Juggling Machetes and Torches

How Today's Leaders Manage Culture Change

The scene was the 2016 ZurichFest, a three-day street fair that envelops the Swiss city every three years.  Among the gazillion food tents, cavalcade of exciting rides, air shows, high wire aerialists over the LImmat River through the middle of the city, magicians and high divers was an amazing juggler. Not the usual balls or bowling pens, he was juggling sharp machetes and lighted torches. And, he was smiling like he was having the time of his life. I thought it was a great metaphor for the process of leading culture change.

Keeping a number of objects in the air requires intense focus, great communication (between hands), spirited effort, and a keen sense of the bigger picture (great jugglers “feel the blur” of the whole rather than watching individual balls). Effective cultural change leadership has many of the same requirements: focus, communication, passion, and sense of the whole.

Add to the performance the context of a challenging economy, diverse worker needs, and the ever-present need for speed, and balls become sharp machetes; bowling pins become lighted torches. As one senior exec put it,  “I expected to have to keep different balls in the air; I just never realized I’d have to do at such a fast pace!”

The Happy Juggler

Juggling can be fun!  The Zurich juggler was smiling.  Leading cultural change can be fun as well. The secret for finding the joy in leading complex corporate cultural change parallels the secret of making complicated juggling a work of pride and joy. The components that work in cultural change leadership are also a reminder that like juggling, effective cultural change leadership is a performing art.

Delivering Intense Focus

Great jugglers concentrate!  They start with a profound knowledge of juggling—they understand physics, motion, and timing.  They put that knowledge into play with great focus and attentiveness. One cannot juggle if one is half asleep or working on autopilot. One cannot juggle if overwhelmed by the task. One cannot juggle if afraid of the sharp machete or not respectful of the machete.  Focus combines confidence, knowledge, and concentration with humility and wonderment.

Leading cultural change also starts with honing knowledge and concentration. It means “going to school” on the elements of change.  It means becoming the smartest person possible about each new “ball” added to the cultural change recipe. Being a cultural change leader requires that one not only gain knowledge, one also shares it. It means becoming a resource to others and demonstrating the power of continued learning. What is important is that followers experience the leader actively in the process of learning. Change is learning; learning is change. Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote, “Leaders are more powerful role models when they learn than when they teach.”

Helping Hands Talk To Each Other

Great jugglers have “communicating hands”—hands that “talk” with each other so the right one knows what the left one is going to do.  Great leaders do as well. They promote, encourage, and demonstrate communication at its best. They tell all hands (i.e., employees) where they envision the organization going and they lead the way by their examples. The power of “walking the talk” has not been overrated!

Leaders also know that change can create resistance. They recognize the resistance surfacing when they hear employees speaking of the cultural change effort as something that will pass with time--if they wait long enough it will go away. And they recognize resistance that may be borne in part out of a “fear of the unknown.” Rumors, myths, and half-truths can fuel the flame of misunderstanding and confusion thus heating up resistance solely out of anxiety.

Effective cultural change leadership requires extraordinary communication. The best antidote to the poison of erroneous information is through communicating. Leaders help create an honest understanding of the worth of the change, as well as what the commitment or cost will be.  They clearly and frequently state the vision for the change. As employees get the information they need, they cultivate wholesome and complete perceptions of the future.

Keeping the Performance Spirited

“There is an energy field between humans,” wrote philosopher Rollo May. “And when we reach out in passion, it is met with an answering passion.” Jugglers engage in juggling with spirited energy. This passion becomes infectious and can enthrall even the surliest audience. It is hard to be sullen or indifferent while watching a happy artist enjoying the performance of his/her craft.

Leaders keep the performance spirited by exhibiting their own enthusiasm. People take their cue regarding the change effort’s importance by the manner they witness leaders acting consistent with the needed change. Tacit compliance is viewed two ways by employees: as a signal their own commitment in not really required, and as a sign the leader is more interested in obedience than in courage.

Performance is spirited when it is rewarding and affirming.  Talk with someone involved in Habitat for Humanity or a walk-a-thon for a charity or as a coach of a youth athletic team. Their passion comes from the intrinsic reward of altruism. Great leaders approach their change agent role as a chance to give something special to employees every day. They see their responsibility as a fortunate opportunity to support, encourage, and affirm. Like the juggler, great leaders laugh when they think about how privileged they are.

Feeling the Blur

The most important part of great juggling is approaching the task as a whole, rather than as a sequence of steps. Jugglers do not follow a checklist of tasks. They have a keen sense of the whole and “feel the blur.” If they look at an object or a hand in the middle of their juggling performance, they will catch the blade and not the handle. They “do” the process, but they sense the “outcome.” They know their knowledge of the process and their practice of the process can be trusted as they pay attention to the outcome—the blur of the whole.

“Feeling the blur” means keeping sights on the ultimate purpose. For the juggler it is an expression of mastery that creates memorable moments of joy for the audience.  Keeping sight on the purpose means using it as a tool for auditing every activity and goal. Great leaders ask, “Will this effort contribute to building a culture that achieves our primary purpose, vision, or aim?” If the answer is suspect, they discard the activity or goal for one more likely to aid in the achievement of the purpose.

It means integrating parts into a whole so that focusing on the whole yields the needed outcomes. To be collectively managed they must be integrated into the whole rather than managed separately. Jugglers juggle objects, not smoke, sounds, or aromas. Jugglers integrate a diverse set of objects around their similarities, not their differences.  And, jugglers plan convenient “handles” for the objects they toss.

A Successful Performance

The principal challenge for cultural change leaders is to first fully understand the individual parts of their leadership performance so they can bring focus and inspire confidence in those they lead. Second, they must find ways for hands to talk as well as value their continuous dialogue. Third, they must identify authentic and influential ways to walk the talk, bringing passion and energy to the performance. Finally, and most importantly, they must feel the blur—that is, lead the whole, not simply manage the parts.

Change can cause people to feel tossed around. The truth is, they are. Change is about movement—leaving an old space deemed no longer effective for a new one. Comfort with the old space and uncertainty with the new can cause employees to anchor in rather than risk being dropped.

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