Home >

The Courage to Participate in Transformation

I find it tragic that able leaders who fall dramatically from grace often share a common experience: their closest followers have long been aware of their fatal flaw and were unsuccessful in getting the leader to deal with it. Revelation of the flaw often comes as an unexpected shock to the broader group because it has been carefully managed and kept from public view. But those closest to the leader have usually spent long hours dealing with the fallout from the leader’s behavior and discussing among themselves what to do about it.

In the political world, when a leader self-destructs, it is front-page news, so it has historically been easier to see examples of this behavior than in the business world. Every generation has its political leaders who are shamed out of office, soundly defeated at the polls, or worse. Most are soon forgotten even by their own generation, but a few flame out spectacularly and become part of the national lore, at least for a while.

In the United States, former civil rights activist and Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry’s cocaine habit and late-night hotel rendezvousing ended in a sting operation, jail sentence, and international disgrace for the Capitol City. President Richard Nixon’s paranoia led him to encourage and cover up the dirty tricks that took the nation to the brink of constitutional crisis and eventually forced his resignation. He only eluded criminal prosecution by a presidential pardon from his successor. President Bill Clinton’s lifelong pattern of wriggling out of the consequences of personally and politically risky behavior played into the hands of his political enemies when he emphatically and falsely denied an involvement with government intern Monica Lewinsky. This experience nearly cost him the presidency, certainly damaged his reputation, and probably cost his party the White House in the subsequent election.

Recently, we have begun to see public exposure of similar phenomena in other areas of leadership, including the church, business, and government agencies such as law enforcement or the education system. What a terrible waste to lose a leader’s talents because of one undesirable pattern of behavior! In nearly every case, there were undoubtedly individuals who tried to confront these leaders about their behavior and were ignored, refuted, given unkept promises, or shunted out of the inner circle. But the fact that they tried tells us that the courage to challenge isn’t itself always sufficient.

Behavior that flagrantly violates values may be symptomatic of a deeply ingrained psychological pattern or an addiction, which takes more than a request to change. We can’t tell leaders something once and then abandon our accountability for the impact of their behavior on our common purpose. Challenging something once does not give us the right to lean back cynically and say, “Well, they never listen!” We must search for approaches that reach our leaders and methods to help them transform the damaging behavior.

This requires courage for several reasons. First, we have to admit to ourselves how serious the situation actually is, how gravely it endangers the organization’s work. Second, we may have to examine our own collusion with the leader’s behavior, what we do that allows it to continue. Third, transformation is an inexact activity and can easily fail, leaving us the discredited champions of a very lost cause.

Some people don’t believe transformation is even possible. Our culture tells us “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” I had one foundation reject a proposal I had written to fund an ethics workshop for members of the U.S. Congress and their staffs because “the individual’s moral character is formed by early adulthood and can’t thereafter be changed.”

The attitude that people can’t change is defeatist, and I want to vigorously challenge our thinking on this subject in relation to leaders and followers. I can’t responsibly write about challenging and leaving leaders without also writing about transforming. That option must be explored. It’s easy to write someone off. It’s also lazy and wasteful to do so if it can be avoided.

I believe that one of the most important advances of the closing decades of the last millennium was the increasing use of transformative techniques, as imperfect as they may be. This may turn out to be the lasting contribution of the controversial sixties generation. For example, we see widespread acceptance of twelve-step programs for a wide range of addictions. We have become compassionate and sophisticated about helping war veterans and disaster victims process their trauma. Marriage counseling and family therapy are more frequently used today as options to slow the alarming divorce rate generated by the sexual and social revolution of the sixties and seventies.

At the same time that we see an increased use of transformation techniques, we see many failures in transformation attempts: the family member who keeps reverting to drugs, the war veteran who commits suicide, the marriage that fails despite counseling. Even more disturbing are the things about ourselves we would like to change, but have never been successful at changing. These make it hard for us to believe in transformation.

It is true that personal transformation is extremely difficult, often the most difficult challenge of our lives. I believe that we must, nevertheless, open up to its possibilities. If a behavior threatens to overwhelm our larger purpose, we must find the skilled help to support a transformation effort, muster the courage to go for it, and exert the discipline required to achieve transformation. Transformation efforts should be attempted when a practice or behavior that violates the organization’s values and threatens its purpose is so entrenched that it is barely understood to be a legitimate problem, let alone one of potentially catastrophic dimensions.

