Leaders have to lead or the change won’t stick

Life would be much easier if things stayed the same and you didn’t have to change, but it seems these days the only thing constant is change.

Alvin Toffler said, “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those you cannot learn, unlearn and relearn”


So how do you, as a leader, help your followers navigate the ongoing changes?  How do you keep your team focused on a goal that moves toward the greater vision, while inhibiting the negative distractions and enabling them to “remember and build on relevant information” ( Boundaries for Leaders- Cloud, 2013, p. 27) which in turn creates a pattern in their working memory.  Dr. Henry Cloud (2013) explained “you always get what you create and what you allow” (p.xvi) so the person that has to help with the change is you.

It makes sense, you are the leader.  It would be nice if you could stand on your soap box and proclaim that we are now on the path to xyz and the change would ripple out virtually seamless.  But let’s remember, we live in the real world and change is hard.  How do you get change to reach the tipping point and then stick?

Here are a few of the most memorable suggestions that I have come across during my research. My two favorite reads were Switch – How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath (2010) along with The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell (2006).  Both are filled with real life examples of how change happens.

Pixabay – Clker

So it’s Chip and Dan Heath’s (2010) image of a rider on an elephant that has stuck with me.  (Borrowed from psychologist Jonathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis.)  As all of the writers have shared, in order for change to happen someone has to act differently.  Okay, so by someone, I mean us.  We are in control of ourselves – the behaviour change has to come from within.

It’s the connection between your behaviours and your brain.  The Heath brothers (2010) suggested we think of each person as a rider on an elephant.  We are composed of the rational thinking part of our brain – the rider and the emotional elephant.  Yes there’s a significant size difference.  As a rider you will only be able to force the elephant to do want you want for so long and then you’ll be over-powered by the emotional side.  In order to succeed, you have to get them both going in the same direction (p. 7).

Here’s a very quick overview of Chip and Dan Heath’s 3 key suggestions on how to make change happen. (This summary is based on the 2010 book and the resources provided to compliment the book – available on their website.  Included in the overview are my personal thoughts and wonders). 

First you have to Direct the Rider:

  • Following a strategy similar to Wiggins & McTighe’s Understanding by Design, you have to understand where you are going and why it’s of value in order to direct the rider.  The Heath’s call it pointing to the destination (Switch, p. 73), begin with the end in mind.  On the way there, you have to focus on the bright spots.  All to often we tend to look for what’s not working and try to fix it, Chip and Dan Heath (2010) suggested focusing on what is working will lead to better long term performance than looking at what doesn’t work.
  • The rider has a tendency to analyze big problems which often causes the him to be obsessed with finding a solution to the same scale as the original problem.  The brain wants to match the big problem to a big solution.  The Heath’s reminded that big problems take time and are more effectively solved by a series of smaller solutions (p. 44).
  • Lastly, you have to script the critical moves (p. 49-72).  They explained that a group wanted people to eat healthier, so they advertised just that.  Everyone needs to eat healthier.  The problem: it was to vague.  People for the most part, do want to eat healthier but translating that general goal into an actionable behaviour is hard.  You have to be specific.  Switching the campaign to buy 1% milk lead to a documentable change (p. 15-17).

As leaders, we need to build on the positive, identify the specific behaviours that will get us there and build on the bright spots.

Next you need to Motivate the Elephant:

  • Just because you know we need to look after the planet doesn’t mean we will make better choices.  Aristotle’s explanation of rhetoric referred to ethos, pathos and logos as key aspects to persuading an audience. The rider would be similar to the logos appeal, but the elephant is moved by pathos.  For a change to start, there needs to be an emotional connection. The Heath’s (2010) noted Kotter and Cohen’s observations

    “that, in almost all successful change efforts, the sequence of change is not ANALYZE-THINK-CHANGE, but rather SEE-FEEL-CHANGE” (p. 106).

  • Then you have to “Shrink the Change” (p. 124-148). Turn the change into small manageable pieces that are doable rather than intimidating.
  • Here again the Heath’s mention culture.  You have to grow your people (p. 149-178) and you can only do that by creating a growth mindset that builds an identity.

