Two Postures Toward Change

Change is difficult for most organizations. It is made even more difficult when leaders resist it. It is my observation that leaders have either one of two postures when it comes to change. They either lean into it or lean away from it. This makes all the difference in terms of the outcome.

A Skier, Racing Downhill - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/blende64, Image #152530

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/blende64

I am not really a snow skier. I only get a chance to ski every three years or so. However, I really enjoy it—as long as I don’t ski too far beyond my ability. As I have learned, when I push myself too far, I lose confidence, and skiing becomes something scary.

A few years ago, a couple we know, who are also active skiers, invited us to Colorado to go skiing with them. They said, “Why don’t you spend the first two days by yourselves. You can take a few lessons, get reoriented, and then we can ski together the last two days.”

“Perfect,” I replied.

So, we did exactly as he suggested. We took a few lessons, and then our friends arrived. The husband, John, was an accomplished skier. He was used to skiing the “Black Trails,” designed for expert skiers. However, he was happy to “down-shift” and ski the Green Trails, designed for beginners like me.

After getting our gear on, John said, “Have you skied Peak 8”?

I said, “No, we have pretty much stuck to Peak 9.”

“Well, why don’t we head over to 8, so you can get a change of scenery.”

“Fine,” I replied, a little warily. “Provided we can stay on the Green Trails.” I wanted to reenforce our earlier agreement.

“No problem,” he assured me. I’ll make sure we stay on the Green Trails.

I was relieved.

So we headed up the ski lift, both of us chatting away, and drinking in the breath-taking scenery. However, the ride was taking longer and going higher up the mountain than I had experienced on the other peak.

“John, are you sure there are Green Trails at the top of this lift?” I queried.

“Oh yea. I’m sure of it. I have skied this peak many times.”

However, when we got off the lift, all I could see where three Blue Trails, designed for intermediate skiers. I looked at John, trying to suppress the panic I felt. “Where is the Green Trail?”

He mumbled, “I could have sworn there was a Green Trail up here. We must have gotten on the wrong lift.”

Now I was panicked. “So, how am I supposed to get down the mountain?”

He reluctantly admitted, “I think your only alternative is to ski down.”

Seeing my terror, he gave me some quick coaching. “You will make it fine, Mike. You can do this!” He patted me on the shoulder, trying to encourage me. “Just remember to lean downhill. You will be tempted to lean back, but you will actually be in more in control if you lean into it.”

“Are you saying I won’t fall if I lean into it?”

“No, I can’t promise you that. You’re probably going to fall any way. But you will fall less, and you will enjoy it more. You’ll also get downhill faster.” He then pushed off, and left me standing at the top of the mountain, watching him disappear on the trail below.

“Great,” I said sarcastically to myself.

But not having any other choice, I pulled down my goggles and pushed off. I fell three times, but I got to the bottom of the mountain in one piece. Actually, I felt exhilarated and proud of myself for staying alive! Still, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to hug my friend or slug him.

Several times, I have drawn on this experience as a metaphor for embracing change:

  1. Accept your reality. I didn’t want to be at the top of the Blue Trail. I could blame John. I could wish I were somewhere else. But I couldn’t change the fact that I was at the top of the mountain and the only way down was to ski a Blue Trail.

    As leaders, change is easier when we accept the reality of our situation. As we often say to one another in the office, “It is what it is.” The only question is, “What are we going to do about it?”

  2. Lean into the challenge. Thankfully, John gave me some great, last-minute advice. “Lean downhill.” In effect, he was encouraging me to work with gravity rather than fight it.

    Organizational change is like this, too. It is easier for people to change when they see their leader embracing change and leaning into it. It also removes the fear-factor—or at least minimizes it.

  3. Get up when you fall. Falling is just part of the experience. By the time I reached the bottom of the mountain, I was covered with snow. But I wasn’t hurt. It just wasn’t that big of deal.

    Leaders have to expect failure. It’s going to happen. You are not going to reach every goal. Neither are your people. However, you must get up when it happens and keep moving. This is the important thing, not the falling down but the getting up. This is what separates successful people from unsuccessful ones.

