those who are unwilling to make personal changes are severely hampered if not doomed. Gandhi’s famous quote is:

“If we are to change, first we must change”
– Gandhi

Committed to Communication

Leaders are the communication. They are the future and the transformation that will be required for the business to achieve that future. Their communication reflects their being committed to the organization, the people and executing the strategy. The leaders you are looking for may not be eloquent speakers. You might not select them for a debate team. You would however want them “in the trenches with you”.

Communication translates the leadership messages to the employees and helps them see the future, how the strategy being executed will deliver that future, how each employee fits into that future, and what is wanted from them. Effective communication speaks to where employees are, not where you wish they were. Let me share an example.

Tom Stephens is among the most effective communicators I have ever seen. It is not that he is unusually eloquent, but rather he speaks to the heart of the matter and connects with employees around their concerns. He then effectively builds a bridge from the employees’ concerns to what is important for the business. While he was in Canada as CEO of MacMillan Bloedel Ltd, he asked the employees to work with him to make MB the safest and the most respected company in their industry. He went on to ask that they also work with him to make the company outrageously successful. What made this message dramatic to the employees was that at the time MB had at best a mediocre safety record and little apparent concern for the employees’ well-being. Further, there was a history of acrimony with the towns in which the company did business as well as with the unions. More notable was that the company had been the target of numerous pickets by Greenpeace and other environmental groups for its practices of clear cutting the forest and harvesting old growth rainforest trees. For Tom to say, “Help me make us the most respected company in our industry” was shocking, and yet was clear that he was committed to making a transformation with the help of the employees. Each employee came to see that their role was to be responsible for their own safety, and the safety of others. That made the transformation meaningful for each person, and was the platform on which the other aspects of the transformation were based.

Naturally Engages Others

The leaders you are looking to spot are very effective in engaging others. This is important since strategic execution and transformation is successful only when a critical mass of employees decides that it is in their best interests that the transformation succeeds, and join in. Employees are “engaged” or enrolled when they see that the transformation is meaningful for themselves and the business. Each employee who becomes involved in the transformation will engage with a series of questions, e.g., what is the company trying to do, why now, what does this mean to me personally, will I have a job when this is over, etc. Employees engage with a transformation on a very personal level. If the leader speaks about the transformation as a concept, and does not make the translation for the employees, it will make it more difficult for the employees to determine if the transformation is a good thing and if they should become involved. The leader must “build the bridge” from the concept of the transformation to the specific requests for actions and involvement.

The transformation is made meaningful by the leader engaging and inspiring groups of people, who in turn engage and inspire others. For success in execution the employees need to be more engaged and committed than they were prior to the beginning of the transformation. This engagement will not occur if they do not consider the strategic execution and transformation to be personally meaningful, and essential to the future success of the business.

Addressing Those Whose Actions are Inconsistent

You are looking for leaders who are willing to have difficult conversations. In particular, you are looking for leaders who will address the actions of others that are inconsistent with the future and the transformation. “Truing up” others’ behavior will be essential. Leading requires causing disruptions as well as taking difficult positions with those whose actions are inconsistent with the intent of the strategic execution.

One type of interaction is with people who are complaining and have a persistent complaint. The first step is to listen to the complaint. In some cases, the complaint is an accurate description of a circumstance that is in need of attention. Those are the easy ones. A second category of complaints is actually a poorly formed request. The person is asking for something, and often wants to contribute to the transformation but is speaking in a manner that makes it difficult to hear. Generous listening by the leaders will usually allow this complaint to be re-expressed as a request for inclusion, and from that point it is also easy to accept and get the person included. The tough ones are when a person or group has a persistent complaint. When the leader listens to the complaint there sometimes is not a viable circumstance in need of attention nor is there a poorly expressed commitment. Rather, what is present are undifferentiated complaints, also known as whining. This situation eventually calls for the leaders to address those who are complaining and ask them to be responsible for their speaking and to find a way to contribute. Easier said than done in some cases.

