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Creating a Supportive Environment

Transformation requires a secure vessel—the equivalent of a protective cocoon in which the work can be done. This is difficult to create in the hurly-burly world of fast-moving organizations. It can be done, however, by followers who are committed to creating a caring community.

We sometimes hear of the loneliness at the top of an organization. Leaders do often feel alone, though sometimes the aloneness is of their own making. We need to communicate that they are not alone in their transformation efforts. We will support them and stand by them. We will share responsibility for the progress of the transformation effort with them.

Sooner or later, whatever the method used to become aware of existing behavior patterns and their impact, the leader needs to experiment with changing these patterns. Experimentation requires a supportive environment. Trying different ways of doing things will initially feel awkward or unnatural. We don’t know what is going to happen when we experiment. It’s okay to fall off the bike when we’re learning to ride, as long as we won’t get laughed at. Or run over. Experiments produce both excitement and anxiety.

How do courageous followers create a supportive environment in which leaders can move through a transformation process? Here are some guidelines:

Let leaders know we see their willingness to take on the challenge of transformation as a sign of their strength as a leader.

Continue to communicate clearly about the impact of their behavior; sustain the external pressure that requires them to generate enough internal pressure to avoid deflation of the transformation effort.

Show patience: remember the strength of the forces that tenaciously hold existing behavior patterns in place.

Continue to work on our own transformation; share our struggles, as appropriate, with the leader and thus share our journeys.

Create an environment clearly supportive of the leader’s new behaviors by providing the complementary behaviors required for the leader’s efforts to be successful.

We should encourage leaders to share their efforts at changing their behavior with those affected by their behavior. Leaders should acknowledge the behavior and its effects and explain what they are trying to do about it. There may be initial cynicism about their sincerity, but if they are authentically struggling to transform, this will soon come across. Openness about the need to change generates further support.

By involving the immediate community in the transformation effort, leaders create their own additional internal commitment to implement and sustain new behaviors. Not only don’t leaders want to fail after announcing their intentions, they also don’t want to let down those who are being so supportive.

The individuals and groups affected by a leader’s behavior must be open to the possibility of the leader changing. Too often there is a refusal to let go of past mistakes leaders have made. “I don’t trust her because . . .” Courageous followers confront the group as well as the leader. Group members need to be willing to take another chance, to proceed with cautious open-mindedness, to not cynically dismiss the transformation effort before it begins or preordain its failure.

Even if we’ve been victimized by the leader, we need to support a genuine transformation effort. This is the heart of forgiveness—forgiving who someone once was, out of respect for who they are trying to become.