“Followers want comfort, stability, and solution from their leaders. But that’s babysitting. Real leaders ask hard questions and knock people out of their comfort zone. Then they manage the resulting distress.” (Ron Heifetz & Donald Laurie, The work of leadership)

Leadership matters most when difficult change is required, when it will take some time, and when the path forward is uncertain and fraught with risk. In such situations, at best, past practices and ways of thinking are no longer sufficient to achieve the goals of an organization and stay true to its purpose. At worst, “the way we do things around here” and even “how we see ourselves” may be obstacles to the change that is needed. So what should leaders do? What are leaders to do when what worked before is fundamentally questioned? 

Following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota at the hands of the police, anti-racism protests have erupted around the world. The protests have put pressure on individuals, organizations, and governments to examine ways in which they contribute to inequality and discrimination on the basis of race.  Here are a few examples of how business leaders and organizations have responded that I believe we can learn from. Several of the strategies illustrated are taken from work by Ron Heifetz and Donald Laurie on adaptive change and adaptive leadership.

First, distinguish adaptive, systemic challenges from technical problems. While we are more comfortable with technical problems, such as issuing equipment or implementing new procedures, adaptive challenges are different. They require us to change, the change is going to take time, and it will probably require new ways of seeing things. Avoid the temptation to shield your people from the enormity of the task or to prematurely declare victory. In the words of Travis Montaque, Founder and CEO at Holler,

“In order to make significant progress, we need to change corporate DNA from the inside out. And as a business leader myself, I'm at the beginning of that process, too."

Second, recognize that adaptive change is difficult (by definition). People may feel they are betraying their heritage, their past, and their professional identity by acknowledging that what they once did is no longer appropriate, and that they can do better. Support people, focus on the future, and show that you are in it together. By all means, paint a positive future, that even better achieves your purpose, but make it clear that change is going to take a while. To quote Asif Said, Head of Diversity and Inclusion for Adidas:

“In recent days I have been asked what we have done to support the black community as an organisation, the answer has been, not enough. That changes going forward and below is our commitment to the Black community, and the world. We can change, and we will. This is just the start.”

Third, while technical changes can be mandated from above, adaptive changes require involvement and engagement at all levels of the organization. The complex issues you are tackling will only be untangled if multiple perspectives are brought to bear. As a leader, make it safe for people to speak up and to share their feelings and knowledge. Admit that you don’t have all of the solutions, and that you are also learning and adapting to the new reality.

Finally, while admitting past mistakes and committing to change might be a reasonable start, it is not enough. Adaptive change requires … well, change. And real change means actions and sacrifices, with the heightened risks of a dynamic environment and uncertain paths forward. Nonetheless, after identifying problems, taking a learning stance, supporting people, listening throughout the organization, and preparing for the long haul, you are not a true leader until you have acted decisively. Do not wait for consensus, the perfect strategy, or the ideal moment – the quest for perfection here is likely to be the enemy of good. Do something now. 

“Today I am announcing that PepsiCo is investing more than $400 million over five years to lift up Black communities and increase Black representation at PepsiCo, specifically in leadership roles.” (Raon Laguarta, Chairman and CEO)

Regardless of the context in which you are leading, or whether the role is formal or not, we can learn from the above examples, pulled out of a dark moment. Help people appreciate the enormity of the challenge, without being overwhelmed by it. Involve people and hold them accountable. Support people, and acknowledge their losses. Remind people that the changes will not only allow you to continue to pursue your mission, to change the world for the better through your purpose, but will in fact make you better at doing so, in this ever-changing environment. Act.

Have a great and impactful week!

David Patient
Professor of Leadership
Vlerick Business School

This article refers to edition #41 of the "Have a Great and Impactful Week" Newsletter.
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