Leading change - how hard can it be?


Charles de Gaulle famously said, “l’intendance suivra”.  By this he meant that his role as leader was to set the vision or direction and other peoples’ roles were to sort out all the necessary activities required to turn it into a reality. 

Added on 20 April 2016 by Colin Williams

Leading change

De Gaulle was indisputably one of the great leaders of the 20th century bringing France to success from the most difficult of situations on more than one occasion, yet the sentiment he expresses would be almost unthinkable for a contemporary leader: ‘implementation is someone else’s problem’.

Perhaps he was right? Are we, in the 21st century, overly concerned with buy-in, engagement, developing commitment and building support? Are we incapacitating our leaders with unreal expectations? Is the breadth of responsibility a senior leader carries unrealistic – and thereby disempowering?  

In 2013, Ashridge gathered the views of over 200 managers about the changing nature of leadership¹. The overriding sentiment was around a paradoxical need for, and rejection of, heroic leaders. We concluded that heroism is still important but the nature of heroism has changed. Today’s heroes cannot be the slightly detached ‘ruling class’ perhaps represented by de Gaulle. Expectations of ‘followers’ have changed: they expect to be treated more equally, to be more empowered, to be given greater freedom, to have more autonomy. They expect their leaders to have some of the same heroic qualities but also to be more accessible, more connected, and perhaps more human.  In todays digital world of instantly available information, it is very difficult for a leader to maintain a carefully managed image.

If leaders are burdened with unrealistic expectations, the responsibility for this lies with both leaders and followers. Leaders are more rewarded now than at any point in the last 100 year, however the trappings of success isolate them from many of their followers. With this comes the risk of believing they can make everything succeed (or everything fail): a sense of omnipotence described by David Owen as ‘Hubris Syndrome’². In this case leaders can lose touch with the reality of the changes they are leading.

And so we have a classic dilemma: the overriding sense of expectation drives leaders into behaviors which appear like overconfidence which others find disengaging, while in reality this may actually be a flight from the scale of (perhaps self-imposed) responsibilities.

We believe that for organizational change to succeed leaders need to do two basic things:
  1. To be realistic about what they (individually) can achieve. To downplay any expectations that they are some kind of super-hero who has all the answers in their back pocket, or that they can personally drive through the changes using a combination of willpower and magic.  
  2. To engage those around them in thinking about what needs to change and how to change it. They need to create a desire for change amongst a significant number of people if it is to become a reality. They need a team of people who will have the resilience to keep going when things get difficult and the empathy to engage others in developing momentum.  
It is this combination of being clear and unremitting about what needs to be achieved, and willing to accept their own limits and frailties, and be realistic about their individual potential to make it happen that is the key to success. In many ways today’s leaders need to combine De Gaulle’s sense of direction and ambition with a humility that allows others to engage with them, want to support them and thereby be committed to a shared success.

If you are interested in learning more about leading change take a look at our open program the Senior Executive Program: Leading Strategy and Change

¹ The Ashridge Journal 360 Winter 2013/14 “Is leadership changing?” Colin Williams, Megan Reitz and John Higgins

² “Hubris syndrome: An acquired personality disorder? A study of US Presidents and UK Prime Ministers over the last 100 years” by David Owen and Jonathon Davidson in “Brain – A Journal of Neurology” Oxford University Press, February 2009.