Focus on Leading Change

Leading change in complex systems requires many skills, characteristics and values that are often learned rather than innate. Daniel Goleman in his book Focus breaks down the different levels of awareness or focus leaders need to be effective. He talks about inner, other and outer focus and states, “For leaders to get results, they need all three kinds of focus…A leader tuned out of his internal world will be rudderless; one blind to the world of others will be clueless; those indifferent to the larger systems within which they operate will be blindsided”. Self awareness or inner focus helps leaders clarify their vision for change and manage their reactions to the inevitable disagreement, obstruction or sabotage. Leaders who are self aware know what their strengths are in the change process and that which challenges them and are prepared to consciously make choices in service of the ultimate goal. Awareness of others or empathy is a fundamental skill in building relationships including those that support change. Effective Leaders realize that they cannot bring about change alone. They must engage others in a shared vision, set a pace for change that is tolerable, and be persistent enough to offer as many opportunities as necessary to create a shared purpose, process and outcome for the change. This can sometimes require extraordinary patience when a leader has a fully formed idea for change and is ready to implement. Awareness of the system within which the change is to occur is to understand how the system components are interrelated and affect on another. Leaders must be aware of and be able to navigate political systems, economic systems, organizational systems and community systems. This level of complex thinking can be overwhelming and is not always readily apparent at the beginning of the change process. Effective leaders will continuously explore and be open to how the change process relates to the complex system around it.

And if this is not enough, inner, other and outer focus overlap each other. A leader’s self-awareness includes their ability to relate to specific individuals and contextual situations. For instance, a leader may be required to work with one who has a much lower tolerance for risk or a situation that is overly affected by politics and will have to focus on their gut reaction when those frustrations emerge. A leader’s relationships with other leaders are also part of the context within which change occurs. In spite of the challenge of leading change in complex systems, Goleman provides a way to organize the different areas of focus required. Focus on your own values, ideas and role. Focus on empathically understanding the perspective, personal traits and interests of others. Focus on the change process as it relates to the context and remain aware of the aspects of the context that support and challenge the process. Focus is like a muscle – the more you use it, the stronger it gets.