The Risks to the Change Agent

It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this luke-warmness arriving partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favor; and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had an actual experience of it. Thus it arises that on every opportunity for attacking the reformer, the opponents do so with the zeal of partisans, the others only defend him halfheartedly, so that between them he runs great danger.    Machiavelli’s The Prince

The Illusion of Control

Always on the lookout for rare corporate authenticity, I listened to the group from a Fargo, North Dakota manufacturing plant as they spoke at an ethics luncheon sponsored by The Center for Ethical Leadership at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. Pete, the quality guy, was high-energy and exuded enthusiasm — a true believer in the work he did.  Walt, the president of the company, was humble and soft-spoken.

They talked of their workplace  and new tools like self-managed work teams, open book management, and continuous learning, along with the various methods of the quality movement they excelled in. I was more interested in their depth, passion, idealism, and human connection than in the tools they used to organize and express themselves — as interesting as those programs were.

Walt invited me to visit the plant. I talked with him and other plant leaders for two energized hours. Someone expressed concern for the sustainability of their innovative work. I told them they could think of their work as a beautiful garden that they nurtured with loving care. And I told them how a guy in a pickup truck could destroy their garden in a moment. Successful change efforts get destroyed every day in the corporate world by mindless and sometimes malicious executives.

The dominant culture of the corporation eventually pushed Walt out. Committed to ethics, authenticity, and employee engagement, Walt took over a plant in the middle of America. The plant owner had visited the Fargo plant and wanted Walt to transform his plant. As the plant turnaround took off, the owner complained to Walt that things felt out of control; he felt out of control.

Things felt out of control?

I think the owner wanted a feel-good quick fix: easy, fast, and comfortable. He apparently didn’t understand that fear, anxiety, and feeling inadequate and out of control go with organizational transformation and that deep change can’t happen without inner turmoil. Dealing with fear, loss, anxiety, and the loss of control evolves us as people and from the changes in us our organizations change. Under stress, people often try to return to an earlier state of comfort─a sure step towards decline. If people understood that their discomfort would pass if they embraced it, they would grow to a new level of understanding─a sure step towards sustainability.

I knew many executives over the years who said they supported employee involvement until the day came when they felt they were not in control─a sign that change was happening. Then their dark sides took over, and they sabotaged the employees who did what the executives had told them to do.

Our cosmos is not a vast machine that we control. She is a living system: chaotic, complex, and ever creative.

The belief that we are in control is an illusion.

Walt, a wise and resilient man, now leads a plant in the Eastern part of the country.