A special group of people whose actions should be watched closely is the management team. In working with companies that are wanting to achieve a transformation, the biggest and most frequent stumbling block I see are members of the management team whose actions are inconsistent with the commitments of the transformation. That is, managers who are unable or unwilling to lead and are actively sabotaging the transformation. This appears to occur when the person discovers what it will cost them personally to lead. I cannot stress how essential this point is. Too often leaders attempt to “limp along” with members of management who are not strong, not committed, and in some cases, both. While there are always extenuating circumstances and good reasons, it is nonetheless a mistake.

One of the behaviors of managers that cannot be tolerated is blaming past failures and mistakes on the employees and implying that the same thing will happen again. Leaders of transformation must continue to reinforce that management is accountable for the quality of the results, that management cannot achieve anything without the active support of employees, and together they can be much more successful that working apart or against each other. After this clarity on accountability, the leaders should then make sure that the transformation is connected to business results in the minds of the employees. A transformation that is not connected to specific business results will soon turn into a corporate program and lose effectiveness.

Accepting Chaos and Risk

Leading a transformation will from time to time involve accepting chaos and taking risks. Leading a transformation is a recipe for living in unpredictability. You are looking for leaders in the organization who can tolerate if not thrive in chaos and risk.

Often members of management will be uncomfortable with these conditions. These managers will try to intercede to reduce these unpleasant conditions by stopping the transformation. The leaders of the transformation cannot allow this to occur, and if it does, not to let it persist. If it does persist, the leaders will be taken off course and the transformation will slow or stop.

Strategic execution involves chaos and risk. Leaders assist others in getting past the chaos and responding appropriately to risk. Ironically, managers are often upset at taking actions that are perceived to be high risk, when actually a larger risk comes from NOT taking action. John Kotter has written a number of excellent books on transformation. One of his primary assertions is that the role of leaders is to create a sense of urgency. That is, to have managers see that doing nothing is a greater risk to the business than taking the risks associated with the transformation. Involvement comes when managers see that there is greater risk to the business from not acting rather than the transformation. This is a critical role for leaders since if managers are left to their own resources and views, they will act in a way that is in their own best interest rather than what is best for the business.

Willing to Share Power

You are looking for leaders who are comfortable with power. You do not want people who will let the power of leadership roles “go to their head”. You want individuals who are committed to the future and transformation, not their own glory. Leading a transformation will require sharing power. In some cases this is sharing power with hourly employees and may include sharing power with union leaders. The benefit of the sharing of power is that teams comprised of hourly employees are often able to implement changes much faster than the normal “management chain of command”. The sharing of power by leaders is often upsetting to middle managers who see their positions threatened by the different order.

Leaders have to decide if it is worth upsetting middle managers to achieve a business result or is maintaining the “normal order” of greater importance. The upset middle managers will often argue that the leader is losing power as a result of this power sharing. The irony is that the opposite actually occurs. The leader gains credibility and power by sharing with a broader range of employees in service of business results.

Encouraging Others to Get the Glory

Leading a transformation involves creating inspired actions in others to produce outstanding business results. You are looking for leaders who will actively encourage others to excel and “look good”. This includes having others excel, gain notoriety, and be rewarded.

You want to be cautious of prospective leaders who are concerned with personally “looking good” and getting all the credit. These people will not be effective, as this trait will severely hamper their effectiveness in transformation. You do not want people who will be torn by the choice to go for business results or personally be in the limelight. You want to confront the unfortunate reality that many bright skilled people cannot lead because of their own desires for personal recognition. While these people are charming and talented, they miss a key ingredient for leadership. I have seen many of these type people selected for leadership positions, and usually it does not work out well. Even if they start off well, they are not able to sustain the changes and the transformation does not persist.

Relationship to Results

There is a unique relationship between business leaders and results. As you look to spot leaders, this one attribute must stand out. Each prospective leader is unique, and yet you want results orientation to be central to the person. Many things drive leaders, as each person has their unique experience and history that leads them to be willing to “give themselves over” to the demands of being a leader. Results are what are important to leaders. Leaders are not concerned with perks, privileges and special relationships. Leaders want results. Period. End of conversation, or as the Brits so elegantly word it, “Full Stop”.

In developing the leaders in your business, it is important to remember that the leaders’ reason for being is to mobilize people to achieve results. Leaders achieve results by seeing that people in the organization are inspired to act in a way that produces results. In particular, acting in whatever ways that are required to have the organization achieve the promised level of results. Anything that distracts a leader from that mission and passion is a disservice to the leader and the organization.

