Don't Try to Change Me – Discovering the Differentiated Leader

An inauspicious start to a critical engagement “Don’t think you can change me…don’t even try.” The department director shot these words at our introduction.

I caught the eyes of my friend darting toward mine to see if I would buckle or flinch in the first volley.  I smiled and while grasping the hand of the director to shake it I looked into his eyes and said, “That is the last thing I would attempt…I am not here to change you I am here to help you leverage the success of the department you have built to the potential you see for it. Is that ok with you?”

“Ok,” he responded. He looked surprised.

“Well then I have two rules,” I continued “and I need you to agree to them before I begin or I will pack up and walk out.”

“What are they?” the director queried.

“First, you give me permission to discover the unvarnished feedback of your employees,” I began.  “Second, you agree to debrief with me at the end of the project to tell you what I have learned.  Do you agree?”

“I agree,” he said and looking at my friend “he is not a bad guy Tim.”

“I told you Dick, he is good at what he does.”

This engagement germinated when Tim had asked me one night what I my research focus was in my doctoral program.

“I am looking at how hope impacts the development of existing and emerging leaders in complex organizations” I responded to his inquiry.

As we talked more about the insights I had gathered in my field research Tim asked, “Would you be willing to see if that fits at the school district? Our department could really use something like this and we have no budget for consultants right now.”

Tim told me that the technical maintenance unit developed in the early 1980s. The director and his secretary were the first employees.  At the time of the project the unit operated with 80+ unionized employees.  The unit’s original assignment was limited to fulfilling EPA directives on the abatement of asbestos contamination.  Today the unit handles abatement of every potential environmental health risk to students.  Not only has the complexity of regulatory compliance increased but the volume of work within this metropolitan school district increased with its initiatives to meet its plan of reducing the backlog of deferred maintenance.

The growth of the department, its technical focus, its existence within a complex metropolitan school district and the fact that its original director was still the leader made this an irresistible field study.

I negotiated for permission to publish my findings (I didn’t know school districts had so many attorneys). The District finally gave permission to publish my work as long as I never mentioned it by name.

Tim had initiated a focus on best practices in management at every level of the department.  He had a long leash that resulted from the fact he served as the de facto director for several months the director was recuperating from a significant health challenge and that Tim had the highest respect for the expertise of the director.  Tim’s respect was both professional and personal.  This respect provided the safety net the director needed to extend trust to my research project.

Classic leadership tensions

In the course of doing the field research some interesting observations emerged:

  • Growth in the scope of leadership responsibility requires a change in how the leader works.
  • Growth in the scope of leadership introduces political (relational) challenges not clear before.
  • Growth in the scope of leadership responsibility reveals gaps in a leader’s capacity.
  • Growth in the scope of leadership requires that a leader find new sources of feedback.
  • Demands on capacity require a change in time management strategies.
  • Demands on capacity require a leader to leverage organizational sovereignty (i.e., depend on the skills and abilities of others and expand the scope of decision-making versus insisting on one’s own perspective exclusively).
  • Growth in the scope of responsibility requires an ability to find and engage other leaders.

Change was not an option for this department.  A vortex of constant and discontinuous change resulted from the department’s growth and contentious budget/philosophical changes in the District.  A chronic degree of mistrust and anxiety existed among the employees I interviewed and surveyed. I prepared to debrief with the director at the end of the research project. I could not help but remember his edict, “Don’t try to change me.”

When changes occur what is impacted?

The Director’s warning about challenging him to change was intriguing in its own right.  He had already faced a wave of change but struggled with altering his behaviors in ways that are classic to a founder.  He managed like a tyrant in that he refused to delegate control of decisions – he was the bottleneck of his department that threatened to push the department in into dangerous lapses of execution.  He was the first in and the last out of the office often working 16 hour days.  He had destroyed his family, had few friends and was losing political capital in the District because he did not know how to relate with peers.  As captain of his own ship he worked more like a pirate barking orders and threatening to keel-haul inefficient crew.

