When Leaders Must Challenge the Process

In 1987, Kouzes and Posner published the book The Leadership Challenge.  It is still a classic today for leaders and continues to be republished.  The book is not an individual leader giving their ideas, this is two researchers who interviewed a lot of leaders to reach the conclusions in the book with results that are data based.

In the early part of the book, they bring up the idea of challenging the status quo or challenging the process as key to growth in any organization.  The writers argue that this is part of the leaders mandate for successful organizations.  Progress is always proceeded by change.  Change is always proceeded by challenge.  If something is going to get better, someone must come along and say, “Hey we have to make this better” before improvement. 

Now for young leaders, the execution on challenging the status quo may not always be completed tactfully and thus may not be welcome.  In my first managerial job in banking, I ran a branch that the proceeding branch manager retired after twenty years of service.  Our branch was one of the smallest in the organization and I wanted the branch to grow.  So, I came in all guns-a-blazing with all sorts of new changes to make us better.  I also submitted great ideas that would change the savings and loan as a whole. 

About two months into my tenure, my boss sat me down and showed me how for my leadership to be effective, I had to watch and listen to those longstanding employees under me and expect a slower pace of change.  I also had to challenge those things that were in my sphere of influence as giving ideas for other areas was not always welcome. 

Challenging the process must be linked to a picture of a preferred future.  The leader must cast a vision of what the future needs to be to have folks agree and decide to achieve that desired goal.  Challenging the status quo is not comfortable.  One thing we often fear more than being wrong is being irrelevant.  When a young leader begins to challenge the status quo of an organization that older leaders have been a part of for a while, it does feel personal as many times the status quo may be the older leader.  Also the older leaders have brought the organization to the current place. 

The task for older leaders is to listen to the new ideas objectively and without fear of personal assault.  Everything that is good has a shelf life and the great ideas of the past will probably not be the great ideas of the future.  Take music for example.  I remember the great improvement in music when I was a kid, moving from 8-trac tapes to cassette tapes.  Then when the Sony Walkman came around where you could take your music with you on a hike or run, wow I thought we had reached nirvana.  But then cassettes gave way to CDs.  CDs gave way to I-Pods.  I-Pods to now streaming music from your phone.  When I want to listen to music when I work out or a podcast, I just call it up from my smartphone.

We would be still using the cassette Sony Walkmans today if no one had challenged the status quo.  And many of those ideas had to come from the next generation of leaders.  Leaders can get stuck in “happy-dance land” where we are fixated on the past successes without looking to the future improvements.  The truth is also that the next generation leaders will probably come up with solutions for the next generation problems.  I want to be in an organization that is open to these ideas and older leaders need to not be threatened when these ideas come up and provide support for the younger ones.

This does not mean a complete abandonment of the path that has been taken to get us to the present place, as experience is invaluable and can avoid mistakes and pitfalls of youth.  But this process of mixing the inexperienced, fresh ideas with the old, established ones is more of an art than a science as the mixing of predictable systems and new ideas must mix carefully like a fine dance.  Much of this success comes from the culture we create of listening.  It will require leaders to go through a lot of bad ideas until we reach the good ones.  We can only benefit from these new ideas or we won’t.  The only way to benefit from them is if we know what the new ideas are.  The only way for us to know what they are is in an environment where the new ideas are free to rise to the surface easily and avoid creating an atmosphere where next generation leaders feel they are not listened to.

Andy Stanley once said, “Leaders must challenge the process, precisely because any system will unconsciously conspire to maintain the status quo and prevent change.”  If we are not careful, we will wake up one day and find out that the firm we have created is set to sabotage the reasons we created it in the first place.  Have you ever felt you had to work around your company to get your job done?  Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel said, “Success breeds complacency, and complacency breeds failure.”  So, the worst thing we can do is to remain in happy dance land as that will lead to future failure.

If this is the responsibility of the leader to initiate, what are some ways this can be done?  First, ask newer employees to rate the company.  This should be done at regular intervals during the first two years of tenure.  It is easier for a new set of eyes to look at the organization objectively, than it is for a seasoned staffer.  Also, find ways to see how your organization is seen by the outside world.  One of the vendors we use does not exercise this strategy and causes massive frustration for the Pactola team.

Next, create a culture where ideas can be freely advanced, debated, the good ones kept, and the bad ones shot down.  This requires mutual respect of all parties.  The young ones in the company must be OK with advancing the idea without fear of reprisal.  They also must learn to accept that the denial of their idea is not a denial of them.  Seasoned veterans must be open to new way of doing things that may bump them outside the status quo they created.  They also must not take new ideas that may contradict what has been done in the past as a personal attack.

These healthy debates must be kept within the confines of the organization.  Everyone needs to feel free to be critical of the processes if that criticism stays within the lines of healthy debate inside the company.  Also, this must not turn into factions or backbiting.  Once you get outside the four walls, everyone needs to be a raving fan. 

Creating this culture is easier said than done.  It is up to the leader to set the tone and often requires the leader to move off their own status quo.