When I first began leading a big change initiative in my organization, I made plenty of mistakes. The most significant mistake was in how I communicated our need to change.
Looking back, my words and actions implied that the organization and its leaders had been doing everything wrong (though I don’t think I ever used those words). I had discovered the “right way,” which we were all now going to follow.
While it was true that the organization needed to change, my approach was offensive to some people who had been working really hard with the best of intentions for a long time. Was I saying that all of their years of effort were wasted?
The truth is there were a lot of people doing a lot of good things. But often the biggest enemy of doing what’s best is an exhausting list of other noble things to do. What do you do when everyone’s so busy doing good things that there seems to be no effort going toward doing the necessary things? There’s only so much capital (money, time, personnel) to go around, so if we’re going to focus on the most important things, we often need to stop resourcing some good things.
How do you tell people they need to stop doing good things so that the organization can start doing the necessary things? What if some of those good things have become “sacred cows” to people who will naturally be offended when they hear that what they’re doing isn’t valued anymore?
The important lesson that I took too long to learn is this: Leaders lead people, not just ideas. And people follow GOOD leaders, not just RIGHT leaders. Every leader should make sure they and their people are focused on the right things and rejecting the wrong things. But the language we communicate with is critical. Rather than talk about what people are doing in terms of right and wrong, we must acknowledge and appreciate what people are doing that is good and challenge them to move toward what is best.
We have a lot easier time asking people to change if we first acknowledge and appreciate their virtues, treating them with respect and dignity, not condescension. One of my favorite leaders today, author and apologists Ravi Zacharias, frequently reminds his readers to win people, not arguments.
Yes, leaders must sometimes fight for what is right. But it’s rarely necessary to sacrifice being good to be right. Sacrificing good to be right is the fast track to losing credibility. Trust me, I’ve been there.
People will remember how you treated them long after they have forgotten what you were right about. So let’s consider whether we can lead by putting away our swords rather than falling on them.
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Jay Pullins is the founder and owner of Anchorage-based Catapult Leadership Solutions, providing expertise in developing the character and competency of leaders in all sectors. He is also a leadership course facilitator for Academy Leadership, LLC. and instructor and adventure guide for Alaska Leadership Adventures. Jay also guides Alaska visitors on summer hikes and backpacking trips through Alaska Trekking.