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There may be nearly as many different definitions and perspectives about leadership as there are people who study and write about it. As leadership has been a subject of study during the past 40 years, a realization has emerged that a single leadership approach will not be effective in all situations. While this may seem obvious to some, it represents a breakthrough in the way that leadership has characteristically been discussed by researchers, consultants, and trainers. The need to select or develop a leadership approach to meet the needs of an organization and its environment suggests that a critical leadership skill may be the ability to understand what fits of a particular situation. This is particularly true for organizations needing to meet changing social, economic, and technological changes. Understanding the critical aspects of organizational change and having knowledge of alternative leadership models are both necessary to effectively deal with the organizational challenges of the 21st century.
Starting from this perspective, this research-paper first briefly examines major challenges facing contemporary organizations, then reviews a number of alternative ways of looking at leadership in organizations, and finally considers some specific leadership requirements presented by change and globalization, the two largest organizational challenges of this century.
Some management researchers and authors see the 21st century in terms of conflicts between groups with competing interests. For example, some point to the growing gap between affluent and poor groups as a source of continued unrest and possible challenge for organizations. While disparities in wealth have always been present, technological changes have made differences more visible than ever, possibly fueling new levels of unrest (Starbuck, 2005). Other conflicts may exist between organizations and nations, as large for-profit and nonprofit entities extend presence and influence across national boundaries, often tying employees more tightly to the organizations than to their home country. Indeed, the revenues of Fortune 500 companies are larger than numerous national budgets. The influence of these organizations may be further augmented by continued globalization of markets and the outsourcing of work and services in other parts of the world.
The challenge of change and globalization require leadership that can
- adopt new technologies and alter business processes and employee/manager roles to make effective use of technologies;
- develop new perspectives about the nature of the business objectives and goals of the organization;
- develop perspectives about the nature of the calling of the organization and its role in society. Social responsibility is not just an “add-on.” Successful organizations must have a vision for the role and contribution to making the world a better place;
- make products and services attractive to customers in different cultures; and
- work effectively with members of different cultures as fellow employees, providers of outsourced services, or as venture partners.
Guiding change may be the ultimate test of a leader, since evidence suggests that few organizations will survive over the long term without it. However, fundamental organizational change is often resisted mightily. Thus, effective leaders in the 21st century need to be aware of alternative approaches to leadership and the implications of these models for different contexts and needs.
Alternative Leadership Models
Systematic research concerned with leadership first focused on the search for individual characteristics that universally differentiated leaders from nonleaders. A large number of personal characteristics were investigated such as gender, height, physical energy, and appearance as well as psychological traits and motives such as authoritarianism, intelligence, need for achievement, and need for power. The dominant part of this literature was published between 1930 and 1950. This work identified several traits that were associated with measures of leader effectiveness, but the findings were seldom replicated in multiple studies. Thus it appeared that there were few, if any, universal traits associated with effective leadership.
In the early 1970s, interest in leadership traits reemerged. For example, people who are good at monitoring their own actions (called high self-monitors) are more responsive to situational cues and may alter their behaviors to meet circumstances. In contrast, low self-monitors are more likely to act consistently across all situations, making their personal characteristics more salient and visible. In addition, individual traits dispositions may be less visible and important predictors of leadership effectiveness in highly constraining “strong” situations. Individual dispositions are more likely to predict leadership in “weaker” situations. Strong situations are cases that are highly formalized and governed by well-established role expectations, norms, rules, policies, and procedures—such as the military. In these cases, there is less opportunity for individual traits to have an effect. Traits are more predictive of a leader’s behavior in select situations. Thus, an individual who is disposed toward aggressiveness is more likely to behave in an aggressive manner in situations in which others disagree with or threaten the individual. In other words, the tendency to be aggressive becomes significant only under aggression-arousing conditions. In other situations, individuals with an aggressive disposition are not likely to behave more aggressively than others.
