How Transformational Leaders Bring Coherence to the Social Change Agenda

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LeadershipPost written by Gary Stokes.

We all want social change, but I don’t often see leaders making a social change agenda coherent.  To be coherent, a social change agenda has to be clear to a large number of people who know what the case for change is, know what the preferred future is, know what strategies are being pursued and know how success will be measured.

Even when leaders have complete access to their audience, as the President and his team have with the world audience, they have difficulty making the agenda coherent.  In the case of the Iraq war, as one example, many feel the case was not made, the vision was cloudy, and changed all the time, and the strategies uncertain.

Which Way Do We Go?

When change agendas are not coherent to constituencies, cynicism, distrust and resistance are the usual responses—the last response leaders want.

In our organizations, systems, communities and states there is the everyday work being pursued which absorbs everyone’s attention, of course.  The transformational leader has to convince everybody that the everyday work must be reframed, and understood in a new way.  If the change agenda isn’t made coherent, there is no chance that people will follow the leader’s new direction.

When no one knows what the new direction is– because the change agenda is not made coherent—everybody responds to the leader’s ambiguity with a wait and see response.  Worse, bad morale and cynicism can rise out of extended periods of lack of clarity about the organization’s mission and commitments.

Even when leaders feel clear about their change agenda, able to articulate it, and sure of their belief in it, they still can fail to make the agenda coherent for other people.  Even though we may know intellectually how to lead transformational change (we’ve read John Kotter, read the Harvard Business Review, studied organizational and system change successes, read Re-inventing Government, and attended lots of leadership seminars and programs) we still may find our initiative only vaguely coherent to our larger constituencies.

Bringing Coherency To Transformational Change Agendas

Why is it so hard for us to make our transformational change agendas coherent?  Here are some things I observe:

We never really redefine our own job enough.  If the job is leading change, we confuse ourselves by creating some mix of a job—part leadership, part management, part a mix of activities that are not coherent even to ourselves.  We allow the job to shape us, rather than shaping the job.  We kid ourselves that we can’t shape the job completely, so we take what feels like a more natural way and respond to what appears to be the world’s demands on us.  The result:  we’re not coherent to others.  As others experience us, we are a mix of agendas, concerns, priorities—which do not add up to a coherent change agenda.  We may even seem to be contradicting ourselves as we pursue  various priorities and agendas.

We don’t invite and develop enough leadership around us.  We need a co-leader, but don’t have one.  We need a dynamite guiding coalition, but we haven’t recruited them, supported them, given them huge leadership assignments—including helping us to make the change initiative coherent.  We haven’t looked out into the larger field and wondered how many leaders this change will require, how we’ll find them and how we’ll develop and support them. Our agenda can never become coherent, because we don’t have a critical mass of leaders with us articulating the agenda, gaining agreement and commitment to the agenda, facilitating learning around the change agenda, embedding changes in the system’s policies, practices and structures.  As a result, all of those potential leaders are pursuing some other agenda, creating the usual cacophony in the system.

We forget who we are—men and women of great love and passion, serving others with great focus and commitment.  The job is hard and we swing between consciousness and unconsciousness.  With the many challenges of leading, we sometimes shrink into a smaller sense of self.  At our most painful moments, we think of quitting: isn’t this all folly?  Maybe I should find something more enjoyable, something which won’t get me attacked, doubted.  Again, I lose my own coherence and, naturally, others can’t help but notice and be affected.

Questions For Our Team Leaders

If our organizational agenda lacks coherence right now, if our energies are fragmented, or if our enterprise seems stuck, it’s a time to reflect and conduct a dialogue with other leaders in the team. For starters, ask these questions:

  1. How are you doing bringing sufficient coherence to our change initiative?
  2. Who are our models and what are our theories of coherent transformational leadership?  What do they have to teach us about how to achieve coherence with our change initiatives?
  3. Who are the people in our enterprise who have the responsibility for systematically articulating a coherent agenda?
  4. Are there ways we could know whether we are achieving coherence or not?

For top executives, the job is leading change.

But leading change requires leaders to change themselves, to do the hard intellectual work required to become more coherent about a new vision for the future and the strategies we might take to get there.

Gary Stokes maps the universe of poise on his blog, The Poised Life. He is the author of the book, Poise: A Warrior’s Guide.  He has trained hundreds of leaders in government, education, and business to lead transformational change.

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