Leading Change is a Perilous Undertaking

leading change

In talking with a mentor about change, this is what he said to me, “Leading change is a perilous undertaking.” Then he shared the following quote from Niccolo Machiavelli:

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the new reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old orders, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries, and partly from the wonder of humanity, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had the experience of it.”

We must engage courageously. We must summon up the courage needed to lead change within our organization. Scholars talk about at least five significant constraints that can hold you back from summoning the courage for the work of leadership:

  • Loyalties to people who may not believe you are doing the right thing.
  • Fear of incompetence.
  • Uncertainty about taking the right path.
  • Fear of loss.
  • Not having the stomach for the hard parts of the journey.

We must lean into our incompetence. Leading change requires you to step beyond your default behaviors into an unknown situation and learn something new. How do you lean into your incompetence so you can put yourself in a state of discovery? Trial and error.

Most learning, especially most organizational learning, occurs through trial and error. Error is challenging to avoid. It’s not clear research or preparation has an enormous impact on failure. Trial, on the other hand, can be quite scarce, especially in some organizations. Take more risks. People mistakenly believe one way to avoid error successfully is to avoid trial. We need more trials. Having an experimental mindset will mean taking more significant risks than you’re used to making. Again, summon the courage to engage in riskier behavior on behalf of the issues or change you care deeply about.

Confront the fear that understandably has been holding you back and be the change you want to see in your organization.

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Rusty Vineyard is the executive director of recreation and well-being at the University of Idaho.

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