Achievement-motivated individuals set challenging goals, assume personal responsibility for goal accomplishment, are highly persistent in the pursuit of goals, take calculated risks to achieve goals, and actively collect and use information for feedback. High-achievement motivated individuals also engage in a high degree of self-regulatory behavior. However, in management positions at middle or higher levels, managerial effectiveness often depends on the extent to which managers delegate effectively and motivate and coordinate others. High-achievement motivated managers are strongly inclined to be personally involved in performing the work of their organization and are reluctant to delegate authority and responsibility. Thus, achievement motivation has been found to be positively related to the effectiveness of leaders of small task-oriented groups and leaders of relatively small entrepreneurial firms, but negatively related to the effectiveness of middle- and high-level managers in large organizations or in political situations.
Unless constrained by a disposition to use power in a constructive manner, power-motivated managers will exercise power in an impetuously aggressive manner for self-aggrandizing purposes to the detriment of their subordinates and organizations. Accordingly, individuals who have a high concern for the moral exercise of power will use power in an altruistic and collectively oriented manner, behave ethically, and be concerned about the consequences of their actions on others. A leader who exhibits a combination of high power motivation and high regard for the moral exercise of power generates follower trust and respect. On the other hand, high-affiliation motivated managers may be reluctant to give negative feedback to subordinates even when required, or to discipline subordinates for ethical transgressions or violations of organizational policies.
To be effective, charismatic leaders must mobilize a critical mass of followers in the interest of the leader’s vision; thus they need to have high-power motivation. These leaders will almost inevitably be resisted and criticized; they need to be relatively insensitive to such criticism and, thus, must have lower affiliation motivation. Finally, to maintain their position, charismatic leaders must advocate a vision of a better future for the collective (social system or organization) and for followers. They must not exercise leadership in the interest of self-aggrandizement. According to charismatic theory, the emergence and effectiveness of charismatic leaders will be associated with leaders’ sense of social responsibility and collective interests rather than with self-interest. Thus, for successful leadership, the power motive needs to be higher than the affiliation motive. When the self-aggrandizing tendency usually associated with high-power motivation is inhibited by a high concern for morally responsible exercise of power (or social influence), individuals are predicted to engage in the exercise of power in an effective and socially desirable manner. This combination has been found to predict managerial effectiveness in formal organizations at middle and higher organizational levels, in nontechnical functions, as well as in small entrepreneurial organizations.
The guiding assumption of the behavioral perspective on leadership was that some leader behaviors seem to work well regardless of the leader’s traits. These behaviors could be discovered by either observing leaders in action or by asking subordinates about the behavior of their immediate superiors. The behavioral leadership theories include several models, the major ones are as follows:
- The path-goal theory suggests that a leader’s success is determined by his or her ability to provide followers with direction (the path) to follow to achieve performance goals. The theory assumes that followers must be able to make relatively confident and accurate estimates of probabilities of goal accomplishment (performance) and receipt of rewards after such accomplishment. When there is uncertainty with respect to effort requirements, goals, or extrinsic rewards, or when followers or leaders are under a substantial amount of stress, the rational processes suggested by path-goal theory may not hold.
- Hersey and Blanchard (1982) suggested four leadership styles: telling, selling, participating, and delegating, each appropriate for certain kinds of situations defined by subordinates’ “maturity” levels. That is, the prescribed leadership style is contingent on follower maturity, defined as “the degree to which followers are ready and willing to tackle the task facing the group.” This is represented by a life cycle model, analogous to a parent-child relationship where the parent gradually relinquishes control as the child matures.
- Transactional and transformational leadership models cover a range of possible relationships between leaders and followers. The transactional leader-follower relationship is based on an exchange model, where the follower makes contributions in anticipation of, or in response to, rewards, support, and various accommodations from the leader. Typical transactional leadership behaviors are the clarification of task requirements and specification of contingent rewards.
- Transformational leadership involves behaviors designed to develop followers’ strong personal identification with the leader and a shared vision of the future. These results in followers’ attitudes and behaviors that go above and beyond those linked to an exchange of rewards or compliance. Transformational leaders activate the higher order needs of followers, getting subordinates to think and act for the sake of the organization, often by making these employees more aware of the importance and interdependence of their efforts. Transformational leadership behaviors include:
- intellectual stimulation (helping followers think about problems in new ways);
- inspirational motivation (communicating images of what the followers can do);
- individualized consideration (giving personalized feedback for development); and
- idealized influence (having charismatic appeal to followers).
