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Some of you that know me personally know that I am currently working on a graduate degree at George Washington University. I study and research the future of leadership and change, with special emphasis on the future of female leadership. I’ve interviewed dozens of incredible female leaders over the last 9 months. Leaders from companies like USAA, Gartner, and HCA. It is such an honor to listen to the stories these women have to share. If you are one of the women I’ve interviewed, thank you so much for trusting me with a part of your story!
Back to the graduate class – this week we are studying Complex Leadership Theory. The basic premise of the theory centers on the idea of identifying and developing strategies and behavior patterns that nurture spontaneous and continuous learning as a result of the incredibly dynamic nature of today’s complex organizations.
What I find most relevant about this very complex idea is that it means leaders are not the ones creating change in organizations. Leaders do not espouse grand ideas and plans and then wave a magic wand that creates new and innovative people, ideas, and processes. In fact, even the greatest, most inspiring leaders among us is not capable of changing others.
We’ve all heard the saying, you can’t change someone else – they have to want it for themselves. Usually this phrase is referring to our desire for someone we care about to stop smoking or change their diet and exercise habits. Somehow though, we seem to think that it is different for great leaders.
We say things like, “Martin Luther King, Jr. changed the world” or “Oprah Winfrey changed the public conversation” or “Jeff Bezos changed the world of retail forever.” No doubt all of these leaders sparked incredible change in their organizations and the world. But they alone did not make the change happen. They did not change the people that took new and different actions that resulted in a changed world.
What they did is make an invitation to the people of their organizations, communities, and world to make a change. They sparked the idea of a new and different way. They led by example to be sure, but they did not, and could not actually change people. We live a world with free will and freedom of choice, especially in America.
So why then, do we consider these leaders to be so truly great and transformational?
We consider them great because they are the ones who had enough courage to make the bold invitation to change. They did not make the people change; rather, they invited them on a change journey that they themselves were bravely leading.
They created a vision of a better way. They laid out a plan to make it happen. Then, they opened their mouths and their hearts and made an invitation that opened the hearts and minds of people. Their courageous invitation and example enabled people to make the changes themselves.
This is what great leadership for the future looks like. If there ever were days when high ranking leaders could make a commandment and expect immediate conformity, those days are gone. We live in a world where people have endless possibilities for what, how, and why they will do the things they do.
But one thing remains true, when great leaders change their own hearts first, and then invite others to do the same, people can and will change.