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  • Stephen Scott Johnson

To lead is to live dangerously

If there’s one thing 2020 has taught us it is that we never quite know when life will be turned upside down, so be ready for anything. We set goals, pursue dreams, and live with intention however, irrespective of these plans, ‘life’ happens largely outside our control. We hear stories about the importance of personal and team agility, of anticipating risk and of being adaptable, yet remain blissfully ignorant of approaching threats until it’s too late to respond.


In the 90’s I was at the forefront of digital innovation globally, leading complex change initiatives across major industries, including defence, tourism, telecommunications, and financial services. I had a ‘dream job’, travelled the world like a rock star, and rode the wave of the dotcom boom, speaking at glitzy events and passionately playing my part to reinvent industries and usher in the ‘new world order’ of social technology. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the bubble burst and I found myself stranded on the rocks of the 2001 ‘tech wreck’ fighting to survive – along with countless other ‘gurus’ with mortgages to pay and young families to feed. It was the black swan event we knew was coming, yet egotistically ignored.


Consider top executives in your industry, who after seemingly long periods of success, suddenly crash and burn. Think of people you know at the forefront of their industries leading incredible change initiatives, who without warning find themselves out of a job. Think about yourself. Have you ever been blindsided, superseded, or replaced?


Whilst often depicted as glamourous and exciting – leading change is dangerous business. Notwithstanding, the ‘dark side’ of leadership – the inevitable attempts to take you out of the game – is often ignored. Be it force majeure or managing people’s aversion and resistance to the disruption and discomfort of change – such as the pain your change initiative creates – leading change is an improvisational art that often appears chaotic and dysfunctional and involves radically reconfiguring a complex network of people, tasks, and institutions. Think about it – you may be guided by an overarching mission, values, and strategy, but what you actually do from day to day cannot be scripted. You must be able to simultaneously play the game whilst observing it as a whole. It’s like moving back and forth from the balcony to the dance floor continuously, responding as events unfold.


Leadership luminary John C. Maxwell says, “The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.” In both personal and professional contexts, leadership is about perspective and having the capacity for reflection; a macro and micro view of situations and ability to anticipate opportunity, whilst avoiding the negative and even catastrophic consequences of change.



There are three things that can equip you to lead change powerfully:


1. Play above the frayTo avoid difficult change, people will naturally, even unconsciously, defend ways of thinking and habits. As you seek input from people, you’ll constantly need to be aware of these hidden agendas. Hence, the ability to maintain perspective in the midst of delivery is critical to reducing change friction. Maintaining duality of vantage point – balcony and dance floor – is easier said than done but nonetheless key. In fact, one of the most challenging aspects of leadership is the ability to maintain objectivity of your own actions – to see oneself objectively. Fortunately, you can learn to be both observer and participant at the same time. Observe relationships and body language and learn to see how people’s attention to one another can vary: supporting, undermining, or listening. In essence, you practice by watching what is happening while it is happening—even as you are part of what is happening.


2. Befriend the uncommitted – Let’s face it, when leading change, it’s tempting to go it alone. It’s exciting, and there’s no one to challenge or interfere with your ideas or share the glory. It’s also risqué and foolish. Effective change is done with people not to people, therefore, recruit partners who can help protect you from the unseen and point out potential fatal flaws in your strategy. Moreover, you are far less vulnerable when you’re not the only one out on a limb. You also need to keep resistors close – those opposed to change. Knowing what they are thinking can help you challenge them more effectively and avert attempts to derail your agenda—or enable you to borrow ideas that will improve your initiative from the people dedicated to seeing you fail.


3. Learn to leverage conflict – many organisations I work with are allergic to conflict. It is arguably one of the greatest challenge’s leaders face and learning to leverage it is key. Conflict may involve clashing viewpoints at executive level, disagreement about how change should be managed, or basic resistance to the uncertainty it creates. However, conflict is an essential aspect of change and when managed effectively can fuel growth and progress.


What’s your game plan for dealing with the unexpected?


Until next time...

Stephen

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