Although transactional and transformational leadership approaches seem to be conceptually distinct, several studies have examined the question of whether subordinates can tell the difference. Some studies have found that subordinates seem to differentiate transactional and transformational behaviors on the part of their leaders, where others have found that subordinates may not distinguish between the two concepts.
- As with trait research, models of leadership behaviors seemed to make little distinction among the specific role demands of leaders, the context in which they functioned, or differences in dispositions of leaders or followers. In response to this omission, contingency theory suggests that a leader’s task versus relationship behaviors combine with “situational control” to predict leader success. Situational control is the degree to which the leader can control and influence the group process. In general, studies have found that task-motivated leaders perform best in situations of high and low control while relationship-motivated leaders perform best in moderate control situations.
- Cognitive resource theory focuses on the effects of leader intelligence and experience, and the amount of stress present in the situation. One of the most important findings from studies of this perspective is that under different stress levels, leader and follower intelligence and experience levels have different relationships with performance. That is, when subordinates report high job- or boss-related stress, bright people perform worse than dull people. When job- or boss-related stress is low, more experienced individuals perform worse than less experienced individuals. This implies that under conditions of high stress, a highly intelligent person should rely on experience, rather than intelligence, to be effective. Intelligence and experience, thus, interfere with each other. While counterintuitive, these results have been empirically supported in a number of studies.
Cognitive resource theory has also helped to answer the leadership puzzle of when it is more effective to be participative with followers, and when it is more effective to be directive. Leader intelligence cannot contribute to group performance unless the leader tells the group what to do, and the group members listen to the leader and do what they are told to do. When the leader has little control over the behavior of followers and leader-follower relationships are troublesome, neither directive nor participative leader-ship will be effective, because followers will neither listen to the leader, nor do what they are told to do. When leader intelligence is lacking in low-stress conditions or leader experience is lacking in high-stress conditions, directive leadership will be ineffective. Further, when leader-follower relationships are good and stress is low, participative leadership will work best when group members are more intelligent than their leader. That is, relationships being good, the leader will listen to the followers.
Fiedler (1996) recommends a two-step process of (a) recruiting and selecting individuals with required intellectual abilities, experience, and job-relevant knowledge, and (b) enabling leaders to work under conditions that allow them to make effective use of the cognitive resources for which they were hired. For inherently stressful tasks such as firefighting or combat performance, overlearning is recommended. For stressful jobs that require both experience and intelligence, such as directing air traffic from control towers, overlearning and stress-reduction procedures as well as training in coping with stress are recommended.
While the models just discussed tend to describe relationships of leaders with groups of followers, leader-member exchange (LMX) theory suggests that leadership can best be described in terms of the development of the dyadic relationship between a leader and a subordinate. One distinguishing feature of LMX theory is its focus on an individual leader-follower relationship, as opposed to behavior or traits of either followers or leaders. This view suggests that the quality of “mature” superior-subordinate relationships would be more predictive of positive organizational outcomes than “average” traits or behaviors of leaders. The differences in dyadic relationships of followers with the same leader suggest that there may be in-groups and out-groups of followers. LMX may be a better indication of the nature of the superior-subordinate relationship than the performance of followers relative to objectives. Contextual variables also may come into play as high levels of time pressure in a work setting seem to encourage supervisors to form uniformly high LMX relationships with the subordinates in their units. Thinking through the LMX process does help explain some phenomena that are readily observed in organizations. For example, consider the following:
- For several possible reasons, subordinates and superiors may develop high-quality LMX. The reasons could include demographic or perceived similarity, familiarity, liking, reputation of subordinates, social reciprocity, subordinates’ ability level, and/or prior performance.
- Superiors then express positive attitudes such as trust and respect toward these subordinates. Superiors also express that they expect a high level of mutual support and loyalty. These communications convey expectations of follower loyalty, commitment, mutual obligation, and possibly mutual liking and may induce a Pygmalion effect. That is, leaders grow to like selected subordinates who demonstrate loyalty, commitment, and possibly higher performance and subsequently give these followers higher performance ratings.
