Saturday, June 20, 2009

who determines change?

Upon reading Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street (written in 1920), I became intrigued by the question of who should determine and/or introduce change into an organization or community. This follows on the heels of reading Barbara Kellerman’s book entitled Followers which seems to indicate that the will of the followers is always more powerful than that of the leader.

A brief synopsis of the story of Main Street: Carol Kennicott, having grown up in Minneapolis, marries a doctor and moves to a rural town in Minnesota. Once there, she determines to bring it “up-to-date” and revitalize it into a “proper” city. At first, people are enthusiastic, and go along with her suggestions. However, they never fully buy into the changes and behave in an underhanded manner, hurting her and stopping any change that she would bring about. Carol keeps trying time after time, yet continually fails, finally accepting the fact that she alone cannot bring about the change she believes is good and right for the community. The novel is a wonderful treatise on the emancipation of women and the battle between the morals of small-town America and the changes sweeping the country in the early 20th century.

So…was it Carol’s “calling” to bring about this change she believed was good, right and proper for the citizens of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota? If a group of people do not want change – and their worlds are no worse for it – should one person (or a small group of people) determine change for them? Who is it that should finally decide to make changes to an existing structure, organization, or community? And just because one has been voted into a position, does that person have the moral right to enact change upon their constituency?

When one perceives the need for changes to occur, perhaps they need to ask themselves the following questions:

1. For whom do I want to bring about this change – myself, those who are presently a part of the organization, or for those who are to follow us in the future?
2. What is it that is driving my need for change – and from where does that need for change emanate?
3. How do I know whether or not the people of the organization themselves want change? In what ways might I measure their need for and receptivity to this change?
4. When is change absolutely necessary? Is it ever absolutely necessary? Who am I to determine the absolute necessity for change?
5. How many people are needed within a given group to provide the mandate to move forward with change? Is it a simple majority? Is it a consensus? Is it certain individuals who are trusted by the rest of the constituency?
6. As the chosen/elected leader of an organization, if I believe that change is necessary and those I lead do NOT believe change is necessary, what should I do? Is that a time for me consider moving on and going somewhere else (as Carol Kennicott does by moving to Washington DC toward the end of the novel)?...or should I be content with the status quo knowing that my followers are content with it?

These questions are important for leaders to consider, since leadership is about change…and about people…and about influence…and about followers. What do you think?

1 comment:

PaulH said...

The "who determines change" question, as made evident in the Main Street example, is more likely considered in, but not limited to, people squarely in the public sector. That public sector change challenge isn't limited to public administration types, but also for business students who will desire and promote societal improvement. I gave a presentation to a local "business association" a few days ago, and the topic they requested was "economic development". I made the case that economic development decision making is essentially public decision making, and that positive and successful public sector leadership requires a certain set of personal leadership qualities. One of which is the ability to attract "willing followers". I think I gave them something to think about in a new way. Thank you for the message you are sending young people, that public leadership is worthy of everyone's effort.