Five Critical Dispositions Leaders need to enable change

There are only a small number of absolute constants in the Universe, and Change is one of them. There is the change experienced by design, and the change experienced by default. In the world of education, teachers are most often at the forefront of experiencing both types of change, with some choosing to actively shape the change taking place in their classroom, school and broader community. 

But change doesn’t happen in isolation. It happens with others, both known and unknown, and happens at all different times. Leaders within organisations - be they school leaders, senior managers, CEOs, team leaders, etc - need to understand and appreciate the impact they have on both enabling change by design, or allowing change by default. The latter more likely resulting in circumstances that can be disempowering, de-energising and lost opportunity. 

Here are five key dispositions leaders must cultivate for change by design to be effectively supported. Note, these dispositions are not exhaustive, and are equally applicable to any organisation where leaders are the enabler (and conversely, the blocker) to change. 

Be Curious 

"You can't just give someone a creativity injection. You have to create an environment for curiosity and a way to encourage people and get the best out of them" - Sir Ken Robinson 

The simple fact of not knowing something can send some leaders into either sheer panic or complete joy. It comes down to how the fact of not knowing is viewed. It is either an opportunity for discovery, or a disaster in waiting. The fact remains the same. The reality is it could be either, or something completely unexpected yet inconsequential. The disposition of a leader toward this, and other similar circumstances, influences their teams. This isn't to say that being curious suspends rationale thinking, but it does ask leaders to pause and consider Why Not and What If. Without this, learning through mistakes is stifled and discoveries rarely made. 

Be Courageous 

In the 1999 Hollywood film Three Kings, featuring George Clooney, a young corporal, (Conrad) is about to enter his first real battle. He turns to his leader, Archie (played by Clooney), and says he's maybe a little scared. Archie tells him "The way it works is, you do the thing you're scared sh*%tless of, and you get the courage AFTER you do it, not before you do it." Conrad's view is this is stupid, and should be reversed. Archie agree, but says "That's the way it works." 

Leaders need to be courageous, even if they are maybe a little bit scared. They need to demonstrate courage in the face of uncertainty so that those they lead feel emboldened to continue the course of action they are on. The act of demonstrating courage enables individuals and teams to feel encouraged, so that once a task, project, concept or situation has been delivered or overcome, lasting courage remains. This is so because the experience of triumph reinforces the value of the courage held to pursue the thing in the first place. 

For example, if you are a school leader and an idea posed by a student or teacher seems too daunting or risky initially, be courageous and explore the possibility and/or commit to it with courage so that your team can feel supported in coming with you in the experience. 

It's important to acknowledge that having courage and being afraid are not mutually exclusive. As Archie pointed out to Conrad, you do the thing you fear first, then the courage comes. I would only add that the courage stays AFTER, and the fear diminishes. Leaders demonstrating and ultimately being courageous, build a courageous and more confident team that is sustainable beyond any one leader's tenure. 

Be Compassionate 

Compassion is one of those qualities that transcends and combines many. For instance, love, empathy, sympathy, consideration of others, are all considered facets of a compassionate individual. In life, we are all at some stage of learning. In education, formal or informal, we sense-make and form new understandings when we try an idea, concept, skill and learn from the experience - success or failure. In order for teams to feel enabled and supported to try new things - to change something - they need to feel that if they fail, which they will, that they will have the love and support from their leader.  

Being compassionate also includes being instructive with feedback. If a leader really wants the best for a team member or a team as a whole, then feedback that ultimately helps them achieve their potential will serve them the most. This may mean the feedback is constructive and identifies weaknesses and areas for improvement. Compassion is not about being nice to people all the time. It is about doing the best for them and understanding their needs, wants, and challenges so that, as a leader, the best support and guidance can be given. Leaders that demonstrate compassion towards their teams will more likely see team members willing to try and fail, knowing that their efforts will be acknowledged, they will feel supported and therefore be more willing to try again until they have reached their goal. 

Be Conscientious 

Change will happen on its own. Guaranteed. It may not be the change desired, but it will occur nonetheless. Considered, deliberate, sincere efforts will significantly influence the degree in which the change experienced is the change desired, or the changed inherited by Chance. Leaders that understand the domains of their work that require more attention and focus will enable those they lead to understand, appreciate and engage with the ideas behind change, and the complex events in order to sustain it. It is possible to be open to new ideas, encourage their adoption, and still take time to consider the process of trial and implementation. For without either, desired change will not happen. And without a leader that understands and enacts a conscientiousness disposition then their teams may be less likely to succeed, and more likely to miss opportunities for further impact if they do. The "devil" is often in the detail. 

Be Committed 

Excellence, defined by the achievement of a skill, practice, level of knowledge/understanding or observable behaviour, almost always is a result of consistent and considered effort over a period of time. Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success suggests the average timeframe to develop excellence in a domain is 10,000 hours. Leaders do not require 10,000 hours to enable desired change to occur, delivered by and through their teams. However, time is required to allow for trial, failure, learning, trialling again, failing again, and ongoing refinement. Leaders must be committed to their vision and the collective vision for change that the team holds. Holding true to a goal, strategy or change process, especially when teams become disillusioned or disengaged by the process, will ultimately deliver more sustainable and satisfying results for all. 

Many examples exist in our modern society where these dispositions, when enacted together, have made monumental leaps forward for industry and humanity. One such example is Elon Musk's work at SpaceX. His curious nature fuelled his vision for more effective space travel, leading ultimately to humans living on Mars (vision). His courage to pursue this vision, even when his idols such as Neil Armstrong thought him a fool for pursuing it. His vision was infectious and inspired many others to follow him. He ensured his team had the support to pursue the collective vision, so they could attempt what hadn't been achieved before - a rocket that guided itself back to the surface of the earth for reuse in future space missions. The ultimate outcome was achieved on his fourth - and last - effort, and would not have been possible if every detail was attended to, and the commitment didn’t waiver. 

Whilst this example is more likely an outlier when compared to everyday life, it clearly demonstrates how a leader, when enacting these dispositions, can galvanise a team's energy and passion to innovate and introduce change. Whether the change concept comes for a team member or the leader is immaterial. The leader plays a critical role in helping see the change become a reality.  

If, as a society, we wish to garner and harness the energies of so many into desired and positive systemic change, leaders must appreciate the critical nature they play in ensuring that their teams can embrace and act upon new ideas in their work. 

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