If people simply cannot adapt, the reality is that they will be left behind. They become casualties. This is virtually inevitable when organisations and communities go through significant change. Some people simply cannot or will not go along. You have to choose between keeping them and making progress.
A few years ago Marty consulted with a company that did technical work for the defence industry. The organisation had enjoyed a long and successful run, but the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 ushered in a new era. The Cold War was over. The new CEO realised that the competition for contracts was getting tougher, that he and his company could no longer rely on their reputation and have the work come to them. He began to think about changing the business, becoming more aggressive and adding to their product line. For many of the long-term and most respected employees, this was hard to accept.
At the CEO's direction, the senior managers went off to a two-day retreat to chart their future direction. At the end of the retreat, the CEO held a climactic meeting. He wanted an endorsement of the new plan, and he asked each of the participants whether they were with the program. One-by-one, they each said yes, some with great reluctance. The number-three person in the organisation sat near the end of the row. He had worked in the organisation longer than anyone else present. The room was quiet as everyone waited. He said nothing. Slowly he got up and left the room. He packed his bags, went back and cleaned out his office, and left his letter of resignation on the CEO's desk. He became a casualty, and the willingness of the CEO to accept his resignation demonstrated to the rest of his team his commitment to change.
People seeking to exercise leadership can be thwarted because, in their unwillingness to take casualties, they give people mixed signals. Surely we would all prefer to bring everyone along, and we admirably hold up this ideal. Unfortunately, casualties are often a necessary byproduct of adaptive work. Without the heart to engage in sometimes costly conflict, you can lose the whole organisation.
Ronald A Heifetz and Marty Linsky are on the faculty at the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Heifetz is the author of Leadership Without Easy Answers and co-director of the school's Centre for Public Leadership. Linsky is faculty chairman of many of the school's executive programs, including Senior Officials in State and Local Government, and Leadership for the 21st Century
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