Leadership from the Bottom Up: How to Bring Positive Change to Sick Organizations

Purpose-driven change agents come in many varieties.  For some years I have worked with a gifted man.  I will call him Alberto.  He came from minority roots and had to find his way in life by himself.  The unfair challenge became a boon.  Today he is an extraordinary person who knows how to co-create social excellence.  A few years ago, he took a job as a change agent in a major medical school.  In reflecting back on his experience, he gives a simple account that is of profound importance.  In it we can discover a truth that is generally unavailable and essential to anyone who wants to make a difference.

Alberto’s Challenge

“Four years ago, I took a role at a medical school working for the senior administrator.  At the time, the medical school was not a positive place.  The senior administrators were mistrustful of one another.  The faculty were mistrustful of students and the administration.  The students had an antagonistic relationship with faculty and the administration; the students’ performance in national board examinations was dipping below average.  It was bad and getting worse.  The senior administration had no strategies for reversing the trends.  Most of the actions up to that point had been focused on problem solving and led to exerting more control.  If students didn’t show up for class, then there were ever more draconian measures to monitor their attendance and punish those who were absent.  I was charged by the dean to turn things around, yet I had no formal power.” 

This is a grim assessment.  The behavior of the senior administrators follows a pattern common to all organizations.  While they had authority, they had no idea how to lead change.  They were failing and their response to failure was to engage in the conventional logic of problem solving.  Identifying and solving technical problems is the common tool of most professions.  We are all trained in the process.

When logical problem solving is applied to human rather than technical systems, predictable dynamics emerge.  The problem solvers inevitably rely on expertise and authority.  They see themselves as acting upon others.  The people become problems to be solved.  The problem solvers determine to increase control.  The people, unlike machines, have emotional reactions and the emotions drive their reactive logic.  They practice fight or flight.  They actively sabotage or they disengage.  So new problems emerge and the problem solvers continue to increase control.  In the meantime the organization slides toward failure.

Alberto is a staff person with no authority.  Yet he is charged with the task of changing the troubled system.  Conventional logic says he is in a hopeless situation: people without authority cannot change an organization.

That is what makes this case so important.  The most frequent and desperate question I receive across the planet is: “I am low in the hierarchy, and the problems stem from above.  They will not listen.  There is no way for truth to speak to power.  What do I do?”

The question should sound familiar.  The assumption is that people lower in a hierarchy are helpless and the people at the top are powerful.  Yet please stop and note a profound fact.  In this case, the dean and his staff are as helpless as the people at the bottom.  Trapped in their own logic, they diagnose problems and increase control.  They are as helpless as the low-level staffer operating from the same logic.  They, however, are in a more difficult situation: they are not allowed to admit their helplessness.

The Challenge

With this unthinkable fact in mind, please pause for a moment.  If you were Alberto,  what would you do?  In a position without formal power, how would you change an organization?  How would you transcend the conventional, problem-solving logic?  From Alberto we gain insight in how to co-create social excellence.

Alberto’s Intervention

“I spent the first five months meeting one-on-one with as many people as I could.  I did more listening than speaking.  Most people I talked to were dismayed by the negative culture.  What I noticed is that most people were actually happy to talk to me.  I think they sensed from me that I didn’t have a personal agenda.  Each person shared with me their pains and what they wish would happen.  I was able to listen, empathize, and encourage each person about his or her efforts and the greater mission of the school.

“I have always been a positive person.  In moving forward, I noticed something about being a listener in a negative situation.  One attracts a lot of good will and trust.  It’s as if everyone gets to focus their hopes and aspirations on you.  In my case, I had gained enough credibility to suggest some major policy changes.  I was able to facilitate a conversation of what we want to be.  I did not focus on how to fix what we are now.  Don’t get me wrong, not everyone got on board.  We struggled to create a tipping point for change just like any organization must.  There was a lot of organizational finesse and maneuvering in order to secure the commitment to change some key policies and move in a different direction.”

Note the espoused framework.  Alberto engages in listening and does so without a personal agenda.  People willingly share their dreams.  He provides empathy and support.  His positivity attracts good will and trust, and he becomes a carrier of hopes.  He begins new conversations focused on purpose rather than problems.  He does not reach everyone, but he does bring about a tipping point in the overall system.  Employing organizational finesse, policies begin to change.  We might ask, how does this approach contrast with conventional problem-solving logic?  Why is it so seldom employed?  What are your most instinctual reactions?  Can you learn from this excellence or do your defenses immediately arise?

 

The Outcomes

So what happened?  Alberto writes, “So we did change the emphasis on control.  Students and faculty perceived that the administration was open to positive dialogue.  Students, who in the past had perceived the School as a controlling and oppressive force, now perceived the School as supportive of their success.  In the most recent class of incoming students, many noted that they are coming to the School because of our reputation for being supportive of students.  Our performance on national board exams is skyrocketing.  In the most recent national questionnaire for graduating students, our medical school was in the top 15 in terms of student satisfaction.”

 

The Ongoing Challenge

In the conventional mindset, there is an assumption of closure, a fixed state in which all is well.  It is the state of the solved problem.  Alberto suggests a different reality: “It’s interesting, but even as the School is enjoying the gains from the cultural transformation, people are already going back to transactional thinking and the logic of problem solving.  Now that the crisis has passed, there seems to be a perception that we can now return to ‘business as usual.’  People don’t quite realize that it’s ‘business as usual’ that caused the crisis in the first place.”

The current order in organizations is always in the process of breaking down.  Managers seek to restore it.  Leaders seek to co-create of a new order, one fully aligned with the needs of the current day.  Alberto is a leader.  He knows how to nurture social excellence.

 

Reflection

  • What is the difference between an administrator and a leader? Why is it so often the case that the people at the top are not leading?  Why is it so often the case that people below can lead and do not know it?  Why do people at every level become helpless?  What is the real difference between management and leadership?
  • We all know that a person cannot lead without authority, yet in this case, Alberto is the only one who does lead. How was it possible?  From his efforts, what framework of change can you construct?  What would it take for you to believe that you, like Alberto, can lead change?
  • Is it possible for an organization to ever be a solved problem? Why does conventional logic–a logic we all firmly believe in and use effectively in many situations–continually fail us?  What does it mean to operate from higher levels of consciousness and order?  What does it mean to learn from social excellence?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

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