- These ratings in turn influence the subordinate’s reputation, become a matter of record, and may be used for future selection, development, and promotion decisions. Thus, subordinates with a history of high-performance ratings become promoted to higher level positions.
The downside of this process is possible adverse implications for the development and career advancement of subordinates who are not demographically similar, familiar, and well liked. The previous scenario describes a naturally occurring process and does not necessarily imply biased treatment of minorities, although it can describe a process by which discrimination can occur. In that respect, the LMX process may be one through which leaders must be conscientious of fair treatment in reward allocations, even though it is human nature to like some subordinates better than others.
Having discussed a range of alternative ways of considering, describing, and evaluating leadership, we now turn to consideration of the specific aspects or leadership required for the challenges of globalization and organizational change in the 21st century.
Globalization: Leadership Across Cultures
The recently published results of the Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness (GLOBE) study present information about how leadership may be viewed by persons from 62 different cultures. This study proceeded from the perspective that the way in which a leader’s characteristics and behaviors are interpreted is strongly influenced by a person’s cultural background. Thus, the attributes that are seen as characteristic or prototypical for leaders may also strongly vary in different cultures. It is important to realize that most of the research on leadership during the past half century was conducted in the United States, in Canada, and in Western Europe. Thus, one of the criteria that should be considered in evaluating the applicability of leadership models previously discussed is a model’s flexibility in accommodating alternative cultural perspectives.
The GLOBE study identified both universally endorsed leadership attributes, as well as the leadership features that seem to be endorsed only in selected cultures. Contributing to outstanding leadership in all cultures were several attributes reflecting integrity. Thus, a leader who is viewed as trustworthy, just, and honest is positively regarded in nearly all cultures. Also, an outstanding leader has other attributes reflecting charismatic, inspirational, and visionary leadership. A leader who embodies these universally endorsed attributes is encouraging, positive, motivational, and dynamic and builds confidence and has foresight. A universally endorsed leader is also a team builder, a good
communicator and coordinator, achieves excellence, and is decisive, intelligent, and a win-win problem solver. Leader attributes that are universally viewed as impediments to outstanding leadership include being a loner, being uncooperative, ruthless, nonexplicit, irritable, and dictatorial.
Perhaps most informative are examples collected by the GLOBE researchers as to how different leadership approaches may be enacted in different cultural settings. Some examples are as follows:
- Charisma—The term “charisma” invokes ambivalence in several countries. For instance, in Mexico, charisma is seen as a mixed blessing. Negative evaluations of charisma are also found in several other countries. For instance, some fear that people may lose their balance and perspective due to the focus on achievement created by charismatic leaders. Followers might willingly exploit themselves—with negative consequences for their health and quality of life—in the service of the organization’s mission.
- Communication—Communication of a leader’s vision is often associated with powerful rhetoric. However, there are different ways to communicate a vision. For example, a vision in China is normally expressed in a nonaggressive manner, possibly due to the influences of Confucian values (e.g., kindness, benevolence) that make people wary of leaders making pompous speeches without engaging in specific action. In India, bold, assertive leadership styles are generally preferred to quiet and nurturing styles.
- Egalitarianism—In countries such as the Netherlands and Australia, a high value is placed on egalitarianism, and this is reflected in remarks by Dutch CEOs such as “ideas need acceptance, otherwise they will not be realized” and “consensus is an important prerequisite to realize goals.” In the Netherlands, participative leadership can be seen as a component of transformational leadership. In both the Netherlands and Australia, there is a tendency to denigrate high achievers. This is sometimes referred to as the “tall poppy syndrome” (to cut down the tall poppy that absorbs the sun while depriving the shorter poppies of exposure to the sun). Australian leaders are expected to inspire high levels of performance, but must do so without giving the impression of charisma or of not being anything more than “a mate.” The leader being “one of the boys” was one of the typically Australian leadership dimensions that reflect the high value placed on egalitarianism.
