Real leaders embrace change, regardless of title or position


ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Too often we confuse leadership with a title or position and believe that authority is enough to alter people and move organizations. Not so, says a University of Michigan Business School professor.

In his new book, "Building the Bridge as You Walk on It: A Guide for Leading Change," Professor Robert Quinn says that half of all organizational change efforts fail because of ineffective change leadership and the failure to recognize that anyone who embraces deep change can become a leader who attracts others to join in the change process.

Quinn generated two concepts of leadership to explain his findings: a normal state and a fundamental state.

He says that most people, whatever their position, spend the majority of their time in the normal state. Although they may claim they are committed to changing some undesirable condition, they actually are committed to remaining comfort-centered (staying on the path of least resistance), externally driven (complying with existing social pressures), self-focused (egocentric) and internally closed (neutralizing external signals for change).

When a person faces a crisis and is forced to make a deep personal change, he or she has to move forward without control, Quinn says. In effect, that person has to learn to "build the bridge as he or she walks on it." In the process, people tend to move from the normal state to an alternative state in which they become more results-centered, internally driven, other-focused and externally open.

When people make the shift, they often report surprising observations, Quinn says. They are more focused, feel increased integrity, are more connected to others and experience great increases in awareness and learning. They empower themselves and become more influential than at any previous time. Quinn calls this condition the fundamental state of leadership.

"There is a universal tendency to call high-level administrators 'leaders' simply because they are in positions of authority," he said. "Yet, the majority of people, including those in the highest administrative positions, spend most of their time in the normal state. They honestly believe they are trying to bring change when they actually are working to preserve things the way they are."

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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