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Leading Change: Shape the Path
by Tom Goodman
May 21, 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'm taking three weeks of LeaderLines to unpack the Heath brothers' advice on accomplishing these three things.  First, we examined how to "Direct the Rider," and then last week we looked at how to "Motivate the Elephant."  If the "Rider" represents the rational side of a person, the "Elephant" represents the feelings.  While the Rider needs to know why and how to make the change, the Elephant has to feel that it's capable of conquering the change.

This week, we'll look at the need to "Shape the Path."  This is a reference to the real-life context in which you're hoping to see change.  In other words, look for ways to make it easier for people to make the behavioral changes.  When change doesn't happen, we want to blame the character of the people.  In church work, we might say, "The parents just don't have the commitment to my children's program to get their kids here," or "My leaders won't do follow-up calls on visitors because they just don't have the passion for outreach."

But the Heath brothers say, "What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.  And no matter what your role is, you've got some control over the situation."

There are three ways to shape the path.

First, tweak the environment.  If you're trying to lose weight, reaching for a prepackaged "100 calorie" snack pack might be better than hoping you'll have the self-control to stop after one handful from the big chip bag.  That's an illustration of tweaking the environment.  So is laying out your workout clothes before bed so its just a tiny bit easier to exercise when the alarm goes off -- a trick I've learned.  And if I'm finding it hard to write a sermon, I sometimes relocate my notebook computer to a coffee shop where I'm not distracted by all the other things on my desk waiting for attention.  These are all ways to let an environmental change lead to a behavioral change.

Since this is a newsletter for church leaders, let me share a church-specific illustration of tweaking the environment.  If you lead a Sunday School class or Common Ground group, each week make sure there's one empty chair in the circle.  Put a sign on it if you want to make it obvious:  "The Empty Chair."  Every week, ask the group for the name of at least one person they hope to see sitting in that chair, and then pray for that someone.  In doing so, you're creating an environment for growth instead of allowing people to settle into the "Us-Four-And-No-More" mentality.

Second, build habits.  Habits allow us to operate on auto-pilot.  Do you remember the old days when offering envelopes had check-boxes where you could report whether you brought your Bible, whether you brought a friend, and whether you had read your Bible daily the previous week?  That simple accountability tool helped a lot of children develop some simple discipleship habits.  Is there a weekly checklist like that which you could ask your workers or your program participants to fill out?

Third, rally the herd.  "When you're leading an Elephant on an unfamiliar path, chances are it's going to follow the herd," the Heath brothers write.  In church work, one thing I've learned is to look for the influencers in a group and make sure they get advance notice of the change you feel needs to take place.  If you spring a new plan on the group at once, and if the influencers react negatively, you've lost the rest of the group.  It's time-consuming to calendar in enough lead time to visit with the influencers, but garnering their support ahead of time can create the positive contagion that can spread throughout the organization.

Here's the conclusion to this three-week look at what it takes to be a leader who leads change:

When change works, it tends to follow a pattern.  The people who change have clear direction, ample motivation, and a supportive environment.  In other words, when change works, it's because the Rider, the Elephant, and the Path are all aligned in support of the switch.

Leaders of any organization are tempted to blame their people when much-needed change fails to happen.  But I've noticed that there's an added liability in church leadership:  We can "sanctify" our blame-casting.  What I mean is, we can complain that our people lack long-term vision, or commitment, or spiritual maturity, or willingness to let God work.

Of course, all of this may be true.  But here's the thing:  That's exactly why leadership is necessary!  Leadership is different than management.  People do indeed lack long-term vision, and commitment, and spiritual maturity, and willingness to let God work.  It would be so easy to simply mobilize the already-visionary, the already-committed, the already-mature, and the already-willing.  But God has called you to be a leader, not a manager.  And leaders lead people and organizations to change.


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