- Compassion in leadership—A Mexican entrepreneur who was considered brilliant, humorous, enthusiastic, and a good speaker involved himself in the private lives of his employees because of his perceived role in meeting their personal needs and expectations of him. For example, when informed that a secretary’s husband was going into the hospital for an operation, the leader called the doctor and discussed the matter with the doctor to make sure that the operation was legitimate. A Chinese manager may have high respect for his boss because “he does real things” such as visiting an employee’s sick family member and telling the employee to stay at the hospital rather then appearing at work.
These examples provide some insight into the cultural differences that leaders in organizations involved in the global, “flat-world” economy must be ready to consider in their choice of actions.
Alternative Approaches To Leadership Of Organizational Change
The classic role of managers in an organization is to establish and enforce the use of policies, procedures, and methods that reduce uncertainty in organizational outputs and outcomes. Indeed, the bureaucratic routines adopted by organizations increase predictability, reduce uncertainty within organizations, and “get everyone on the same page.” However, the need for organizational change is often rooted in threats or uncertainties. These threats may be due to poor firm performance or trends that suggest the organization is vulnerable to loss of market share, competitive advantages, or critical resources. Some studies of change suggest that organizations may experience periods of equilibrium where patterns of behavior are stable. In periods of equilibrium, any changes made by the organization may be incremental and aimed at better aligning and maintaining the current congruence among system components. These have also been described as “first-level” changes, which do not alter organizational relationships, but are aimed at incremental improvement within the existing structure and task design.
Strategic organizational changes raise questions about the organization’s purpose and identity and have been described as second-level changes. These are often interventions that involve reorganization and/or major alteration of one or more selected subsystems. Third-level changes are organizationwide efforts that involve altering the beliefs, values, and interrelationships of all subsystems of the organization. Second- and third-level changes are most frequently undertaken as planned changes. In planned changes, managers seek involvement and commitment of organizational members in planning and specifying the nature of the changes. Employee “buy-in” is sought in part to mitigate resistance and reduce process losses. The underlying assumption in planned change is that organizational inertia needs to be disturbed by deliberate efforts to change aspects of an organization.
The type of change appropriate for an organization depends on both business complexity and sociotechnical uncertainty. Business complexity includes the extent of differentiation of the organization, organization size and geographical dispersion, interdependencies among functions, number of products and services offered, and diversity of technologies employed. Greater complexity increases the number of stakeholders who must be involved in a change and the range of consequences that must be anticipated. Sociotechnical uncertainty is defined as the extent to which there are clearly known ways to approach problems and established procedures and job roles. Higher levels of sociotechnical uncertainty imply that outcomes are less certain. When complexity and sociotechnical uncertainties are greater, firms may be more likely to engage in planned changes. Planned organizational changes have had the most consistent effects on organizational work settings, including coordination and control of work, reward system, social interactions, organizational culture, and technology. Planned interventions also significantly impacted individual employee behavior (including job performance, effort, open communication, collaboration, and organizational citizenship behaviors,) and organizational outcomes (including profits, market share, market position, productivity, rates of turnover, absenteeism, and grievances).
The most effective leadership approaches for change have involved behaviors directed at (a) framing change (establishing starting points for change; designing and managing the change journey for employees, and communicating guiding principles) and (b) building capacity (creating individual and organizational capacities for different job roles; communicating and creating connections among functions and the related changes). Organizations tended to adopt emergent change approaches only after completing a process of planned change. Centrally directed changes based on assumptions of linearity (the “freeze—mobilize—re-freeze” model) are least likely to succeed. Studies have also found that visible management support and commitment, realistic schedules, adequate resources, employee participation, high levels of communication, agreement on the business need for the change, and reward systems that support change all contribute to successful change implementation. The factors negatively affecting change include inconsistent actions by key managers, unrealistic expectations, lack of meaningful employee participation, poor communication, unclear purpose for change, and lack of clear responsibility for decisions.
