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Leadership in Times of Change

It’s going to be messy, difficult and emotional — and worth it

By Khadra Ahmed

February 19, 2021 •

It only takes a quick look at current headlines to know that we’re in a period of major social change. The COVID-19 pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, and economic and government upheaval are changing how we see the structures governing our lives. There are those among us who see trusted institutions exposed as being built on values we no longer exactly espouse, and it’s hard to understand what to do next. How can a leader deal with so much change?

Managing institutional change is a topic Marvin Washington knows well. He’s a professor in the Department of Strategy, Entrepreneurship, and Management at the Alberta School of Business. But even with the business management strategies he has acquired over the years, he views change with conventional adjectives: “Change is difficult, change is messy, change is emotional,” he says. He has some suggestions on how organizations can manage during these times of social upheaval.

Lean in to new data

To cope with change, Washington says, the key is to lean into it and pay attention to the new information it brings. Accepting the messiness is one of the first ways to address it. At the same time, he says, institutions shouldn’t use this messiness as an excuse to sit stagnant. 

He encourages institutional leaders to reflect on their values, biases and assumptions. Using the case of last year’s police killing of George Floyd as an example, he explains how social change brings new data, which can be used to test what leaders truly value.

“We have explicit assumptions about how the world works, until new data comes in,” he says. “This is what George Floyd did — he brought new data into the conversation. Now that I have new data, does this change my assumptions?” It might change a company’s buying, selling or hiring practices, for example.

Acknowledge the human side

Washington believes leaders should embrace their own vulnerability. He tells leaders it’s OK to be human, especially in the face of economic hardships like those created by COVID-19. He points to the example of Adam Laughlin, ’00 BSc(CivEng), then interim city manager, who was visibly emotional at a press conference announcing job losses for City of Edmonton employees.

“We hope that a leader is as pained by letting somebody go as the people who are let go,” Washington says. 

Make mistakes

This sense of vulnerability is a factor in Washington’s main piece of advice for dealing with sweeping social change in the workplace: it’s OK to make mistakes. He says there is a scary reality to our unprecedented public health situation: “There isn’t a grizzled elder who’s been there to guide us.” 

Not only do we feel lost, but we’re also looking to institutional leaders who don’t know how to deal with COVID-19 but are doing their best. 

Be patient

Washington advises leaders to meet social change inside and outside their organizations with a bit of patience and grace. For example, the Black Lives Matter movement might bring attempts to address the racism that’s entwined with many institutions. Leaders may be willing to address racism in their organizations, but change takes time and there will be rough patches. It’s still worth pursuing. 

“Even well-meaning people are going to trip up because that’s how institutions work,” Washington explains. “If, overnight, we decided to drive on the other side of the street there would be tons of accidents from well-meaning people who just forgot — it’s so deeply ingrained.” Take some time and consult experts to help you plan.

Listen to those doing the hard work

Washington says the hardest change takes time, and points to the Montgomery bus boycott, which lasted a whole year. The work may be long and tiresome, but Washington suggests leaders celebrate small victories along the way; small changes can amplify over time. 

Leading institutions shouldn’t take for granted the patience and grace given by marginalized communities. The first — but not the last — thing institutions can do in return is listen and try to understand why the issue is important to those affected. 

The pandemic and the economic hardships contributed to the groundswell of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. Taken together, these things have a lot of institutions examining their values. “If the movement did anything, what it really tried to say was, ‘Hopefully you will listen to us when we try to tell you we have differential outcomes,’” Washington says. 

“Potentially that listening may lead to walking alongside — it may lead to being an ally. You don’t get there if you don’t listen.”

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