Transformational change happens when people within organizations and communities commit to participating from their possibilities rather than their circumstances. That requires a fundamental shift in how we see leadership.
Our current presumptions reinforce a hierarchy of authority — a top-down, command and control patriarchy. Of course, everyone knows it doesn’t work. Authority, when it is tightly held, cannot withstand the relentless demands of the 24-hour, seven-day a week, 365-day a year work cycle.
For leadership to be sustainable it must be distributed. The fundamental shift in our vision of leadership must include how we see ourselves. We cannot be satisfied with the cowardice of disengagement. The world needs our gifts, our vision and our active participation in the wrestling match with the future.
I was reminded of that many years ago, when I was hired to help turn around a failing manufacturing plant on the south shore of Montreal, Quebec. The plant employed approximately 350 people and was slated for closure if it could not correct its performance. It had the poorest productivity of any of its sister plants across North America and a distinctive set of challenges. Two new leaders were running the plant: one parachuted in from head office to catalyze change, the other transferred in from the U.S. to manage day-to-day-operations. What they found when they arrived was alarming. There were serious conflicts at every level of the operation. Communication was emotionally charged and any cooperation that may have existed previously had been replaced by a desire to pin the blame on someone else.
As part of the attempt to create positive change, it was agreed that the leadership team conduct a three-day meeting to look for solutions to the plethora of problems, a meeting that I was to facilitate. The meeting took place at a local hotel and was conducted through simultaneous translation, so that the English-speaking participants could communicate with the French-speaking participants.
It took tremendous patience for people to slow down, think carefully about their words and listen to others. This commitment to understand, however, was quickly overtaken by old grievances – and by the morning of our third day, not only were things not improving, quite frankly they were worse. People were yelling and pounding the tables for emphasis.
Fighting a sinking feeling, I attempted to steer the conversation back to the reality that the facility’s past need not be the determining factor of the future. As soon as my words were translated to the group I noticed something very large move in my peripheral vision. I stopped speaking and turned to my left. The room came into complete silence at the sight of a foreman named Gilles rising forcefully from his chair. He was the size of an NFL lineman. I wondered what on earth had happened in the translation that caused this mountain to move. My relatively short life flashed before my eyes.
Gilles looked at the room for several long, tense moments. Finally, he began to speak. "I apologize for all of the things that I have said and done that caused problems for us. I can see that I have made a bad situation worse. I also believe that if we can put our past behind us, we can work together differently. I’m prepared to do that."
Gilles sat down at that point. Those were his first and final words at the meeting. From that point forward, however, the tone of the meeting changed. Suddenly, people were talking about what they would do differently. They began to release their positional opinions and consider what others were offering. Commitments were made and agreements struck. And that facility turned the corner.
Several years later, the plant was still in operation all because of one man’s commitment to leadership and his willingness to speak from the heart. Gilles, a foreman with little formal education, created a breakthrough.
He led from where he was.