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Leading Change: Direct the Rider
by Tom Goodman
May 6, 2010

If you're leading, you're leading change.  Your leadership may involve changing the behavior of your teen or changing the performance of your staff.  Your leadership may involve changing your own habits or changing the habits of your volunteers at church.

How can we lead change?  In their new book, Switch, Chip Heath and Dan Heath write that successful changes require the leader to focus on three things at once: the mind, the heart, and the situation.  Imagine your organization, your teens, or your own life like an elephant ride.  Your job is to...

  1. Direct the Rider
  2. Motivate the Elephant
  3. Shape the Path

I want to take the next three weeks of LeaderLines to unpack the Heath brothers' advice on accomplishing these three things.

First up: Direct the Rider.

The "Rider" refers to the rational side of a person.  It refers to the ability to delay gratification, to exert self-control, to sacrifice short-term wants for long-term gains.  But the Rider can get stuck in the paralysis of analysis, and so he needs clear direction.  That's where your leadership comes in.  The Heath brothers recommend three things to direct the Rider.

First, follow the bright spots.  Investigate what's working and clone it.  They write:

To pursue bright spots is to ask the question, "What's working and how can we do more of it?"  Sounds simple, doesn't it?  Yet, in the real world this obvious question is almost never asked.  Instead, the question we ask is more problem focused:  "What's broken, and how do we fix it?"

Among the "Cs" and "Ds" on your kid's report card, why did she get a "B" in one subject, and is there anything you can do to clone that success in the other subjects?  In a church, what Common Ground group or Sunday School class is flourishing with new attendance, and what can we copy from that group as we try to make our own group better at outreach?  Among the students in your kids ministry or high school class, figure out why some of them are "getting it," and duplicate in others the things that led to that success.

Second, script the critical moves.  Don't think big picture, think in terms of specific behaviors.  They write:

Big-picture, hands-off leadership isn't likely to work in a change situation, because the hardest part of change -- the paralyzing part -- is precisely in the details....  Until you can ladder your way down from a change idea to a specific behavior, you're not ready to lead a switch.

Third, point to the destination.  Change is easier when you know where you're going and why it's worth it.  They suggest that a leader should provide a destination postcard -- "a vivid picture from the near-term future that shows what could be possible."

It's best when all three of these actions are utilized to direct the Rider.  But I've found that in most leadership books and seminars, it's really just the third action that's emphasized.  We are told that the leader's job is to cast the inspiring vision.  No doubt, we need to present our Rider with a "destination postcard" so our Rider will confidently know where we're going.  But we also need to "ladder down from a change idea to a specific behavior" (I like that phrase).  And we need to base our change idea on things that are already successful within the context.

As you prepare your sermon or Sunday School lesson for this week, how are you planning to direct the Rider?  What successes will you highlight for others to copy?  What actions will you recommend that they can put into practice?  What inspiring picture will you give them so they can imagine the kind of people or the kind of church they can be if they accept your challenge?

Of course, these questions don't just apply to teachers, but to parents and business administrators and program directors and sports coaches.  To lead change, direct the Rider.

Next week:  Motivate the Elephant.


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