Change is difficult for most organizations. It is made even more difficult when leaders resist it. It is my observation that leaders have either one of two postures when it comes to change. They either lean into it or lean away from it. This makes all the difference in terms of the outcome.
I am not really a snow skier. I only get a chance to ski every three years or so. However, I really enjoy it—as long as I don't ski too far beyond my ability. As I have learned, when I push myself too far, I lose confidence, and skiing becomes something scary.
A few years ago, a couple we know, who are also active skiers, invited us to Colorado to go skiing with them. They said, “Why don’t you spend the first two days by yourselves. You can take a few lessons, get reoriented, and then we can ski together the last two days.”
“Perfect,” I replied.
So, we did exactly as he suggested. We took a few lessons, and then our friends arrived. The husband, John, was an accomplished skier. He was used to skiing the “Black Trails,” designed for expert skiers. However, he was happy to “down-shift” and ski the Green Trails, designed for beginners like me.
After getting our gear on, John said, “Have you skied Peak 8”?
I said, “No, we have pretty much stuck to Peak 9.”
“Well, why don’t we head over to 8, so you can get a change of scenery.”
“Fine,” I replied, a little warily. “Provided we can stay on the Green Trails.” I wanted to reenforce our earlier agreement.
“No problem,” he assured me. I’ll make sure we stay on the Green Trails.
I was relieved.
So we headed up the ski lift, both of us chatting away, and drinking in the breath-taking scenery. However, the ride was taking longer and going higher up the mountain than I had experienced on the other peak.
“John, are you sure there are Green Trails at the top of this lift?” I queried.
“Oh yea. I’m sure of it. I have skied this peak many times.”
However, when we got off the lift, all I could see where three Blue Trails, designed for intermediate skiers. I looked at John, trying to suppress the panic I felt. “Where is the Green Trail?”
He mumbled, “I could have sworn there was a Green Trail up here. We must have gotten on the wrong lift.”
Now I was panicked. “So, how am I supposed to get down the mountain?”
He reluctantly admitted, “I think your only alternative is to ski down.”
Seeing my terror, he gave me some quick coaching. “You will make it fine, Mike. You can do this!” He patted me on the shoulder, trying to encourage me. “Just remember to lean downhill. You will be tempted to lean back, but you will actually be in more in control if you lean into it.”
“Are you saying I won’t fall if I lean into it?”
“No, I can’t promise you that. You're probably going to fall any way. But you will fall less, and you will enjoy it more. You’ll also get downhill faster.” He then pushed off, and left me standing at the top of the mountain, watching him disappear on the trail below.
“Great,” I said sarcastically to myself.
But not having any other choice, I pulled down my goggles and pushed off. I fell three times, but I got to the bottom of the mountain in one piece. Actually, I felt exhilarated and proud of myself for staying alive! Still, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to hug my friend or slug him.
Several times, I have drawn on this experience as a metaphor for embracing change:
- Accept your reality. I didn’t want to be at the top of the Blue Trail. I could blame John. I could wish I were somewhere else. But I couldn’t change the fact that I was at the top of the mountain and the only way down was to ski a Blue Trail.
As leaders, change is easier when we accept the reality of our situation. As we often say to one another in the office, “It is what it is.” The only question is, “What are we going to do about it?”
- Lean into the challenge. Thankfully, John gave me some great, last-minute advice. “Lean downhill.” In effect, he was encouraging me to work with gravity rather than fight it.
Organizational change is like this, too. It is easier for people to change when they see their leader embracing change and leaning into it. It also removes the fear-factor—or at least minimizes it.
- Get up when you fall. Falling is just part of the experience. By the time I reached the bottom of the mountain, I was covered with snow. But I wasn’t hurt. It just wasn’t that big of deal.
Leaders have to expect failure. It’s going to happen. You are not going to reach every goal. Neither are your people. However, you must get up when it happens and keep moving. This is the important thing, not the falling down but the getting up. This is what separates successful people from unsuccessful ones.
As a leader, you don’t usually get to chose your environment. Many factors are beyond your control. But the one thing you can chose is your posture toward adversity. My advice? Lean into it.
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