Managers who are concerned with their own comfortable life and want to make sure that they have all of the perks, privileges and special relationships are likely not being real leaders. Further, they are probably doing a disservice to the organization by taking up a position that needs a leader. They are not only not doing what is needed, they usually are actively blocking and undermining those who are trying to provide leadership and do what is right for the organization. Often, I hear these people described as good people who are well intended and just not capable of doing what is needed. It is as if they are actors who have lost the plot but are expected to regain it in the next act. In reality, they are not focused, but the hope is that they will regain it “any day now”. While it is true that caterpillars will turn into butterflies with the passage of time, it is not true that these unfocused and self-serving people will turn into leaders with the passage of time.

Organizations achieve results that were otherwise not going to occur because of the being and actions of leaders. Leadership is required when the results that are wanted and needed will not occur absent some intervention. The intervention that produces the results is the role of the leader and the evidence that a leader was there. If the results are not being accomplished, then the leader is not getting the job done. While that statement may seem harsh or judgmental, I invite you to think along with me as to what that statement makes available and possible to a person who is committed to being a leader. It puts in stark relief the reason for being of a leader and a measure that is most valuable.

There is a strong tendency to tell excuses when an organization or team fails to deliver the expected results. While there are always extenuating circumstances, I am going to encourage you to work from a factual perspective that the result was achieved or it was not. Being factual makes a huge difference. If we say the reason for being of a leader is to produce results that were otherwise not going to happen, we then see that what the leader is always and ONLY about is producing results. Business leaders are not Renaissance people who are fully developed in every aspect of life. No, they are men and women who have devoted their careers to learning how to accomplish unexpected results through others. It is a finely-honed skill that wants to be cherished, developed and protected.

Perhaps the biggest threat to leaders getting results is reasonableness. Leaders are frequently told that they are unreasonable. In a normal business setting when someone is told that they are “unreasonable”, it is very seldom a compliment. It usually is a critique or criticism and tied to a request that the person stop asking for what they are asking, or doing what they are doing. The “pinch” is that being reasonable and listening to all the good reasons will only produce what is already going to happen, and nothing more. Anything other than that which was already going to happen will require someone interfering with what is perceived as reasonable, or in more convention language, disrupting the status quo. A leader must remain vigilant in guarding against becoming reasonable or being convinced to stop being “unreasonable”.

The question then is how this trait of reasonableness occurs for or shows up for the leader. Occasionally it is self-induced. This comes from having some doubt or question about some element of the result and what will be required to achieve it. Generally, reasonableness is presented by those around the leader. Worst of all, it may come from a consultant and/or project manager who is supposed to be supporting the leader.

Maintaining Focus on Achieving Results

The leaders you are looking for are passionate about business results. They had rather get results than eat or sleep. This attribute is important since the leaders will keep reminding employees of the business results that the transformation will accomplish. The leaders will need to continually connect the transformational actions to the business results, as employees have a tendency to let the two become disconnected.

At MB, Tom Stephens continually discussed the need for financial results that were to come from the transformation. He continually reinforced that the reason for the transformation was to create a substantial improvement in business performance. In addition, the company sponsored business literacy training for all employees. These training courses were designed by and delivered by employees from within the operations. Some of the trainers were hourly workers and union members. You can imagine how much more credible financial information about the operation is when it is provided and taught by a colleague.


Identifying the prospective leaders to assist in the transformation is the place to start the preparation. It is important to be candid about these prospective leaders, and not to have hope. Someone’s potential is not usually a good conversation to have about leaders. Either “they do or they do not” is far better than potential.

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Six Emerging Priorities For Leading Through Complexity

Can you identify the drivers of complexity in your organization? Are you able to diagnose the level of uncertainty in your environment? Can you assess a given situation’s complexity and use a framework for choosing an appropriate course of action?

The ever-increasing complexity facing organizations demands that leaders improve performance outcomes for their organizations. This is especially true for those working in unforgiving social, political and regulatory environments, which are rich with complexity and where the scale of consequences can be catastrophic. In addition, cognitive biases interfere with accurate perception of a circumstance and prevent the person from attending to additional incoming data. Further, it is very hard for the person whose perceptions and judgements are compromised to see it until long after the fact.