The Director was on a collision course with the future – a future that no longer needed a pirate at the helm of an underfunded loosely supervised division.  He had sailed into the center of the District’s maintenance budget in part by the fact he is an internationally recognized expert in his field and in part because of the success he had achieved over the years in raising recognition of the dangers of environmental pollutants and the need to give safe educational environments.  The problem was not a fight for recognition and budget in the bureaucracy. The problem was the director’s own lack of self-regulation in the face of tension.  He did not know how to relate to the organization he had built.  He had no idea how to relate to the larger bureaucracy of the school district.  If change did not occur the District would slowly dismantled the maintenance unit and absorb it into other departments.

The Director’s initial bark, “don’t try to change me” was not the bark of a blind tyrant hell-bent on running the department into the ground.  It was a statement of recognition that he felt he could not compete on the same ground as the polished political apparatchiks of the District office and was not sure he wanted to – but he did need to adjust something.  So how does a pirate accustom to effecting immediate and sweeping change, immediate execution of ideas with full budgetary discretion alter behavior enough to avoid being abandoned by his allies i.e., the District he serves?

The power of reflection in defining context

After talking with the Director and his team I realized the Director did not see how his own success altered the political terrain.  The director faced two big crises: readjust his approach to his own team or risk losing the best and the brightest that were all frustrated by the repressive tyranny of the director’s micro management (he did not trust them and they knew it). The director had to readjust his approach to the District that now saw him as a policy maker and not an odd ball outlier – he now had power but he did not realize it.  There are few things more dangerous than a leader that possesses power but fails to exercise the self-awareness to realize the extent (or limitations) of their power. The Director was still fighting for recognition of his expertise and the importance of student health.  But, he had won that war – the District had become a model for school districts around the nation for environmental health.

In my curiosity about what the Director had done and my probing about how the changes he initiated had altered District policy both of us gained insight into the shifting political terrain in which he now functioned.  We had several three-way interviews between the Director, Tim and me.  Tim was a master at pointing out the Director’s accomplishments, offering deep respect and bringing the current challenges to clear definition.  These conversations forced a reflection of the type top leaders desperately need – a strategic reassessment of their position.  The Director however had never taken the time to do this on his own because he was too busy fighting the good fight to realize that he was wining fewer battles because the opponents had moved.  He ended up wounding his political alliances and most trusted employees.  Tim served as the Director’s first mate inside the office and as his emissary to the District.   Without Tim’s respect for the man and his accomplishments the Director’s survival in his role was doubtful.  The Director realized two things in these conversations based on his reaction to me.

First, the district trusted his opinion about the law and regulations around environmental safety.  The former pariah was now a recognized expert.  He had accomplished something significant and meaningful.  The problem was that while he had achieved a new status he did not know how to behavior relative to his new status – he is like a championship boxer who after beating his opponent continues the fight with the referee trying to name him the champion.  The failure to change behaviors based on the changing environment makes more enemies than friends.

Second, the Director was rapidly losing the political capital needed to keep his clout in the organization he had created from scratch. He still had fight left and still had battles to win but had not defined them appropriately. The Director sensed the loss of political capital but had interpreted it as an irrational outside threat and not a self-inflicted wound to his own credibility.  His dissonance upon realizing this had shaken his confidence in himself. Tim used the opportunity to drive both realities home with data that was affirming, disarming and incontrovertible.   The Director became more inquisitive and open to learning.  This was the easier of the changes.  As the Director grasped the new limits of his fight and talked about what needed to happen next in his department and beyond.  He became quite inspirational in the weeks we talked together – he is passionate about environmental health.

The breakthrough

How did this change occur?  At the end of the field study I prepared a report and the Director and I sat down to lunch to discuss my findings.

“Ok,” I began.  “You committed to hearing feedback at the completion of my research. I am ready but I need two actions from you.  I want you to commit to doing these actions for three months without fail. Will you give me that commitment?”

The mood of the lunch shifted at the tension and competition of our first meeting reemerged.  The director repeated his first words to me, “Don’t try to change me!”

“We already agreed to these ground rules, Dick,” I responded. “Your insistence on resisting feedback only tells me that you would prefer to sabotage your entire division and sacrifice it on the altar of your own hubris. Is that what you are telling me?”