As a leader, you don’t usually get to chose your environment. Many factors are beyond your control. But the one thing you can chose is your posture toward adversity. My advice? Lean into it.

Question: What about you? What have you learned about leadership and your posture toward change?
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  • http://www.sowingseedsministries.com James Castellano

    One of your past posts discussed how leaders are "to go first." If we accept this challenge we can encourage others to follow along. As important as embracing change is self-improvement. If we continue to grow as leaders, change is not as difficult to sell to our team.

    One major rule our executive team must follow is regardless of our personal position on specific item in private, we all support the change in public. We can fight back and forth, but once a decision is made we all agree to make it work.
    My recent post Building a Solid Foundation For Leadership

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      We have that same rule among our executive team. We want vigorous debate behind closed doors but alignment outside of them.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/patriciazell patriciazell

    Change effects much more than leadership. In my own life, as I began to press into understanding the Bible for myself, I realized early on that I was going to have to make fundamental changes to what I had previously understood. Those changes have not always been comfortable because they demanded action on my part. I had to be willing to let go of what I had been told and grab onto what I was seeing for myself. I think sometimes we, as Christians, would do well to be up on the mountain with only blue ski zones. What we gain would far outweigh the price we pay. I imagine if we lean into change, the results will change our world.
    My recent post #40 THE DOING OF LOVING: FORGIVENESS

  • @dentmaker

    It’s more fun when you lean in. Crisis and change are terrible opportunities to waste huh? Thanks for the post this morning. –Dave

  • http://www.coferadams.com Chase Adams

    As a leader, I lean towards whatever seems right and good to make my organization stronger or more effective tempered with a sense of justice for both my peers, my superiors and my customers.

    The recent presidential election swept the nation with this notion that we should "lean into change", which I fully embrace when the change results in a better outcome, but the problem is that many people believe change for the sake of change is always good.

    I also believe that change, in my generation (I'm 26) is a euphemism for being non-commital. We embrace change because it means we don't have to hold to any one position as true or right.

    Ultimately, change, in my opinion, is not nearly always as good as it seems to be.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I absolutely agree with you. Change for change’s sake is not healthy. You have to have a specific outcome clearly in my view. Mine was “get down the mountain in one piece!”

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/success2you John Richardson

    I can really relate to your comment on change. Change is scary. And often the change that we need to make doesn't make any sense. Lean forward while skiing… Keeping your head down while golfing… these are the types of change that baffle me. Yet when they are put into practice, they create great results.

    We changed database systems where I work this year, and the new interface was scary and downright slow for many users. What I found was that I needed to show people how the new interface made things better. I needed to embrace it. Once people could see the benefits, they were able to embrace the change themselves.

    Without a leaders guidance… change can be very hard.
    My recent post Meeting My Mentors

  • Dan Lynch

    Excellent post Mike. Embracing change can be scary, but it can also be exciting. A new Challenge often brings unknown, but it also brings opportunities. Leaders set the tone for how employees respond to change and it's an exciting time to see a group, company, etc. dig in and set a new course for the future. Digital Publishing is a perfect example… we don't know what the future holds, but we know it will be different, there are new things to try, new things to fail and succeed out. I look forward to the to taking all the blue trails, not just making it down, but also mastering them on the way to the black diamonds!
    My recent post The iPad.. Yes, It’s as Cool as Apple Claims

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I agree. I don’t know where digital publishing is going either, but I am LOVING the ride!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Laurinda Laurinda

    As a leader I'm a change agent. I'm fine with it because it usually involves someone else going through the change. When the change happens to me – I catch myself reacting differently. I force myself to lean into it.

    The change may happen quickly but the emotional transition will lag. Knowing this is a natural process encourages me to work through all the negative emotions of the change and focus on the good of the change.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Yes, change to the organization and change to you are two different things. I always remember, People are watching. They will likely take their cues from me!

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  • http://AtlanticSun.org Matt W.

    I find that I am really good at leading downhill when my idea or plan is the catalyst for the change. However, when others push the agenda, I’ve found that my first reaction is to dig my heels. It is definitely one of the things that I have to work on (and think that I am making progress).

