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Thinking Out Loud

Leadership Notebook 6: Leadership and Change (Part 1)

by Michael Jinkins | Nov 20, 2014
Leadership and ChangeSeveral years ago, in a now classic essay in the Harvard Business Review, Charles F. Knight, then chairman and CEO of the Emerson Electric Company in St. Louis, Missouri, discussed the primary reason most business ventures fail. His comments, written specifically for a business audience, are worth hearing in the churchly and academic worlds. Knight writes: “We … believe that companies fail primarily for nonanalytical reasons: management knows what to do but, for some reason, doesn’t do it.”1

If we were to boil down the principles that Knight elaborates in this essay, they’d go something like the following:

  • Do the best analysis of your data that you can do.
  • Devote significant time to planning, planning and more planning.
  • Think strategically for the long term while paying attention to your short-term results.
  • Don’t fail to act; i.e., do what you know you need to do.
  • Repeat the cycle, making necessary changes based on new data.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But there’s a lot to think about and a lot to understand between the bullets when and where change occurs or doesn’t occur. There’s just no getting away from the fact that change is at the heart of the leader’s distinctive role in an organization.

Why is that?

Because leaders and leadership teams are responsible not only for the smooth operation of an organization in the present, but for the organization’s future ability to meet new sometimes unprecedented and unpredictable emerging challenges and demands in the surrounding environment. To put it in a slightly different way: leadership is future-oriented or it isn’t leadership; it’s just management. And as important as good management is, it cannot substitute for leadership. Inevitably management devolves into the sustaining of the status quo unless it is held in tension with the future-orientation of good leadership.

I don’t remember where I first heard this story (and if someone out there comes across the source on it, I would be very grateful to know so I can give credit where credit is due), but the story goes that the head of a family-owned drill bit company died, leaving the leadership of his corporation to a son who had more of a reputation for good times than for hard work. When the son arrived at the first meeting of his leadership team, his reception was cold, to say the least.

“What does this kid know about our business?” seemed to be the consensus attitude.

Sitting down in his father’s chair, the young man started the meeting with his own question: “What do we make?”

The chill in the room dropped a few degrees cooler.

“We make drills,” someone said with a sneer, incredulous that the prodigal didn’t even know the company’s product.

“No,” the young man said, “We make holes.”

The short version of what was a long story is that this company emerged within just a few years as the industry leader in laser technology.

Leadership leans into the future imaginatively. It has to do this because the leader or leadership team is responsible not only for the organization’s health in the present moment, but also for its thriving in the future.

Obviously this means that leaders need to be good at reading tea leaves and cultures, within and beyond their organizations. They must be good at discerning the difference between a trend and a fad. And they must be good teachers and communicators who can help their organizations gain interpretive skills. But leaders also need to know what to do to position their organizations to make the necessary changes so they can continue to accomplish their missions in the future, even if their products change.

Good strategic thinking often requires tactical shifts. Notice, for example, that the new CEO of the “drill” company didn’t say that they were abandoning their mission and were going to start manufacturing laptop computers. He knew his company’s mission. He recognized and blessed its mission. But he also had the imagination necessary to shift and redefine the company’s strategic vision, to translate that vision into a new vernacular. The only thing that changed, really, was the technology, but that change was crucial. The new product was a logical extension of the old products, and it engaged a potentially much larger market. In one sense nothing had changed. In another sense, everything changed.

Leadership is about change, but we all know disastrous stories of leaders whose boats cracked up on the rocks of change, either by leading an organization in a direction that constituents could not or would not accept, or by leading a group into some sort of dead end or cul-de-sac from which it never again emerged, or by leading an organization in so many different directions (read here “mission creep”) that no one really knew which way to go or how to prioritize tasks.

When I reflect on the leader’s role as a change agent, I often think of a great New Yorker cartoon. Two mathematicians are standing before a chalkboard on which a long complicated equation is written. On the left side of the equation there are mathematical symbols shooting in every direction; on the right side more mathematical symbols apparently resolving the problem; but in the middle of the blackboard, there are the words “then a miracle occurs.” Pointing at the middle of the equation, one mathematician says to the other, “I think you’re going to need to be more explicit here.”

In our next blog, I plan to be a bit more explicit here about the leader’s role in change, drawing on a theoretical model first presented almost forty years ago in a paper in Training and Development Journal (1972) by two, then, relatively obscure researchers in organizational behavior: Paul Hersey and Kenneth H. Blanchard. It is the best model for understanding change and leadership I’ve ever found.

1Charles F. Knight, “Emerson Electric: Consistent Profits, Consistently,” Harvard Business Review, January-February 1992, 57.

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