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Four Common Off Ramps from Great Change Leadership — Our Pragmatic Pushes for Staying In Hard Work

Updated: Oct 11, 2023

As we work with leaders to step into more inspiring change leadership, there’s a point where momentum almost grinds to a halt. They are nodding their head about how they want to lead. But somehow as it becomes real, they start to look for an exit back to their old and familiar ways. Today we want to have some straight talk on the most common off ramps leaders take on the way to great change leadership.

To be real – we’re not advocating for leaders to be superheroes. We know leadership is a full contact sport – one that requires our energy, heart, mind, and willpower to make it work. As you read on, we hope you’ll see that leading change in new ways may actually be easier than some of the work you’re doing. It invites us to let go of the perfectionism racket and gives us permission to be real about what your people (and you) actually need.

Off ramp #1

“Leadership is hard, and people’s feelings will get hurt. That’s just how it is.”

We heard a similar sentiment from a leader who had undertaken a massive pivot for their organization a few years back. They knew they needed to transform the way they trained their staff. The organization pulled off spectacular shifts, but also left site leaders bruised and traumatized by the tone from the top.

Somehow, leadership advice about being decisive and making hard calls gets confused with the idea that it’s okay to treat people poorly. Folks quote adages like “if you want to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs,” never acknowledging that they may never like to be on the receiving end of all that breaking.

Our pragmatic push

Check your assumptions that you can’t lead compassionately and boldly at the same time. You’ve seen that people will rally and do tremendously powerful things when they need to (especially this past year), but that is a sacred trust they give to you. You owe it to your staff to grow as a change leader. Stop offloading the discomfort of challenging leadership by justifying your actions with “this is just how it is.”

Off ramp #2

“We just need to move fast, so I’ll just clean up any mess on the back end.”

Some leaders adopt a “beg for forgiveness” default. We get that many organizations deal with tough timelines that have them grappling with how quickly they make strategic shifts. In particular, the education sector timeline means that the looming school year calendar can cause choices to feel hurried.

But the thing is, begging for forgiveness on the backend takes more energy than some upfront input at the beginning would. When you look at the amount of energy that you invest in managing “resistance” or pushing for compliance, it can far outstrip the energy it takes to listen upfront.

We saw leaders in the middle of the spring 2020 pandemic shifts pulling off incredible amounts of staff and community stakeholder engagement under tight timelines. Sometimes they were doing it because they knew they had no other choice if they wanted teachers and families to show up.

So let’s be honest. “We just need to move” is often a mask covering the belief that “I think I’m right anyway,” so input is just perfunctory. It speaks to the fact that you center your own intelligence above the expertise or felt experience of the people who will need to do this change every day.

Our pragmatic push

It's twofold: 1) Can you stop and ask “what CAN we manage” as far as listening and community engagement? Can you simply start with the assumption that you need to have some space for authentic listening and collaboration, and then go from there? And 2) Can you gut check whether you really have to take on the change at the pace and scale that you are saying now? If you don’t have time for upfront input, it probably means you don’t have the capacity later to implement it very well, either. Maybe the really bold action is to pare down upfront or to pace what you are doing over multiple years. Urgency at the expense of sustained excellence isn’t worth it.

Off ramp #3

“At our scale, I can’t listen to everyone like you are suggesting.”

Okay, fair point, if you think we are suggesting you have individual conversations with everyone all the time. Many leaders have great relationship skills when they are working individually or with small teams. But then their organization scales or as they are promoted into more global roles. In the shift from “retail” to “wholesale” leadership, they sacrifice ways of getting input because they don’t know how to scale their approach to interacting with a larger group of individuals.

When we work with leaders on big change initiatives, we start looking at a whole menu of ways of getting input. Sometimes we create town halls and listening sessions. Sometimes they send out surveys. Sometimes it’s a representative focus group. At other times, input flows through managers in the 1:1 check in schedules.

We can create unrealistic expectations for ourselves as leaders if we think that listening only happens in one distinct way. People get that they are part of something bigger. Sometimes they say, “I don’t need to give my input if I know that my peer is going to be there.” So put your creative juices into what “wholesale” listening could look like.

Our pragmatic push

Be honest with your staff about how you are trying your best to listen, and get creative about how you can actually do this. You will be surprised at how just a tiny bit of information can change the way you approach the work. Explain to them how they can be involved in the input process (even if it’s only something small) so they can give you the grace and give you their input at the helpful times.

Off ramp #4

“I think I’m too late. We’re already out of the gate on change this year.”

We’ve coached leaders that are white-knuckling their way through a lot of change, and they feel like they have no choice but to close their eyes and keep going. We feel you here - especially with a year of trying to restart back to normal, reckoning with the painful impacts from the pandemic, and dealing with the constrained resources that a lot of organizations are facing.

We’ve seen organizations pause part way and say “hey, we missed a step, and we want to make sure we get your input.” Or we’ve even seen courageous, humble leaders go on a beautiful “mea culpa tour” where they named how they were off and asked people how they needed to do things right.

There are no points awarded in the game of life for staying on a wrong path too long. And there is no shame in doing the best to change from where you are right now. We’re not trying to say that you need to turn back time and do it perfectly.

Our pragmatic push

Be honest with your staff about how you wish you had done things differently. Share with them the balances and the tradeoffs you’re making and how you want to start authentically incorporating their input now. And be prepared to hear their candid responses and to respond to their needs.

Summing up our push to you

When we work with leaders (and ourselves, let’s be real!) about managing their off ramps, we realize that people are grappling with the discomfort of their overwhelm and looking for an escape valve. We think of the line from Hamilton that says that “winning is easy, governing is harder.” We invite you to question your assumptions about why you are tempted to check out of the hard things.

This isn’t just about change leadership. This is true about trying to step into antiracist work. Or about setting healthy boundaries in our lives. It’s true for those confronting addictions or facing grief.

Somewhere in those off ramps is a wrestle to cling to a way that isn’t serving you. It’s okay - it’s necessary - to be willing to grow and adapt as a change leader at a time where others are being asked to grow and adapt, too.

So if you’re up for it, go back and read about the Five Key Moves of Great Change Leaders, but this time use it as a mirror. Tune into the moments that you start checking out. Ask yourself: what is this discomfort inviting you to see and reconcile?

We think there’s something powerful and enabling living just under that insight. Here’s to staying in the hard things, together.


Interested in learning more about the practical steps of leading inclusive change? Join us for our foundational workshop series, Leading Inclusive Change.


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