There are often strong internal and external pressures working against a leader’s transformation. I have personally experienced some of these pressures. At one time I had a deserved reputation for being a screamer who used threatening behavior to get things done. I didn’t like my out-of-control anger; it obviously hurt people and depressed morale. But I used my track record of turning around poorly performing offices to justify it. The behavior served me well in a high-pressured, results-now environment. Though I was ashamed of how out-of-control the behavior was, I was defensive when anyone intimated it was wrong.

Eventually, the behavior caused enough serious problems in my professional and personal life, and enough discordance with my basic value system, that I achieved some success in modifying it. But when organizational performance lagged, headquarters questioned whether I was going soft! It was only after leaving this culture and joining a different organization, which wouldn’t tolerate abusive behavior and presented me with other models of success, that I was able to truly transform it in my professional life.

While this articles will focus on personal behavior requiring transformation, it is also true that sometimes the need for personal and organizational transformation is intertwined. Characteristics of one reinforce the other. For example, a leader in a corporate setting with a strong vision and a persuasive personality will be likely to attract shareholders, directors, and senior staff who desire to benefit from the success the leader generates. Expectations skyrocket, and handsome rewards are built into the system to encourage achieving lofty financial goals. As this organization appears to become more and more successful, there is less and less questioning of the methods being used to achieve success. A “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” attitude develops. Whatever flaw the particular leader of the operation may have—grandiosity, poor ability to integrate acquired operations, lack of concern for legal niceties—is overlooked by the system and is often rewarded and reinforced. This removes all apparent incentive for transformation and worsens the risk that the leader will continue behaving in deeply problematic ways. For transformation to occur, both the leader and the system need to be engaged in the effort.

Similarly, an organization may desperately need to move from a centralized command-and-control culture to a decentralized, risk-taking, service-oriented environment. But the organization can’t effectively make this change until its leaders deal with their own exaggerated control needs. Transformation needs to be stimulated in both dimensions.

The transformation can be goal-oriented or process-oriented—for example, to clean up the impact the organization’s practices are having on the environment or to improve the way its leaders involve others in decision making. Sometimes, it can be both.

Too often, leaders do not become sufficiently motivated to engage in the tough job of changing their behavior until they have lived through a crisis precipitated by the behavior. By then the damage is usually extensive. Some people believe the motivation for transformation can’t be developed short of a crisis. It is my view that the role of courageous followers is to preempt that crisis by engaging the leader in transformation before the storm.

When dealing with a hard-bitten leader, the prospect of transformation may seem hopeless; the leader may seem unapproachable on the subject and our efforts may cause a backlash and worsen the situation. The leader may be surrounded with advisers who have a strong vested interest in the leader not changing the status quo that is lining their pockets. They may attack the follower who is championing change. But there are times when transformation must be attempted by a courageous follower, despite the risks. When we have a purpose we believe in and a strong, committed leader, it is worth all the effort to transform potentially tragic flaws. Ask hard-bitten leaders who have been derailed by their flaws if, in retrospect, they don’t wish their followers had tried harder to get through to them.

When the transformation needed involves not just the leader’s own behavior but also fundamental parts of the system, courageous followers will need to be extremely skillful in finding organizational support for their efforts and presenting compelling evidence to make their case. They will need to be particularly adroit in describing the potential consequences in terms that convey the pain of failing to transform as greater than the pain of transforming, where they believe this to be true.

This articles focuses primarily on helping a leader with the process of personal transformation. It is based on my own observations and reflections, on my personal transformation efforts, and on the few studies that have been done by others attempting to help senior executives change. I hope to provide some useful guidance, and don’t pretend to present a definitive approach to transformation for leaders or followers. Extensive dialogue and investigation is needed on this subject. I begin this articles with a statement of general principles, which the literature on human change suggests are true in any transformation effort. I also examine how resistance to change, which is present in all transformation efforts, manifests in particular in leaders. And most germanely, I explore what a courageous follower’s role should be in a transformation effort.

It is very challenging for both leaders and followers to do the internal work necessary for transformation while keeping things going externally in their professional and personal lives. In the following pages, we will explore how the process might work.