The statement stung. “Ray,” Don said, “this will be the hardest thing you have ever done.” By itself the statement could sound noble. But it was ignoble. Don had just told me that developing other leaders would be the hardest thing I had ever accomplished because I was accustom to the privilege and power of being the top dog. Don zeroed in, “Ray, you will always find it easier to do it yourself because you are pretty competent. But until you allow yourself the discomfort of feeling less than competent you won’t learn the skills, time applications and work values needed to become a more effective developer of others.”
I protested, “I developed leaders all the time, I empowered them, directed them toward success, helped them do what they thought they could not.”
"You have done that pretty effectively in small organizations over which you exerted absolute control. What about organizations in which you are simply a cog among other cogs? How will you influence the development of others when you don't control the environment? That is what you need to learn." Don said.
Upon reflection I had to admit that I had little experience working in larger complex systems over which I exerted little or no control. I did need to learn how to apply the skills I had developed in small organizations to social and operation networks of complex organizations. Complex organizations are characterized in sub-surface allegiances and alliances carved out by power brokers. In smaller organizations I simply powered over these allegiances and alliances.
Following my encounter with Don, I found my self embroiled in painfully challenging conversations that refused to simply act on my great advice. In fact they rejected my advice altogether. Slowly, I began to see that I need to learn new approaches to developing others. I learned the power of asking questions to help others get at their own assumptions and unseen biases. I learned the power of dialogue that helped me engage the effort to align my experience and knowledge to the needs experienced by the individual I was hoping to influence. I learned that there were multiple skills and approaches to leadership development that were dictated by the circumstance, the leader and the history of the organization in which I was working.
Don challenged the embedded models of leadership that I had never critically assessed. By “embedded models” I mean those leadership behaviors, speech patterns and assumptions I had “caught” from watching others and used to gain success. I assumed, wrongly, that the skills and insights that made me successful in one venue would make me successful in all venues. Not only is this assumption misguided but it reinforced behavior that did not stand the test of either theological reflection or the crucible of experience. In my worse nightmare I discovered that how I acted as a leader sometimes contradicted both the message I intended to announce and the work I was trying to complete.
This growing self awareness describes the essence of adaptive change – in order to engage in this kind of change one must be willing to face the difficult facts of their actual situation. I resisted what Don had to say because he showed me things about myself that I did not want to see. But my resistance was rooted in another motive besides denial – I was afraid. I was afraid that I would loose my sense of competence. What is more I was afraid I would never regain it. Resistance to change is usually never rooted in the change itself, it is rooted in the sense of loss that accompanies the change. If the loss looms large enough it eclipses the gains.
After my conversation with Don I went through a series of events in which I lost my job, my role, and my sense of accomplishment. I went through a time of embarrassment and shame – borrowing a descriptor I learned from my friends from Asia, I lost face. What I did not see at the time was that like a caterpillar’s descent into a cocoon I faced a deconstruction of my self-image so that a different expression of who I am could emerge.
It has been years since Don first challenged me by his statement. Developing leaders is still the hardest thing I do. But now when Don and I get together we often laugh about how comical my stunned response was to his pointed observation. I am thankful that he respected me enough to challenge me with his observation. I am grateful that he never withdrew from me in my turmoil. The question that emerged for me through the experience is simple, will I really listen to the feedback that can change my work for the better? Will I maintain a learning posture so that the work of transformation continues to shape me into a more effective leader? Will I act in ways that consistently align to my announced intention and work I want to complete?
If you find yourself in a time of descent into the cocoon of transformation it is important to remember one important lesson. Whether or not you emerge on the other side of the experience stronger or weaker, ready or defeated is all up to you. Will you embrace the change, see the potential and let go of bitterness and resentment that seek to limit and define you? Will you forgive? Yes, forgiveness is a critical leadership development choice. Without it the muddle of the cocoon will never develop into the clarity and focus of powerful leadership.