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/MichaelSGray MichaelSGray

    Excellent post. Personally, I love to lean in to new challenges. What I tend to struggle with discouragement when those around me lean back. Public school funding in Arizona is in a horrible situation right now, and will be even more so going in to the next year. Obviously, educators are freaking out (read: leaning back with a vengeance). Because of many of the things I've read on this blog and in books on leadership, I'm really able to see this as an opportunity to do some powerful and unexpected things, and have come up with some significant and affordable ideas. I'm working really hard to encourage my school to lead the way in leaning in to the blue ski runs of public education. This post encouraged me to keep leaning. Thanks!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Good for you, Michael. The great thing is that when you lean forward while everyone else is leaning back, you stand out!

  • http://forrest-long.blogspot.com Forrest Long

    Great post and a good illustration. I find in pastoral ministry that I always have to be adaptable to change- it’s part of the environment, even when the change is scary. Yet churches are often resistent to change. One key I have found over the years is to present change in such a way that the people buy it as their own and run with it. That way it’s not perceived as the leader foisting change on them.

  • http://gracefreakdan.wordpress.com Dan-Leadership Freak

    Michael,

    Thanks for sharing your story.

    I've learned that I love change as long as others have to do it. When I have to change, I'm more reluctant. One big mistake leaders make is forgetting how difficult change is.

    Best to you,

    Leadership Freak,
    Dan Rockwell
    My recent post The power of Ignorance

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      So true. And an organization can only handle so much change at a time.

  • Indigo

    Great advice. What challenges have I had to face? Learning to live in a silent world, once I became deaf. I couldn't change my circumstances or necessarily avoid it. So you learn what you need to surpass any roadblocks and continue on. Lean forward is putting it lightly, yet it's right on the mark. (Hugs)Indigo

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1116524763 Peter Eleazar

    A leader should initiate change, but if he will not boldly lead in a changing world, then he will not lead at all.
    My recent post The greater fight

  • http://www.facebook.com/fourfecta Mitch Ebie

    I have heard it said that the secret to success is failure. Falling while skiing down a blue trial or a black diamond might seem like a failure but it is the effort and the courage required to get back up over and over that leads to success. If the process is not scary and at times painful, then the success will not be as sweet and the change will not be as real.
    My recent post One man gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty. Proverbs 11:24

  • http://www.reachachild.ca Scott Williams

    I like the analogy…

    It really is true we can either resist or go with it and work to incorporate it into the greater vision…

    Thanks for the post

  • Christian D.

    Great post. As someone who is in the publishing industry, newspapers, this hits the nail on the head. Unfortunately the company that I work for has not leaned into the change that is happening and at times it makes my job very difficult. I'm hoping over time that I can change that (I'm the web guy), but it's not an easy task changing something that's been in place for decades or longer.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      This has really been a conundrum for me. I understand how difficult change is for the publishing industry. (I am in it myself.) But so many people are in denial!

  • Vicki Small

    Good post. I have always resisted change. Typically, my first thoughts, when presented with the likelihood or the possibility of change, are all the things that can go wrong. My husband, our resident optimist, now laughs at me; I tell him, "It's a gift." After all, there is some value in thinking ahead about possible problems or obstacles and what might be done about them.

    But while I have never skied, I like the concept of "leaning into it." It's counterintuitive, to me, but if change is inevitable, leaning into it and figuring out how to make it work for me or my organization or group is better than fighting it. So…thank you!
    My recent post Bite Back!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/perryh031 perryh031

    Great post Michael. I just wrote about change earlier this week on my blog (www.perryholley.com) after having several people that I am close with experience anxiety and concern over the current changes they were going through. I liked your comparison to the downhill ski adventure you experienced. It actually reminded me of some of the same words my colleague were using about their situations. I think I will add your great points to my five ways to embrace change. Thanks for sharing the great examples.
    My recent post Has Anyone Got Change?

  • http://www.dialect.com/blog/ Andy Kanefield

    Michael,

    I loved this post. I have to admit that I made the same mistake with my wife this year on the mountain and it was a painful, and tearful, experience!