In general, successful change seems to require greater levels of collaboration among different levels and functions within an organization. However, significant organizational changes may involve some loss by individuals within the organization. For example, employees may be asked to take on new roles that they may perceive as being less important than old roles. Change implementation may vary in its impact on different job levels and types, where employees in jobs over which the employee had more control may be more ready for organizational change and willing to participate in redesign tasks while workers who may be less engaged in their jobs may be less willing to participate in redesign activities. Productivity may drop during periods of significant organizational change because stability and routines are disrupted. Successful implementation of planned changes may require the establishment of a separate process within the organization that combines key factors for change. Other studies have directed attention to (a) willingness and ability of “change makers”—on multiple levels to take on responsibility for changes; (b) the extent of the organization’s infrastructure to facilitate change; and (c) the availability of sufficient resources to undertake the changes. Change capacity may be related to the extent that the organization has decentralized structures and communication processes in place to facilitate communication and clarification of the intentions and details of changes.
A growing realization is that the inertia within managerial cognition plays a large role in the successful design, planning, and implementation of organizational changes. For example, second- and third-level changes involve changing schema used by managers when thinking about an organization. Thus, successful design and implementation of significant planned changes requires leaders to identify the underlying assumptions they use to interpret and make sense of the organizational world. Well-developed interpretive schemes that have previously provided order and meaning to the workplace may now hinder a management team’s visualization of alternatives and limit the consideration of new approaches. Strategic changes are most often successful when substantial changes have taken place in the cognitions of top managers. Often declining organizational performance triggered these changes in cognitions, possibly because declines in performance were salient and demanded corrective actions. The cognitive “road map” including the knowledge structures, beliefs, and causal beliefs of the managerial group in the organization largely determines the way in which an organization’s external environment is interpreted. When organizations put mechanisms into place to increase information use, managers are more likely to interpret strategic issues in a positive frame. When managers attribute declining performance to internal characteristics or causes, they are more likely to initiate and undertake strategic changes.
Successful change may depend on leaders developing the capacity to live with and tolerate ambiguity. This includes remaining content with less-than-complete knowledge, resisting the impulse to react to pressures that may be associated with uncertainties encountered in planning and carrying out change (French, 2001). Effective change management requires leaders to be in touch with what is actually happening as opposed to what was planned. When managers and employees cannot tolerate the impact of un-certainties, the coping process may be to “disperse” or race into actions such as breaking problems into manageable bits so that the problems or uncertainties seem to be more bearable. In these instances, individuals and groups close off information, seeking to move in a direction that involves the practiced actions and ways of looking at organizational and operational problems.
Two psychological biases can affect leadership during organizational change. The first, prospect bias, predicts that decision makers are risk averse when performance is perceived to be good and risk seeking when performance has been poor. In other words, managers in firms with poor performance may be motivated to take greater risks than those in more healthy firms. In contrast, the threat-rigidity bias suggests that poor performance promotes risk-averse responses, because threats arouse stress and anxiety in decision makers. The threat-rigidity perspective predicts that managerial anxiety may cause decision makers to narrow their range of attention and restrict information seeking and processing. This restricts alternatives to those consistent with conservative and well-learned interpretive frames. While prospect theory predicts a proactive solution to unfavorable conditions, threat rigidity suggests the continuance of existing strategic orientations. Examples of threat-rigidity bias in leadership of change include focusing on short-term fixes while not attending sufficiently to strategic changes; increased centralization of authority within the organization; downsizing by exiting lines of business and liquidating or divesting subunits; and increasing the relative presence of top managers with legal, financial, or accounting expertise as opposed to marketing, research and development (R&D), and production backgrounds. These overarching decision biases may reflect embedded patterns of managerial cognition that can threaten stakeholder interest in organizations facing the need to change.
Other major cognitive biases may influence managers’ perceptions of the need for organizational change and the type of changes that may be effective for the organization. The possible cognitive traps include the following:
- Failure to consider possible consequences. In making complex choices, people often simplify the decision by ignoring possible outcomes or consequences that would otherwise complicate the choice. There is a tendency to reduce the set of possible consequences or outcomes to make the decision more manageable.
- Limiting the range of stakeholders. When there is a tendency to restrict the analysis of a policy’s consequences to one or two groups of visible stakeholders, decisions may be blind-sided by unanticipated consequences to an altogether different group.
- Discounting the future. The consequences that managers must face tomorrow are more compelling than those occurring next week or next year. Failing to cope with the temporal distribution of consequences exposes executives and boards to accusations that they squandered the future to exploit the present.
