Change Without Crisis

Our good friend Horst Abraham is a hall of fame teacher and a world class facilitator. Recently he was in front of a group and we heard him say something very important. “As a leader, some of the things I need to make happen are not teachable, they are only learnable.”
What does this mean?
Another good friend wanted to meet for lunch. He was a school principal about to start the year. When he first took over there were many challenges but he began to move things and eventually, by annual test scores, the school was shown to be one of the better schools in the area.
Then the state introduced a new set of requirements.  The teachers were resistant because they already knew how to excel. That year the school tested below average. When the scores were shared, the teachers were devastated. The next year they were more willing to make adjustments and the school returned to its previous level of performance.
When we asked our friend what he now wanted to accomplish, he said he wanted to take the school from good to great. He wanted to make changes but it required that the teachers become willing to learn without the aid of a crisis.
It seems ironic that teachers might be unwilling to learn. Yet this claim goes beyond teachers and principals. It is the challenge faced by all leaders who wish to improve their organizations. It is a universal problem. In order to transform an organization, people have to learn how to do what they do not know how to do. This is threatening. People generally fear the work of learning to operate in a new way.
Our friend, the principal, asked, if there is no crisis, how I can I get my people to learn, change and excel? Instead of answering we asked him to tell us what he thought the answer might be. He pondered the question and then shared a personal experience.
After some years of teaching he moved from a rural area to an urban area and was hired to teach in a school owned by a religious group. He found himself in very strange territory. The challenge was overwhelming and he began to fail. Every second night he found himself weeping in the arms of his wife. Yet, at the end of eight years, he was a super star.
We analyzed his learning journey. What were the elements of his personal transformation? He had thoughtful responses.
We asked him about his learning journey because of the notion articulated above by Horst. What he wanted from us was not really teachable it was only learnable. In order to meaningfully respond to his question about changing the school, he needed to be directly in touch with his own most potent, personal transformation.
In his own personal transformation, he had already learned how to transform his school. He just did not fully realize it. We could teach him transformation, because he had already learned transformation.
With his remembered foundation in place, we told him that to move the school from good to great, required a collective journey, just like his personal journey. It meant facing uncertainty and failure while moving forward, learning from experience in real time.
As the conversation continued, we considered the four keys of transformation and used them to ask him more questions. The keys are:

  • Idealized Influence: The leader is not someone who is working to satisfy their own ego. The leader wields moral power and is worthy of emulation.   Because the leader knows his or her highest purpose, the leader is committed to the highest good and sacrifices for it. Doing this stimulates the emergence of more virtues. The leader is seen as an inherently good person, worthy of admiration and trust.
  • Inspirational motivation: The leader is purpose driven and thus oriented to the future. The leader has a meaningful vision of where the system needs to go. The leader shows constancy of purpose and at every turn works to link the people to the purpose. It becomes increasingly attractive and desirable. People begin to find meaning in it. They begin to believe and to experiment.
  • Individual consideration: The relationship with the people is not transactional. They are not replaceable widgets but people worthy of honor. The leader knows the people, considers their individual needs, and shows them unconditional positive regard. The people know that the leader cares.
  • Intellectual stimulation: One of the central challenges in the transformational process is learning, more specifically, deep or transformative learning. The people must come to a new mental map of who they are and how they operate. This includes a shift from them colluding in their own disempowerment to them becoming self-empowering people. So the leader uses a variety of techniques to constantly challenge existing assumptions and nurture the emergence of a new mental map.

As we asked questions about these kinds of things, he was totally responsive. Given his personal journey, he understood the basic principles. His challenge was thinking about specific actions to take. So here we began to dream with him. We said, “Imagine doing this and imagine doing that.” He drank in our lengthy list of outrageous scenarios. He could see how to adapt and adopt them.
As this happened, he visibly changed. He became energized. He told us he would report back. He sincerely thanked us for the discussion. This professional educator was ready to go back to his professional educators and engage in the mutual process of deep learning. It is what transformational leaders learn to do.

  • What does it mean that some things are not teachable, only learnable?
  • Why do people resist the work of deep learning?
  • Why do the four keys of transformation make deep learning possible?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

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