    I particularly liked the fact that you set the context, you had a up-front agreement with your friend, and yet there you were facing just what you tried to hard to avoid.

    I believe most organizations don't set the context or up-front contracts with their people. The organization stands on the top of the hill and wonders what got them there and why there aren't any paths that seem appropriate to navigate. It takes a lot of commitment to lean into a slope that you feel is over your head. Somehow you gathered that commitment. I'm guessing that it really helped you to know that you had done a good job of trying to avoid the very spot you found yourself in.

    In our change work, I find that if you give people a chance to set that context and think about what they are going to be leaning into, before they are standing on that hill, they will be more likely to lean with you.

    Great story.

    Andy

  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/landoncreasy landoncreasy

    If this is how leader's feel about change, imagine how everyone else feels when it comes their way? In my experience, most organizations get hung up on the accepting the reality part. In the navy we call the "fighting the white" – a reference to exercise coordinators or referees called a "white cell." Seems to me, as with most things, communication and engagement as a leader will help make the difference.
    My recent post Big Changes in the US Navy

  • http://www.faithimagined.com alisa hope

    I've realized that once leaders get into a comfort zone, they are doomed for stagnation. It's better to make being uncomfortable the new comfortable.

    Here's to skiing down mountains!
    My recent post Kingdom is Here

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/petereleazar petereleazar

    Resistance to change is also useful. It restrains the pace (the leader must manage the balance), it forces the debate (a useful leadership tool for eliciting buy-in) and it moderates the approach (which ensures inclusivity). Michael Porter said leaders "bungle with purpose" – that is realistic change, for it is a journey not an event, by which the organisation unfreezes, transforms and refreezes. It is not a direct or linear process, but a dogleg involving adjustments, compromises etc. Resistance to change has helped preserve the church from deviations and it has preserved cultures, but it can be destructive or at least obstructive. The ambiguities are where leaders come into their own. Change is inevitable, but the leader should define the response – one of their most defining roles. Part of good leadership is developing an adaptive, learning culture that is responsive to a changing world – its about managing expectations.
    My recent post The greater fight

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/jpruski jpruski

    I had an opportunity to use the posture analogy today while summarizing some outstanding results delivered by a project team. One of the key factors of success was the team's ability to understand the new reality and to "lean into the change". This helped them drive the necessary behaviors to deliver the project. Thanks for helping me find the words!

  • Jennifer

    This is exactly MY sking story, too! How funny! Although I was only 20 years old, had never been on skis in my life, wasn't given a chance at the bunny slopes as my friend said we can "practice" at the green trail at the top, then she got on the wrong lift. I knew I was in trouble when SHE teared up in fear for me!

    I tell this story all the time but never made the leadership connections you just made. Maybe that is why you write and I read. Thanks for your insights!

  • Juan

    Hi Mike,
    Great post, Becoming a Leader could be scary, feeling the pressure of much responsibility, to much exposure as now every one is looking at you, that's the reason some many people do not want to become leaders, the fact of the matter , we should not worry as the situation will make us grow and without noticing we will become leaders.
    There are just two choices we either become a leader or a follower, as a follower we follow somebody else's vision, what if that vision is not right, it is riskier that you being the leader, either choice we make we are any way accountable and responsible for your own decision.

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  • http://nicodemusfile.blogspot.com/ Whitakerous

    I really liked the last part about falling. Without failure we do not get to learn from our mistakes and move forward. It reminds me of the book by John Maxwell “Falling Forward.” We have to redefine what it means to succeed and fail and use those times when we fall to strengthen ourselves and move forward. Thanks for the post.
    Check me out on Twitter @Whitakerous

  • http://www.yams.com MarkSpizer

    great post as usual!

  • http://www.glass-still-half-full.blogspot.com Megan

    I just want to let you know that I used (and referenced) this post as part of an analysis on change management within the educational system. While your article certainly reflects leadership in the corporate culture, I think your point has added significance in the realms of education, where most of our rules are handed down from bigger authorities who spend little time dwelling on the implementation side of policy. We must simply act on these orders and convince an interesting dynamic to cooperate (in my case, teenagers).

    Thank you for providing an excellent metaphor!