- Judgment of risk. What people want to hear is not what might happen, but what will happen. When leaders view the world as more certain than it is, they expose themselves and organizations to poor outcomes. In general, people underestimate the importance of chance or misperceive chance events. For example, each morning, the media presents an “explanation” in the financial pages of why the market went up or down.
- Ignoring low-probability events. If a new product has the potential for great acceptance but a possible drawback, perhaps for only a few people, there is a tendency to underestimate the risk. One common response to the assertion that executives underestimate the importance of random events is that they have learned through experience how to process information about uncertainty. However, experience may not be a good teacher because people often misremember what the original expectations were. This phenomenon, called the “hindsight bias,” insulates leaders from previous errors.
- Risk framing. Whether a glass is half full or half empty is a matter of risk framing. When the glass is described as half full, it appears more attractive than when it is described as half empty.
- Perception of causes. Managers may oversimplify assessments of why things happen or do not happen. However, even under the best of circumstances, causation is usually complex, and ambiguity about causation is often at the heart of disputes about responsibility, blame, and punishment. If executives are overconfident, they will fail to seek additional information to update their knowledge and be reluctant to learn more about a situation or problem before acting.
John Kotter, a now retired professor from Harvard Business School, has suggested that the most critical task in organizations is leadership of change. Leading changes successfully requires realizing that the process goes through a series of phases that, in total, usually require a considerable length of time. Skipping steps creates only the illusion of speed and never produces a satisfying result. Critical mistakes in any of the phases can have a devastating impact, slowing change momentum. The most common change leadership errors to be avoided are the following:
- Not establishing a great enough sense of urgency. Most successful change efforts begin when some individuals or groups look hard at a company’s competitive situation, market position, technological trends, and financial performance. They focus on the potential impact of impending events that everyone seems to be ignoring. The group finds ways to communicate this information broadly and dramatically, so that potential crises or great opportunities are clear. Without motivation, people will not help, and the effort goes nowhere. Compared with other steps in the change process, phase one can sound easy. However, sometimes leaders underestimate how hard it can be to drive people out of their comfort zones. Sometimes they grossly overestimate how successful they have already been in increasing urgency. Sometimes they lack patience: In many cases, executives become paralyzed by the downside possibilities. They worry that employees with seniority will become defensive, morale will drop, events will spin out of control, short-term business results will be jeopardized, the stock will sink, and they will be blamed for creating a crisis. Bad business results are both a blessing and a curse in this first phase. On the positive side, losing money does catch people’s attention, but it also gives less maneuvering room. With good business results, the opposite is true: Convincing people of the need for change is much harder, but you have more resources to help make changes.
- Not creating a powerful enough guiding coalition. While some change efforts start with just one or two people, the leadership coalition must grow over time for the change to be successfully implemented. It is often said that major change is impossible unless the head of the organization is an active supporter. The guiding coalition tends to operate outside the normal hierarchy. This can be awkward, but it is clearly necessary because if the existing hierarchy were working well, there would be no need for a major transformation. Companies that fail in this phase may underestimate the difficulties of producing change and thus the importance of a powerful guiding coalition. Efforts that do not have a powerful enough guiding coalition can make apparent progress for a while. Sooner or later, however, the opposition gathers itself together and stops the change.
- Lacking a vision. In every successful transformation effort the guiding coalition develops a picture of the future that is relatively easy to communicate and appeals to customers, stockholders, and employees. A vision says something that helps clarify the direction in which an organization needs to move. Eventually, a strategy for achieving that vision is also developed. Without a sensible vision, a transformation effort can easily dissolve into a list of confusing and incompatible projects that can take the organization in the wrong direction or nowhere at all. In failed transformations, you often find plenty of plans, directives, and programs but no vision. In one case, a company gave out 4-inch-thick notebooks describing its change effort. In mind-numbing detail, the books spelled out procedures, goals, methods, and deadlines. But nowhere was there a clear and compelling statement of where all this was leading. Not surprisingly, most of the employees were either confused or alienated.
