Saturday, November 15, 2008

In Hindsight: Levers of Renewal

"The real heroism of leadership involves having the courage to face reality - and helping the people around you to face reality."
- Ronald Heifetz

The most positive message to come out of my talk on bottom-up change is undoubtedly the need for courage. Without courage, all the ideas I discuss in my presentation and in my paper are just wishful thinking. Courage is the difference between having principles and living by these principles. Courage comes to life when outward acts are aligned with inner principles. Courage can make or break a leader.

Interestingly, the most frequent comment I have received from readers after I released “An Inconvenient Renewal” was that writing this paper must have required courage, and that it was a courageous act to release it. At first, that comment left me perplexed, because I didn't see what I had done as courageous. I felt compelled to write it, and I knew there could be negative consequences if I released it. But I didn't think of it as courageous. I just felt it was the right thing to do. But it definitely was not courage – at least not for me. And that’s when I realized that whether or not I felt it was courageous was absolutely irrelevant! "Perception is reality", and if readers thought it was courageous, then it was! Most importantly, the fact that some many people said it was courageous speaks volume as to what is missing from our public service culture: courage!

We want courage. We need courage. We crave for courageous people to step forth, speak up, and do what everyone knows is the right thing to do, but few are actually willing to do. This is why we must recognize that courage can also be manifested by anyone, including non-managers. Actually I would argue that the courage demonstrated by ordinary employees builds pressure for courageous management. It also builds pressure for change. Intuitively, we all know the power of a single right example, because courage is contagious.

In our bureaucratic organizations, we traditionally expect change to come from the top down. The Deputy Minister gives the direction for the change, it filters through the chain of command, and down to the employees. While this is a great way to ensure coordination, alignment, and provide a certain degree of control over the change, it blinds us to another reality: that is one of bottom-up change, it starts with one individual.

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