“Geez, you are ….”he paused, “…ok what do you want me to do?”

I asked, “In your own words who are you?”

He floundered for a moment grasping for what I meant.

“I am an expert in my field. I am focused. I want to make a significant contribution in life. I am gruff and impatient with incompetence. I am a man of few friendships but I think they are deep,” he replied.

“Ok,” I said, “…your team agrees with all of this but they don’t trust you.” He looked rather stunned as founders often do.  I explained that in my experience founders are very capable of outlining how they have sacrificed. Founders ably describe the risk they assumed in the pursuit of success.  Yet they are blind to the sacrifices and risks taken by those they have inspired to help them achieve their big goals.  Granted, the risks incurred by employees seem small in comparison to putting family, assets, and reputation on the line like founders often do. However founders inherently infer that a proportional sacrifice is required of all their key employees.  It takes a different shape usually in long hours and high demands and initially low pay. If the employees sacrifice remains unacknowledged and devalued then a mutiny occurs. The casualty of such a mutiny is not limited to the founder – everyone is hurt.

It was quiet for a long time – I felt little compulsion to rescue Dick from whatever internal reflection he was doing in the silence. Finally he said, “Ok, I will commit to your suggested actions.”

“Great,” I replied.  I need 20 minutes of your time each day.  I need 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the evening.  As your employees arrive I want you to walk out of your office and greet your employees by name.”  For all the years Dick had worked to build the department he always arrived up to 60 minutes ahead of his employees and stayed for up to three hours after they left – and never left his office.  Only two people dared to enter his office without being invited – Tim, his first mate and Dick’s secretary.  Employees summoned to Dick’s office endured scolding on their failure to consider all the aspects of their projects. Dick would itemize their failures and send them back to correct their mistakes.  If anyone pushed back during these interactions Dick would launch into a review of his published work and his stature as an expert.

“I can do that,” Dick replied.

“Ok, then 10 minutes before the end of the day I want you to come back out of your office and thank your employees for their hard work.” I said.

“What?  They are paid for that work.  That is their thanks. They and the union give me nothing but grief with all their gripping, their grievances – we spend so much time with union reps and attorneys over this crap that we fall behind on critical projects.” Dick’s face had begun to glow with a reddish hue.

I stared right back at him, “You gave me your word that you would keep your commitment.  Are reneging? I am happy to leave you the bill for lunch and go home now. But, I need to know if you have the integrity to keep your word.”

Dick stopped mid-breath. “Why do I need to thank them for doing their jobs?”

“Because,” I said, “…they are doing their jobs.  They could be out sitting behind the district buildings drinking beer and simply reporting that they are working.  They could be doing all kinds of things that would destroy this department.”

“They try that crap and they will be fired,” Dick retorted.

“Good,” I said, “you need to be consistent in excellence and in the management of the task.  That excellence is not the problem here. Thank them every day because they perform the work you assigned to them. And if any of them are not you have the disciplinary processes in place to discuss that problem – use them consistently. The question is; will you keep your commitment?”

Dick agreed.  In the months that followed I checked in with Dick in a surprise visit.  He was noticeably happier and his employees in the department caught me and thanked me for whatever it was I had done to make Dick human.  A year later the department inherited all maintenance functions in the district.  Eventually Dick moved to a new position that allowed him to be the knowledge expert and put Tim in the Director seat.  The employees, Tim and Dicks all told me that the consult had been a success.  The real success however is that Dick emerged as a fully differentiated leader.  He was never the best friend of his team.  However he had become human and began to allow his direct reports to thrive.  By appreciating their work Dick begun to recognize their expertise and slowly backed away from micromanaging every detail.

Conclusion – what is a differentiated leader?

