Reposting another segment from my 2010 series on "Good Disappointing Leadership". This is perhaps the most brutal reality of all. But if you expect it, you can endure it--and in the end it may just be the key to any real lasting change.
“If you are a leader, expect sabotage.” Edwin Friedman
For the last few posts, we have been parsing a quote from Ronald Heifetz and Martin Linsky that is worth committing to memory: “Leadership is disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb.” The perceptive and caring leader will invariably wince at the three words in the center of the quote: “your own people.”
Yikes. That’s the rub, isn’t it? It’s one thing to disappoint and anger the “other side”, but another to endure "friendly fire." We in leadership comfort ourselves in believing that our leadership style will continually “energize our base”; that we will Braveheart-style be able to “rally the troops” to charge. We just assume that our followers will “have our backs”.
But that is all a comforting fantasy if you are truly trying to bring change to an organizational system. Whether it is a family, a church, a business, a not-for-profit, or a government, all the best literature makes it clear: To lead, you must be able to disappoint your own people. But, even doing so well (“at a rate they can absorb”), does NOT preclude them turning on you. In fact, when you disappoint your own people, they WILL turn on you. If the change process is “Start with conviction, stay connected, stay calm and stay the course.” Then when you are focused on “staying the course,” expect that it is “your own people” who are going to try to knock you off-course.
Sabotage is natural. It’s normal. “It’s part and parcel of the systemic process of leadership.” Many who sabotage you will even claim that they are doing you a favor by doing so. (Friedman calls these people “peace-mongers” or “highly anxious risk-avoiders” who are “more concerned with good feelings than progress” and consistently prefer the “peaceful” status-quo over the turbulence of change—even if change is necessary.) Indeed, one of the prevailing theories of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus was that he was simply trying to “force Jesus’ hand” to fulfill the expectations of a first-century messiah. When Jesus challenged the status quo with his notions of what the Kingdom would be and what a Messiah should do, one of “his own people” (Judas) turned on him.
“Sabotage is not merely something to be avoided or wished away; instead, it comes with the territory of leading, whether that ‘territory’ is a family or an organization. And a leader’s capacity to recognize sabotage for what it is—that is, a systemic phenomenon connected to the shifting balances in the emotional processes of a relationship system and not to the institution’s specific issues, makeup, or goals—is the key to the kingdom.” Friedman, p. 11
So, what do we do with sabotage and how do we respond to it so that we can “stay the course” or our convictions for change?
First, as we said, expect it. Anticipation is a great defense. To be aware that sabotage is coming will at least keep us from being surprised when it comes. Even if everybody is excited in the beginning stages of a new organizational shift, change, initiative, or restructuring, be aware that a time will come when they will certainly not be. Expecting sabotage enables us to “stay the calm” when it comes.
Second, embrace it as a normal part of an organizational life. Even the saboteurs aren’t really to blame. Systems like stability. You, by bringing change, have upset the emotional equilibrium of the system. The Israelites wanted to go back to slavery in Egypt once things got rough in the desert. Systems always look for and find comfort in the familiar. (Do you hear the root word of “family” in familiar? Every organization has its own “family system” at work.)
Third, don’t take it personally. The people following you may be shooting you in the back, but it’s really not YOU that they are sabotaging, it’s your role as leader. They would do this to ANY leader. By not taking it personally, we then can keep monitoring ourselves (AH! we are back there again, aren’t we?) and keep from reacting in a way that will make the situation worse. By depersonalizing the attack, you are much more likely to stay both calm and connected even to the saboteurs, enabling you to make much better decisions as you stay the course of change.
Fourth, focus your attention on the emotionally strong, not the saboteurs. We are so focused on quieting our critics, appeasing our accusers and shielding ourselves from the friendly fire that it often knocks us off-course. While we need to “stay connected” to the “saboteurs” (“Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer”), what actually keeps the change process going is investing even more time in those who are committed to growing, adapting and changing for good. Keep building healthy alliances with those who are emotionally mature, share your convictions, and they will join you in the needed change. Find other calm, courageous people and strengthen and support them. As you see them begin to grow and change, it will inspire you to stay on course, also.
Lastly, keep “staying calm and connected” so you can, stay on course. (again!) Endure. Stick with it. Leading change is a PROCESS that is not accomplished quickly and the moments of sabotage are actually the most crucial times in the change process. At this moment everyone in the system sees the leader’s true colors. Sabotage is not only a test of the leader’s resolve, but also a test of the systems’ resilience. If you as a leader can help them work through their own sabotaging instincts, then the system will change and the saboteurs will become change-leaders themselves.
A final word on sabotage: This is a good place to talk about courage. All the best leadership literature emphasizes the need for courage. Stuck systems, bad government, corrupt organizations, dysfunctional families and hypocritical churches, all have at least one thing in common: There is, as Ed Friedman, describes it, a colossal “failure of nerve” in leadership. It takes courage to stay true to convictions. It takes courage to stay calm and connected in the face of friendly fire. And it takes enduring, repeated acts of courage to stay the course and keep others on course when they are disappointed in you as a leader.