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Thinking Out Loud

Leadership Notebook 7: Leadership and Change (Part 2)

by Michael Jinkins | Dec 03, 2014
Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that address the idea of leadership. Best practices, challenges, rewards and lessons learned from different models of leadership are the focus of these special blog posts. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “leadership notebook.” E-mail us!

Leadership Notebook 7In the last “Leadership Notebook” posting, I mentioned that the best theory I’ve come across to help leaders deal with change was developed by Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard in 1972.1 Their model has proven useful in congregations and schools, as Debbie and I noted in our book on power, change and leadership.2 Today, I’d like to provide a very brief summary of the high points of their model.

Hersey and Blanchard observed an interesting dynamic about leaders and change.

Leaders can make things happen. But just because a leader can make something happen does not mean that his or her leadership is enhanced or that the group’s ability to adapt to future change is strengthened. In fact, a leader can be successful in changing something but may make the change in such a way that the leader is unlikely ever to get anything else accomplished in that organization. Thus, Hersey and Blanchard distinguish between effective and ineffective leadership and not just between successful and unsuccessful leadership.

Their distinction is important. An effective leader leads the group through change in such a way that the group will trust the leader more - not less - after the change is made. By contrast, a leader who manipulates or forces a group into a change (though he is strictly speaking “successful” in making that specific change) undercuts relationships that will be needed in the long term.

Hersey and Blanchard have their eye on the prize of long-term effective leadership. If a leader wants to be both successful and effective, her followers have to want the change to happen. They have to believe in the value of the change. They need to be willing to invest in the change. In effective leadership, followers discern that their goals and the leader’s goals are consistent.

The challenge for a leader or a leadership team that wants to be both successful and effective is to lead others through a process that encourages the group itself to formulate change in the face of new challenges, rather than merely to own the changes the leader individually is convinced are crucial for the organization’s future. Hersey and Blanchard’s theory of change speaks directly to this leadership challenge. They understand clearly that change must be viewed from a perspective deeper than just external compliance or behavior. Effective change must involve people in four levels of change: (1) knowledge; (2) attitude; (3) individual behavior; (4) group or organizational behavior.

At some levels, their theoretical model represents the best of common sense. But there is one particular aspect of their theory that may be a bit counter-intuitive.

According to Hersey and Blanchard, an effective leader begins the process by addressing a group’s need to know and understand. The leader helps the group gain a deeper perspective and new insights, thus preparing the ground for possible change. But, as Hersey and Blanchard note, “Changes in knowledge are the easiest to make.” Those who have participated in an organization that prizes professional development, know the acquisition of knowledge can become both habit-forming and liberating to members of a group, strengthening the organization far beyond the immediate moment of decision, provided the leader is willing to enjoy the fruit of a more knowledgeable group. But those who have ever scratched their head over why people who know better keep doing the same counter-productive thing, understand that knowledge does not always lead to positive change, even among highly intelligent people. This is where Hersey and Blanchard are really helpful.

The effective leader must also lead the group into an exploration of the emotional or attitudinal dimensions involved in the challenge facing the organization, having allowed them to digest new information and knowledge. Deeper knowledge may actually heighten anxiety and resistance in a group, at least at first. It is a wise leader who allows followers time and space to absorb emotionally the implications of the challenge facing them. We need to remember, even positive changes can evoke negative feelings, feelings of loss and latent anxiety. Many otherwise very bright leaders fail to understand that leadership is emotional, and the effectiveness of leaders is directly related to how well they handle the emotional dimensions of a group’s behavior (i.e., leaders must remain non-reactive and non-anxious while staying in relationship with the group members).

Emotions are all the more powerful because they are so intangible. But if a leader hopes to see a change endure, she must be willing to listen and appropriately respond to the emotional reactions, feelings, concerns, fears and hopes of individuals in the group. This does not mean that a leader must become emotionally hooked by or stuck in the negative emotions that often emerge in times of change or conflict. However, a leader who hopes to take a group to new places must work to bring the individuals along.

How a leader handles resistance and sabotage will largely define his or her leadership. Resistance is simply part of the change process, and effective leaders know that they need not take resistance personally.

The move from knowledge through attitudes, we should remember, is never simply linear. It may be that the leader will need to allow the group to spend considerable time cycling round from knowledge to attitudes and back to knowledge acquisition again, because changes in attitude allow people to see things anew and to understand things to which they were previously blocked by their attitudes. A leader must not lose sight of the ends and goals of the group and cannot allow the group’s anxieties to prevent it from doing what is necessary to adapt to a changing environment or to meet an emerging challenge.

As difficult as it is to help people change knowledge and attitudes, changes in individual behavior are even more difficult to make. You may remember Edwin Friedman’s observation that unmotivated people don’t change just because of insight. Hersey and Blanchard would say “Amen.” Changes in what Hersey and Blanchard describe as “patterned behavior” is what we are after; not just episodic changes, but habitual.

Changes in patterned behavior are difficult to achieve and more difficult to sustain. It is here that the individual must finally own a particular change and determine that the intrinsic benefits of the change outweigh the benefits of not changing. If this does not happen, the change won’t stick. If it does happen, actual change of the group or organization becomes possible.

The most difficult level of change is, of course, in the group’s own version of “patterned behavior,” the customs and traditions that represent a group’s deep habits of being and that give a group their identity. It is at this level, ultimately, that the group as a group either supports or will undermine the proposed change, because it is at this level that the group will either accept the change as its own (i.e., ultimately consistent with the group’s identity and character) or will reject it (as alien to the group’s identity). This is essential to remember.

Harry Truman once said that there is no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t need to take credit for it. A leader must from the very outset of the change process let go of the need to take credit for the change or to demand that the change be enacted precisely as she imagined. Almost any change that will really be owned by a group will have been somewhat altered in the process of the group’s making the change its own.

It is true that this process requires a lot of time. And there are changes that simply must be made more quickly than the process allows. It is also true that this process of change (getting buy-in along the way) is only complicated (and sometimes impossible) in highly complex institutions which are made up of several constituencies and different types of stakeholders. In other words, real-world conditions are a lot different from laboratory conditions, and leadership rarely happens in laboratory conditions.

The principles presented in Hersey and Blanchard’s theory of change, however, are sound, and a leader who ignores them does so at his or her own considerable peril. On the other hand, leaders who want to be both successful and effective will do well to aim at long-term effectiveness and not just immediate success.


1Paul Hersey and Kenneth H. Blanchard, “The Management of Change,” in Henry L. Tosi and W. Clay Hamner, eds. Organizational Behavior and Management: A Contingency Approach (Chicago: St. Clair Press, rev. ed. 1977).
2Michael Jinkins and Deborah Bradshaw Jinkins, Power and Change in Parish Ministry (Washington, D.C.: Alban Institute Press, 1991), 57-63.

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