A differentiated leader is a person whose identity exhibits several critical behavioral characteristics.  Dick had started the department as a differentiated leader but then because of the capacity shift that occurred as the department grew he fell into regressive and reactive behavior.  As his identity reemerged several critical behaviors returned and grew in-depth.  Being a self-differentiation leader requires:[1]

  1. The capacity to go it alone. Dick’s capacity to move with or without popular support had built the department.  His failure however to extricate himself from the emotional binds of the less emotionally mature leaders in the district had caused him to retreat from this position of leading to a defensive position that ultimately made him the victim of District “politics”. Dick despised the feeling of helplessness – he overcame it by reasserting his willingness to engage people.
  2. The ability to recognize and extricate oneself from emotional binds. When Dick began to re-engage his team he had to face the reality that his retreat from relationships to isolation in his office had only complicated the emotional binds of the less emotionally mature.  The more he retreated the more his employees turned to grievances and work slowdowns to express their malcontent.
  3. Recognition of the folly of trying to will others to change.  Oddly enough the director resisted strong-arm tactics to change his style while simultaneously trying to force others to change.  He faced two points of resistance: (1) the intransigent and emotionally regressive who needed to be reminded to take responsibility for their own well-being and destiny and (2) those who were attempting to “will” the director to change by amplifying grievances and work slowdowns. The fact is that when change (or crisis) is “…viewed in terms of proportional or systems thinking and not straight line, linear thinking, then outcomes other than mere capitulation or escape become possible….mobilization of an organism’s resources such as resiliency, determination, self-regulation, and stamina.”[2]
  4. The modifying potential of a non-anxious presence. The department under the Director’s insistence on capitulation by the union had become reactive i.e., attempts to squelch or side step union activity resulted in a greater degree of intransigent resistance on the part of the union and attempts by potential leaders to escape the conflict by blending into the environment as though they could exist unseen by the reactive parties. When the director changed his approach by exercising awareness and thankfulness it altered his anxiety and de-escalated the reactive anxiety of the employees. Conversations began to look at the larger issues faced by the department and new contributors emerged from the shadows with new solutions.
  5. The ratifying power of endurance in crisis. Tim demonstrated endurance in the process. He stayed by the Director’s side providing honest feedback and creative perspectives and remained engaged with the employees refusing to allow them to capitulate their part of making the department a success.  His endurance encouraged participation and the possibility of change in the minds of the employees.
  6. The self-regulation necessary for dealing with reactive sabotage. As the department began to make a shift toward change some saw change a more threatening potential than the undercurrent of reactive conflict that had been the norm.  Dick’s new found fortitude helped him engage the transparent conversations needed to lay out the opportunity and the result of not taking the opportunity. He began to see that the union agreements restricted more than his behavior, it outlined expectations on the employees.  Not everyone exercised self-regulation.  A couple of the employees requested transfers to other departments because they resented the new more positive environment and higher degree of personal responsibility.  Dick and Tim transferred employees who failed to assume personal responsibility. Each transfer reduced the number of sabotaged union negotiations and project deadlines.  Sabotage follows effective leaders.
  7. The factors in the leader's own being that cause him or her stress. In the private conversations Dick talked about the collapse of his marriage and his health and his faith. He wanted to find a way to renew his faith and health…his marriage had ended in a rather nasty divorce. As he came to terms with the impact of his spiritual and physical health he saw how his own struggles had contributed to his poor leadership and the slow erosion of trust and integrity in the department. To the degree leaders exercise self-awareness about the factors that cause them stress they are effective in mitigating the stress of others. (See the comments on emotional intelligence in http://raywheeler.wordpress.com/2011/02/19/servant-leadership-and-corporate-social-responsibility/.)

So how is your differentiation as a leader?  Can you describe what makes you unique?  Do you exercise the seven traits outlined above?  In what ways do you see improvement may be needed or advised? Who are you talking to about it?  Dick had two trusted advisors that led him through significant changes in perspective – Tim who worked for him and me who served as a timely mentor/coach.  If you don’t have a trusted advisor who provides clear and unvarnished feedback it is time to find one.  Let me know your thoughts in the comments.  Thanks.


[1] Edwin Friedman. Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Margaret M. Treadwell and Edward W. Beal eds. (New York, NY: Church Publishing. [Kindle Version downloaded from Amazon.com], 2007).

[2] Friedman (2007)