Leading through complexity requires leaders to possess impeccable awareness of their behavior and of how others interpret it. As leaders, we need to create actions that allow our people to quickly diagnose their level of complexity and respond accordingly. The following six principles are emerging as priorities for leading in a complex world.

Mindset for Complexity

Leadership mindset is critical for organizations dealing with complexity. This mindset embraces the discovery of new phenomena for which there is not an immediate diagnosis or solution. Instead there is inquiry, observation, and openness to discovery. This includes a willingness not to rush to reach a conclusion, which often frustrates others who have only a classic management mindset.

Increased Tension

The mindset in many organizations is to avoid complexity by insisting on adopting a known solution, even when the solution does not apply. The rush to impose a solution reduces the tension of the unknown, but does not serve the organizations best interests. That is, the choice of a quick solution rather than understanding the drivers of complexity is a temporary “feel good” solution since it reduces the personal tension of “not knowing”. Reducing tension costs the organization the opportunity to see the drivers of complexity which is found in the tensions and has the critical information for breakthroughs in innovation and reduction of risks.

Learning Agility

Leaders guide organizations and teams in development of new capabilities for embracing and learning from complexity. These new capabilities begin with identifying the drivers of complexity, rather than immediately assuming a known solution. Much of what happens in business does not actually fit inside “order and knowing”. Instead, it occurs in the realms of uncertainty and the un-ordered, which requires leaders who are willing to embrace the existence of complexity. If a business person assumes order, they will be surprised by the fact that “things that never happened before happen all the time”, a concept discussed by Karl Weick concerning High Reliability Organizing, or HRO.

Probing for Weak Signals

Leaders diagnose the level of complexity and uncertainty which their organization is facing. There are response patterns which can be observed, provide valuable insights, and ultimately diagnosed. The diagnosing involves probing for weak signals which require leadership experiments to quickly amplify and exploit these signals. A probe provides valuable data and patterns on what is being learned. The disagreement among those investigating the patterns is important. The leader and team collaborate in keeping an open mind and not falling into the temptation to prematurely rush to an inaccurate conclusion. The patterns serve as evidence necessary to diagnosing the uncertainty and effectively see opportunities in the complexity. Dave Snowden (from which much of this thinking is derived) aptly describes the response pattern as probe the environment, sense what works and doesn’t, and respond intelligently. This process of conducting probes gives an intentional look at the signals which led to success. These probes also allow for dampening the signals which are not working.

Capability for Creating Emergent Practices

Emergent practices enable leaders in an organization to observe the drivers of complexity, to conduct probes and projects to better understand the realms of complexity, and then to invent a course of action. Emergent Practice allows for experimentation and organizational learning. It is also an excellent place for Breakthrough Projects. With an Emergent Practice, solution emerges that could not be fully known in advance.

Leading Through Cognitive Bias

Facility in equipping others in the organization to spot cognitive bias is an essential skill of leadership. Cognitive biases are the consequences of mental shortcuts which every person uses routinely throughout the day. These cognitive shortcuts allow us all to function and are helpful in dealing with mundane routines. Occasionally these mental and behavioral shortcuts misread the situation and begin a course of action based on the faulty perception. The clear majority of these misreads are harmless and can even be humorous. However, on occasion these misreads can be very serious for managers assessing strategic options and anyone operating in some potentially complex situations.

KingChapman equips leaders to guide their organizations in identifying the drivers of complexity. In dealing with complexity, leaders begin with probing to observe the response patterns. Data discovered from these probes is the first step in agile learning and developing an intelligent response. The agile learning is required to avoid slipping into preexisting explanations which do not apply. Then information and learning can emerge.


Do you want to learn more about the type of leadership it takes to guide your organization through complex and changing time? Download our whitepaper: ‘Transformation Change Leaders: The Biggest Missing Ingredient in Business Today’

In it learn:

  • What is driving the “gap” that exists in Boards of Directors and leadership teams
  • The 6 main components of transformation change leadership
  • What is causing the shortage of supply

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