After the election last week in the United States, change is a hot topic, but it isn’t political change that I have been thinking about recently. It’s how organizations and their leaders cope—or, more often, fail to cope too well—with the need for changes in business practices to promote growth and foster creativity.
It’s a truism to point out that no one can avoid change. It’s part of the reality in which we live. Nothing ever stays the same for more than a short period. It’s equally obvious that very many people dislike, even fear, change and do their very best to keep everything around them the same. That’s sad in personal life, because it makes frustration and unhappiness certain. In business life, it’s a complete disaster.
Why do so many business leaders try to cling grimly to the status quo, believing they can build innovative companies and still be risk-averse? They must realize that it is totally impossible, yet it doesn’t stop them from trying. Using words like “risk management” rather than “risk aversion” won’t alter the outcome either. Change and risk are inextricably joined. You cannot have one without the other. The more innovative the change, the greater the risk that comes with it. Of course, things sometimes go wrong. If they do, you can always look to another piece I published this week. It’s called When Sh*t Happens, and it may just help.
Maybe it’s this fear of any threat to their beloved status quo that makes leaders so scornful of idealism. It isn’t a dirty word, as many would have you believe. Idealism is an essential foundation for change and innovation of every kind. Change often takes a clear, inner belief that things can and should be better than they are: that strong faith in some vision of a better way to organize ourselves and our world. Every day, the world around us tests our consciences and our commitment to the values we say that we hold dear. Each compromise, each stepping away from what, deep within, we know is right, is another mental and spiritual defeat. Over time, all these compromises in the name of “being pragmatic” have produced today’s sense of resignation and the belief that our current workplace culture is inevitable. It is not. WE built it. If it doesn’t work well for us (and, I would argue, it most clearly does not), it is up to us to change it.
You would think that, given the present obsession with leadership as the answer to every organizational problem, we would all be keenly aware of the need for change in the way we understand, define and teach management and leadership skills. Not a bit of it. Our management teaching sucks. It is riddled with outdated assumptions and techniques that owe more to folk tales that any kind of objective evidence. Perhaps that is why the fashion for Hamburger Management—managing in whatever shoddy way is least demanding of careful thought, costs least, and seems quickest—is contributing daily to the undermining of people’s dignity in the workplace.
I started this piece with the need for change in how we run organizations. Last Tuesday, the “Slow Leadership” Manifesto was published. You can read it, or download a copy, here. It’s a loud plea for change of the most fundamental kind in how we design and run our organizations today.
- People and Principles
- Obsession with Leadership Undermining Organizations
- To Succeed, First Forget About Leadership Technique
- Authoritarians Need Conformists
- The Perils of Avoiding Risk
Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. His new book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization, is now available at all good bookstores.