Lastly, you need to Shape the Path:

  • It’s all about the environment you create.  Cloud (2013), Covey (2006), Gladwell (2006), Driscoll (2005) and the Heath’s (2010) all noted the environment you work and learn in shapes your behaviours.  So “tweak the environment” (p. 179-202) and you will shape the path.
  • The next time a minor change isn’t working think about how you play it out in your mind?  Is it the product you created or the people refusing to change that you are frustrated with?  Turns out all of us have a propensity to turn to incentives and consequences to force a change (p. 185).  Rather, we tend toward the fundamental attribution error.  We instinctively tend to “attribute people’s behaviour to the way they are rather than to the situation they are in” (as noted by Heath’s reference to Lee Ross, p. 180).
  • It’s where usability testing in the instructional design process followed by evaluation makes a significant difference to the end quality of the product. Feedback matters. Have you stopped to ask why people aren’t using it the way you expected?  Have you stopped to observe what they are doing instead?
  • Build Habits (p. 203-224) When you lead in a way that creates positive habits or relevant patterns in their working memory (Cloud, 2013), you free up the brain.  It’s energy can be spent on other processes.  The Heath’s (2010)explained when you change the environment, people’s habits change (p. 206-207).  It’s as Malcom Gladwell (2006) explained in The Tipping Point.  People’s behaviours tend toward the environment in which they live.  It’s the broken window’s effect.
  • Finally, you must rally the herd (p. 225-249). What can we learn from the herd?   It’s the first place you look, when you don’t know what to do.  Not sure when to stand up to show appreciation for a speaker, if you see others doing it you will too. The Heath’s explained that behaviour is contagious, just as Dr. Cloud noted that mood is also contagious.  We infect others with our feelings and energy (Boundaries for Leaders – Cloud, 2013, p. 57).  It connects back to Eric Worre’s assertion that you are like the 5 people you spend the most time with.

    In fact, Chip and Dan Heath (2010) noted, “you might not find a single statement that is so rigorously supported by empirical research as this one: You are doing things because you see your peers do them…Behaviour is contagious” (p. 227).

  • In unfamiliar situations, the Heath’s reminded, we are more prone to watching what our peers do.  It’s simple the elephant is going to follow the herd (p. 228).  So help spread the behaviours that are going to facilitate your change.



Other Resources:

Switch – Why you want to add this to your leadership toolbox.

A Summary of

Switch How to Change Things When Change is Hard

By: Chip Heath and Dan Heath

While not specifically directed at the concept of leadership, Chip & Dan Heath shared straightforward strategies for dealing with change and making it last.  It’s a challenge often faced by leaders, whether you are leading a cross country team, a class of students or your own family.  Making the change not only stick but have noticeable results is a skill worth learning.  Written to include practical strategies enhanced by real life examples, the Heaths offer practical ways to address the changes in your life based on research compiled from a variety of disciplines including psychology and sociology. It’s one of my all time favourite audio books.  The stories keep you engaged and help you to remember the key points.

The Heaths explain that everyone of us has two sides and use the comparison of a rider on an elephant to help you better understand how the brain works.  The rider is the rational part and the elephant is the emotional response.  In order to make change stick you need to get the rider and elephant going in the same direction.  Chip and Dan Heath outlined three key parts to successful change.  First, you must direct the rider.  I was drawn to the research they shared that when we focus on the bright spots or what’s working, we begin to see more ways to make the change work.  In short, focus on the positive examples.  Yes we can learn from the negatives but research shows focusing on the positives will generate better results.

Second, you have to motivate the elephant.  You will exhaust the rider if you don’t get them both going in the same direction.  Willpower only lasts so long.  The Heath’s noted several examples, but what stuck in my mind is that identities can change.  What type of identity and growth mindset is linked to your team?  The innovator identity of Brasilata stands out in my as a powerful example of how changing the mindset of your team can truly transform the long term results for the better. What type of growth mindset do you carry with you?

Lastly, you have to shape the path.  Do you realize that it’s not always the people that are the problem?  The Heaths noted Lee Ross’s fundamental attribution error research that is our “inclination to attribute people’s behavior to the way they are rather than the situation they are in” (p. 180). If you tweak the environment, the situation, the context… how people respond changes.

It’s well worth the page turning read.  The Heaths share big business, education and personal examples of how these strategies can make a difference.  As with anything these research based suggestions aren’t a quick fix and you have to commit to leading the change; however, this book offers practical ways to reflect and shape the change happening around you.  Whether or not you want to do the work is up to you.

Leadership Connection:

  • Leaders are often called upon to lead the change or implement the initiatives.  Regardless of whether or not you are the president of the company or an employee, the skills you use to cope with change ripple out to those around you. The opportunity to build your toolbox and help others grow through change will change your relationship with others.
  • As an educator, the strategies offered here are applicable within a classroom, school or division level; moreover, teaching your students to navigate change will be one of the most valuable skills they can take with them into their future.

Additional Resources:

  • At heathbrothers.com you can register for a variety of free resources that highlight key aspects of the book including a summary pdf, workbooks and podcasts.

Heath, C., & Heath , D. (2010). Switch How to Change Things When Change is Hard. Toronto: Random House Canada.