The Region

Leading Change: Overcoming the Ideology of Comfort and the Tyranny of Custom

Book Review

Colleen Strand | First Vice President

Published June 1, 1995  | June 1995 issue

By James O'Toole
Published by Jossey-Bass Publishers
282 pages

This book arrived at a very good time. I read it after I had just completed some analysis on the work environment and leadership at the bank, and I found it extremely supportive of our efforts. Leading Change reflects my views and it exemplifies in many ways what we're trying to accomplish in this bank.

Written by James O'Toole, vice president of the Aspen Institute in Denver and co-founder of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California, Leading Change is not a how-to book or "10 steps to better leadership"; to the contrary, it's very intellectual, very philosophical and not at all simplistic. Most of us focus on the style of a leader, and most management books equate leaders' ideas with their personality and their style. However, O'Toole states clearly that leadership is not about style.

O'Toole acknowledges that leadership is extremely complex and challenging, and to guide effective change we need " ... a new philosophy of leadership that is always and at all times focused on enlisting the hearts and minds of followers through inclusion and participation." This philosophy is described as values-based leadership. The need to understand that we all resist change and refuse to become followers, and how leaders can overcome that resistance to change, is the focus of the book. Accordingly, Leading Change is divided into two sections: The first part concerns leaders and the second part discusses the other half of the equation-the followers. This is the first study I have seen on leadership that takes into account this latter part of the equation.

Leaders must avoid behaving paternalistically toward followers, even if for their own good, because that is to deny them the basic right of individual dignity, according to the author. Thus, treating people with respect is what values-based leadership is all about.

O'Toole talks about two types of leadership groups: the Rushmoreans and the Realists. Of course, as a South Dakota native I was immediately drawn to the Rushmoreans. O'Toole named this leadership approach after the presidents whose faces are carved on Mt. Rushmore (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt). Although faced with different challenges and employing different styles, they all had certain values that they never compromised or lost sight of-such as integrity, trust and respect for followers. They exemplify values-based leadership. I found particularly appealing the description of Jefferson in the context of the Declaration of Independence, which today some might call a "vision statement:" In that declaration Jefferson set out the long-term aspirations of a new nation, and in asserting a natural right to happiness Jefferson meant that all individuals are entitled to make all they can of their lives.

However, people who don't think well of themselves don't act to change their conditions. And key to the success of the Rushmorean leadership philosophy is that while leaders must respect the right of individuals to make the most of their lives, followers also have an obligation to gain self confidence and to make all they can of their lives.

Values-based leadership requires integrity, which is two-pronged: truth-telling honesty and moral behavior. O'Toole describes integrity as a wholeness or completeness that is achieved by people who are said to have healthy self confidence and self esteem. People with integrity know who they are, which allows them to esteem and respect others.

One of the key statements in the book is that you don't have to become someone else or become like someone else to be a leader, you have to just become yourself. That is the core of integrity. Values-based leaders "... enable others to lead by sharing information, by fostering a sense of community, and by creating a consistent system of rewards, structure, process, and communication."

As for the Realists, their basic philosophy is that you have to do whatever it takes to get the job done. This leadership approach is mostly characterized by taking firm, bold action; being strong, aggressive, decisive, enacting pragmatic exercises to reach a goal. Realists get followers to do what the leader has outlined. O'Toole describes different realist leaders, including those who are usually touted in news and management magazines as leaders. O'Toole cites, for example, Jack Welch, whose tenure as CEO of General Electric resulted in unmatched financial performance among U.S. corporations. Welch's leadership slogan is, "It all depends:' Realists are the leaders who feel they need to take charge. They eschew working in groups and employee participation. If the job is going to get done, they need to take charge and get people to follow orders. O'Toole says these leaders are generally more successful in short-term situations, but over the long term they don't get the very best out of followers.

To digress a little here, included in the book is a discussion of a more "feminine" style of leadership vs. the traditionally "masculine" style, which I—being of the correct gender—found intriguing. The author associates the feminine style more with the Rushmoreans and the masculine style more with the Realists. I'm not sure this adds a lot to the book in the sense of understanding leadership—and it actually might detract because for some people this might range into political sensitivity—but I found this to be very supportive of my style, so my observation may not be too objective.

I do think the Realists have the upper hand in the literature today and are dominant in Western and Far East culture. And certainly there is a need for strong leadership in times of crisis or gridlock: When you need to get something done and you need to get everybody moving in the same direction, you can't run organizations as democracies, Realists might say.

However, I particularly liked O'Toole's definition of participative management, which is more aligned with the Rushmorean style: " ... decisions will not be arbitrary, secret, or closed to questioning." While it's a more open kind of process, participative management is sometimes confused with being a democracy. It's easy to be misunderstood on this issue—having a say and having input on a particular topic does not mean one will have a vote or there will be a consensus decision. Participative management means making the best decision after getting the input of all those affected by the decision.

The second section of the book talks about followers. The author acknowledges that we all resist change, that it's a normal human reaction to resist change. Following a list of 33 examples of why we resist change, such as fear of the unknown and contentment with the status quo, the author reviews several situations in which leaders tried to lead but were not successful because they were unable to inspire followers.

O'Toole discusses several leaders whose ideas, in retrospect, were important, but nonetheless were initially rejected by American industry. For example, W. Edwards Deming, known for his statistical quality control techniques, was ignored by the U.S. business establishment for many years, during which time he had a great influence on Japanese business. The author shares a wonderful quote that describes Deming's dilemma: "The ultimate curse is to be a passenger on a large ship, to know that the ship is going to sink, to know precisely what to do to prevent it and to realize that no one will listen. This is the curse that has been visited for a quarter of a century on W. Edwards Deming."

Other chapters dealt with Robert Owen, the early 19th century British entrepreneur, who introduced employee benefits in his textile mill. While some of his ideas work very well today, they were largely unrecognized early on. Owen never overcame society's deeply rooted resistance to change. One of the more interesting points O'Toole makes in his discussion of Owen's ideas is that their rejection reflects society as a whole. The author infers that individuality in some may be seen as eccentricity, not as a source of progress. It's seen as an affront to custom and therefore rejected.

O'Toole concludes that those who are perceived to have the most power are most afraid of change because they see change taking away some of that power. Leaders can only succeed when followers feel they are not being asked to act against their will. You can't push people over the long term to get the job done or to make a corporation successful, you can only pull them in the direction they wish to go.

O'Toole reminds us that change occurs all the time; that is just the way life is. We can attempt to keep our organization static, but if we don't continually change as the world outside our corporation changes, the gap will become so large that we are forced to turn to more short-term, dramatic kinds of leadership. Leading Change conveys an enduring, thoughtful philosophy of leadership. It moves from more abstract principles to concrete examples and studies of companies, and also measures the long-term effects of leadership vs. the short-term outcomes. It's fairly easy to rectify an obvious problem, but it's much more difficult to establish a corporate environment where you prepare for the future. As O'Toole writes:"Great leaders recognize that there is no single truth, no final answer, and that the process of leadership is a never-ending struggle to balance the constant and never-abating demands of those with different objectives."