‘What got us here won’t get us there’ moments

The decision to be authentic to the outcome, rather than to the undertaking, may be the most important act a good leader can make, writes Kate Kearins.

I’ve been thinking about change and how as human beings some of us thrill to it and others don’t. Some find it energising. Others find it exhausting.

Some like to write new scripts for, and in, our work lives. Others are dubious about the desirability or the need for change. Some, too, tear up the script and go with the flow (or the pivot or the lurch, as the situation requires).

Regardless of how you lean, most of us are aware that after a certain age (much, much younger than we are now), personality is forged. We can attempt to fashion or reshape it only with concerted work and determination.

Sometimes, though, change we must. Nothing left us feeling scriptless like 2020 did – and already, 2021 is proving far from predictable.

When the script gets scrapped, we have what renowned business scholar Professor Herminia Ibarra calls a: ‘What got us here won’t get you there’ moment.

It’s the realisation that, in order to effect change in our organisation, we must effect change in ourselves. In other words, we must ‘act’ – in two senses of the word. We must ‘produce an effect’ and ‘perform as if on stage’.

While that may sound simple enough, within today’s age of near-constant calls to be ‘authentic’, such a proposition can feel unnerving.

After all, if we as leaders don’t know or stick to our own script, how can we be confident in what we are doing and, more importantly, in what we are asking others to do?

For Ibarra, this apparent conflict – what she dubs the ‘authenticity paradox’ – shows just how genuine the act of change can be.

On the one hand are the ‘true-to-selfers’ who stand by their ends, and the means to those ends, at all costs.

While I generally admire strongly-held (evidence-based) convictions (and hold plenty of my own), I can see their shortcomings within the context of leadership. When the means are as fixed as the ends, a rigidity can emerge – one that undermines the ability to reach the collective goal.

On the other hand, the changeable ‘chameleons’ of Ibarra’s research easily (and authentically) adapt their perspectives and approaches to fit the requirements of the time. Far from leading an unmapped journey from here to there, colleagues climb aboard the chameleons’ Trust Train without fear of derailment.

Is this simply another way of saying (and doing) ‘Fake it ‘til you make it’? I think not. Because what could be more authentic than recognising that methods or styles that have succeeded previously are no longer fit for purpose?

The sudden, near-global move to remote working, meeting and socialising proved unequivocally that those who failed to act risked being left behind and/or left out.

For me, the authenticity paradox brings to mind words like flexibility, growth, evolution and nuance. These concepts accurately reflect the pressing questions and potential answers in a world still wracked by uncertainty.

As Ibarra says, “the moments that most challenge our sense of self are the ones that can teach us the most about leading effectively”.

Particularly in the current work climate, of organisations rebuilding where they can and forging new business paths where they must, leaders must dig deep and understand that to change one’s ways is not to be a fraud.

Rather, it is to prioritise the big picture, be prepared to improvise, and inspire colleagues and employees to strive together for the greater good.

The decision to be authentic to the outcome, rather than to the undertaking, may be the most important act a good leader can make. 

Kate Kearins is Pro Vice chancellor and Dean of the Faculty of Business, Economics and Law at Auckland University of Technology.

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