I do love the cartoon above and I often share it with my leadership coachees or trainees as it somewhat reflects my experience of change in organisations. I know that I can relate to each of the images … what about you? I would argue though that the three captions are gross generalisations and are thus wrong! However that’s a different blog post for another day …

When I co-authored the 9 principles of Agile leadership in 2017 I purposefully placed one principle ahead of all others, because to me, as a follower, it is the most important of the principles.

Principle 1: Actions speak louder than words

Who Wants to Change?

It’s an interesting question isn’t it? For me, the focus lies on wanting or the desiring of change. The image above is largely true in that most people actually don’t want to change. To be fair any sane human being would say that change is difficult both at an individual level and at a group level, so how many of us would want to purposefully introduce more difficulty into our lives? Very few I suspect …

What is a more salient question is “Who needs to change?” Now that change of one word completely alters the question, doesn’t it. Which brings me back to the first principle and why I made it the first principle.

One of the questions that I frequently used to encounter while training teams in Agile ways of working was the question “Have the leaders been trained in this?” or “Are the leaders doing this?” or the politer way of asking “when are the leaders going to be trained?”

It’s not me … it’s them

One truism that I have often encountered during the decades where I have helped individuals and teams to change is that people more readily recognise when others need to change before they recognise that they themselves need to change. I can promise you one enduring theme in all of my consulting work and the hundreds of interviews that I have carried out is that the source of all the organisation’s problems is NOT sat in the chair across from me. No, the source of the problem is out there … them, not me. “if only you would fix those guys Mark, my life would be a hell of a lot easier!” But this to me is the nub of the issue, people rarely take responsibility for their own part in the problems they encounter in the organisation, so we end up playing games of “pass the buck.”

The buck stops here!

This is why this first principle of Agile leadership is so important and one that when I engage organisations in transformational change I insist that the leaders pay close and special attention to. Followers in all organisations are always watching their leaders and take their behavioural cues from their leaders. So if the leaders says one thing and does another, it will be spotted by everyone in the organisation. Most humans seem to have a tendency towards negativity (what psychologists call a negativity bias) and will remember the bad stuff that has happened before they remember the good stuff. What’s worse is the pernicious attitude that people develop towards their leaders as they judge them as hypocrites who “tell us to change without taking on board the feedback that they need to change themselves.”

Now, of course, this presupposes that the leaders have been given the feedback around how they themselves are contributing to the issues, problems or challenges that their organisations face. But let’s face it, how many followers in organisations across the globe are willing to make the career-limiting move of telling their leader that they need to change? Only the desperate ones, or the ones who care enough about the future of their organisation and the greater good. (Dr Jerry Harvey wrote about this phenomenon, where people won’t speak out in groups, something he termed the Abilene Paradox) The sad fact remains that the bringer of this type of unwelcome news is the consultant … sometimes. I say sometimes because again your average consultant (trust me there are a lot of average consultants out there) isn’t willing to poke and “unnecessarily” provoke their cash-cow, for much the same reasons why the followers won’t speak up. But yet that what needs to happen if the organistion is to truly transform… but again that’s another blog post for another day.

The first step

I invite you as a leader of change to perform a thought experiment and allow me first to set the context for you and put some assumptions in place. You have paid one of the large consultancies to create a roadmap for culture change and they have recommended that you roll out some Agile ways of Working training/workshops. Because you are a canny leader who doesn’t want to pay over the odds for training or workshop facilitation you have instead hired another consultant who is reasonably priced and has come highly recommended. You agree to run a pilot session after co-creating a workshop with the consultant.

Let’s for a moment assume that the followers and attendees at the first pilot are observant, intelligent people; let’s also assume that over the last number of years they have been worn down by the amount of change in the organisation and have recognised a theme across the various change initiatives: the theme is one of the leaders subjecting the organisations to change but are rarely (if ever) the object of change. So maybe the followers conclude that the leaders could do with help changing, especially if the organisation is supposed to be going agile: after all don’t the leaders need to be agile to lead an agile organisation or run a digital transformation?

Here comes the question … what do you think sounds a better response when the attendees of the first training session for the new culture change programme ask the question: “Have the leaders been on this training?”

That’s a straight-up closed question that isn’t worthy of a politician’s answer, lest the trainer lose the trust of the group: isn’t it better for the trainer to be able to answer “yes … and” rather than “no … but” or “not yet … but”.

What can any leader reaonably expect of their people when they hear “no, but I am assurred they will be attending it next month!” the more jaded followers are likely to respond with cynicism with comment such as “yeah right, thats what they always say and still nothing changes around here!!!!”

On the other hand, what can we expect of the followers who hear “Yes the leaders had their own session last month. They were so impressed with what agility could offer the organisation that they wanted to quickly roll this out across the organisation so that we could make the most of the benefits … fast! Any other questions?”

Being the change

I personally agree with Anderson and Ackerman Anderson who in their awesome book Beyond Change Management posits that transformation ONLY happens in organisations where the leaders change. They might not necessarily need to be the first to change but they definitely need to change. In my book I use the famous Gandhi misquote which is “Be the change you want to see” and this is most definitely true in organisations who aspire to be agile.

Agility starts with the people and the one thing that every follower can reasonably expect from their leaders is for them to truly lead and go first. Don’t just say we are going agile or doing agile and then expect everyone in the organisation to follow the command. Instead, demonstrate agility by prioritising your own leadership journey and start to talk passionately and authentically like many leaders I have helped on their journey to agility. It will make a huge difference, not only to the transformation efforts but to your own ability to lead.

In closing

I would like to share with you my updated version of the now-infamous cartoon with what I consider to be a healthier twist … Leaders will get better results if they follow the first principle of Agile Leadership and demonstrate they are changing, that way they say to the organisation that my actions speak louder than my words. That in my view is a leader worth following!

Coming soon .. the Second Principle of Agile Leadership

Improved quality of thinking leads to improved outcomes.

In the next article in the series, I will discuss a few ideas such as the cognitive bias towards activity and one of the main ailments that many organisations face: over-activity.