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Why transformation is so difficult as an experienced leader

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Leaders tend to be affectionate toward the living analogy of the caterpillar – that it needs to become a lava before it can become a butterfly. It’s a parable that could be applied to the personal journey of almost every experienced leader. But after a leader has been through that fire once, transformational change becomes a much harder feat. The trouble is we like using the analogy to describe our past, or to inspire emerging leaders, but it’s unpleasant to apply it to our own present. It’s humbling to recognise ourselves as caterpillars who need to change. Because that particular invertebrate needs to destroy itself before it can transform again.

It’s difficult to die 

“I am able to control only that of which I am aware. That of which I am unaware controls me. Awareness empowers me.” – John Whitmore, Coaching for Performance

Success can make us comfortable after a time. We can even forget what real success is. We can find ourselves resisting innovations and movements we would once have been at the forefront of, because they demand our business models to change. They might even challenge and question the success we feel we have accumulated. 

But success is not something we can continue to passively accumulate. If one part of our body started trying to thrive at the expense of the rest of the body, it would be self-terminating. When we see ourselves in perspective – in regard to the world that we are a part of and inevitably impact – then we know that success is not something we should be holding onto. We let our laurels die so that we can enter the chrysalis and become something more like our real selves.

Our need for emergence

“We don’t need to convince large numbers of people to change; instead, we need to connect with kindred spirits. Through these relationships, we will develop the new knowledge, practices, courage and commitment that lead to broad-based change.” – Margaret Wheatley, Organisational Behaviourist

Real change requires us to be in connection with others: to be listening, to be attentive to their perspective and vision. But it also means we need to create an environment that enables us to hear from others – and for others to speak without filtering, regardless of how senior or junior they are. 

Most leaders are familiar with synergy, that the total is greater than the sum of its parts. But the scientific principle of emergence is just as important. It’s not just that the total is greater, but that the total contains properties that cannot be found in any of the parts. A human consciousness cannot be found in any of the cells or neurons of our body, yet the whole contains power the parts do not have. As Daniel Schmachtenberger describes, it is scientific law that when diverse parts, are brought together into an elegant order, the whole gains qualities that are not just more, they are new.

For experienced leaders, this emergence of something new is not an alien experience. But it might have been a while since we last felt that newness emerge. It’s likely that emergence propelled us to where we are now, but once here, it’s easy for us to rely on the ‘newness’ that emerged five, ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. If we are going to walk away with more than a good retirement, we need to keep seeking connection with others who think differently from us. We need to keep evolving. 

Creating transformational change

“What if making the change was fun, and beautiful, and cheeky?” – Dr Gail Bradbrook, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion

When asked what business leaders should do in response to the climate crisis, Dr Gail Bradbrook said, “distort reality.” 

There are pressing issues facing the business world right now: the climate crisis among them. And in this age of connection, all local business issues have become global issues. If we want to be able to say, hand-on-heart, that our leadership shaped the earth for the better – we need to mess with what is expected of us. 

We cannot just do what we did. That got us here. But to go where we are meant to go, if we want to self-actualise, we need to move on – from these habits, these methods, maybe even this worldview. To destroy ourselves to become ourselves. 

If you want to keep bringing transformational change, if you want to tackle the crises facing the business world, contact us. Self-actualisation might be a step or five further than you previously thought!

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