- Undercommunicating. Transformation is impossible unless lots of people are willing to help, often to the point of making short-term sacrifices. Employees will not make sacrifices, even if they are unhappy with the status quo, unless they believe that useful change is possible. Without credible communication from leadership, the hearts and minds of the troops are never captured. This phase is particularly challenging if the short-term sacrifices include job losses. Gaining understanding and support is tough when downsizing is part of the vision. For this reason, successful visions usually include new growth possibilities and the commitment to treat fairly anyone who is laid off. In successful transformation efforts, leaders use all existing communication channels to broadcast the vision. They turn boring, unread company newsletters into lively articles about the vision. They take ritualistic, tedious quarterly management meetings and turn them into exciting discussions of the transformation. They throw out much of the company’s generic management education and replace it with courses that focus on business problems and the new vision. Even more important, leaders of change must learn to “walk the talk.” They consciously attempt to become a living symbol of the new corporate culture. Nothing undermines change more than behavior by important individuals that is inconsistent with their words.
- Not removing obstacles. Communication is never sufficient by itself. Leading renewal also requires the removal of obstacles. Too often, an employee understands the new vision and wants to help make it happen, but an elephant appears to be blocking the path. In many cases, the blockers are very real. However, sometimes the obstacle is the organizational structure: Narrow job categories can seriously undermine efforts to increase productivity or make it very difficult even to think about customers. Sometimes compensation or performance-appraisal systems make people choose between the new vision and their own self-interest. Perhaps worst of all are bosses who refuse to change and who make demands that are inconsistent with the overall effort. If the blocker is a person, it is important that the leader treat this person fairly and in a way that is consistent with the new vision. However, leadership action to remove obstacles is essential both to empower others and to maintain the credibility of the change effort as a whole.
- Not creating short-term wins. Real transformation takes time, and a renewal effort risks losing momentum if there are no short-term goals to meet and celebrate. Creating short-term wins is different from hoping for short-term wins. In a successful transformation, leaders actively look for ways to obtain clear performance improvements, establish goals in the yearly planning system, achieve the objectives, and reward the people involved. Commitments to produce short-term wins help keep the urgency level up and force detailed analytical thinking that can clarify or revise visions.
- Declaring victory too soon. After a period of hard work, it is tempting to declare victory with the first clear performance improvement. While celebrating a win is fine, declaring the war won can be catastrophic. Until changes sink deeply into a company’s culture, a process that can take 5 to 10 years, new approaches are fragile. A premature victory celebration can kill momentum and allow powerful forces associated with tradition to take over. Instead of declaring victory, leaders of successful efforts use the credibility afforded by short-term wins to tackle even bigger problems. They go after systems and structures that are not consistent with the transformation vision and have not been confronted before.
- Not anchoring changes in the corporation’s culture. In the final analysis, change sticks when it becomes “the way we do things around here,” when it seeps into the bloodstream of the corporate body. Until new behaviors are rooted in social norms and shared values, they are subject to degradation as soon as the pressure for change is removed. Change leaders need to consciously show people how the new approaches, behaviors, and attitudes have helped improve performance. When people are left on their own to make the connections, they sometimes create very inaccurate links. Helping people see the right connections requires communication. It is also important to make sure that the next generation of top management really does personify the new approach.
This research-paper has endeavored to provide the grounding needed to understand and undertake the leadership challenges facing organizations in the 21st century. The first major organizational challenges for the foreseeable future in this century are globalization of organizational membership. Globalization of organizations may be associated with markets, production alternatives, service operations, venture partnerships, and/or strategic linkages. The forces of globalization combined with the growth and expansions of new technologies suggest that the second most significant organizational need is the capacity to undertake change. The effective leadership of change requires leaders who are aware of their own characteristics, are conscious of how followers may perceive certain behaviors, and are sensitive to the cultural differences and similarities. The discussion of alternative leadership approaches provides exposure to a range of approaches that organizational leaders should consider when strategically assessing the needs of 21st-century dynamics. The leadership implications of particular traits invite the reader to “know thyself.” Alternative behavioral models provide strategic choices. The discussion of LMX development provides a look at some of the processes by which leader-follower roles are defined and relationships are established. Finally, a review of the requirements for leading successful organizational change and the pitfalls to be avoided in this process present criteria to consider when taking on the leadership challenge in this demanding but exciting time.
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