Change Management Leadership: Embody the Planned Change

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“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”

—Mahatma Gandhi

It’s easy for change agents within an organization to get bogged down in the details of a planned change. The variables that can be found in the change management levels can feel endless — and indeed spending too much time determining how you will address each one can lead to the proposed change never getting off the ground.

Additionally, internal change leaders are nearly always also working their full-time job — the change initiative is typically just a side project at the company. Though I believe the day when many enterprises have full-time staff dedicated entirely to managing change will come in the next ten years or so, this isn’t the norm today.

For internal leaders planning change, embodying the change is a critical component to building trust — particularly in the change project’s early stages. So how can busy change agents who are likely balancing a full-time role also embody the kind of change leadership that will help them bring the initiative to life and give it a better shot at succeeding over the long haul?

Luckily, it may not take more work at work. But it will demand a disciplined practice.

As I had this question percolating, I thought back to an article I wrote for Newsweek about the Ganges River. Here’s the opener:

“One day in January 2015, black crows began to fill the gray sky like wild brushstrokes, so a group of villagers decided to investigate. The birds were circling something, and as the villagers approached they heard the guttural growl of dogs, all teeth and rib cage, scrapping for the last tug of tendon. That’s when they found a floating mass grave of more than 100 corpses washed up in a canal that connects to the Ganges River.”

If you’ve heard about the Ganges River, you’ve likely also read about how polluted it is. Bodies, books, feces, flowers… nearly everything is thrown into the Ganges because a large part of the population that lives along the river believes it is worthy of such offerings and has magical self-healing properties. As such, quite a bit of the pollution comes from religious rituals where offerings are made to the river.

I’ve often wondered how such ancient, cultural, and religious habits like this could keep their fundamental spiritual elements while changing in a way that benefits all parties as well as the planet. If cleaning up the widespread and customary pollution of the Ganges River were a change management project, for example, where would the change agent possibly begin? What would embodied change leadership look like?

Late last year, a story I read about a Vietnamese Zen monk named Thich Tinh Giac provided an embodied example.

Tinh Giac was up against a similar challenge. He noticed the ecological destruction of Hanoi’s waterways as a result of religious rituals. Tinh Giac didn’t spend his time on a speaking circuit to raise awareness. And he didn’t write a book about what he saw. Neither of those would have been necessarily wrong, of course, but what he did was undoubtedly far more profound and impactful.

At the time of the annual festival that causes environmental harm, he wades into the water (while wearing his brown robes) and does the quiet work of collecting the recently discarded garbage.

Tinh Giac has been doing this now for nearly ten years, and because he embodied change in this way he is now joined by many others when he enters into the water. As the article about him states: “He estimates that 95 percent of the locals no longer burn fake money, throw rubbish into the river, or release carp for the Kitchen God.”

Change leadership doesn’t always turn out to be that successful. And it’s important to keep in mind that Tinh Giac certainly did far more than get into the river and start cleaning. But this is a powerful example of wanting change and then beautifully embodying it.

Today’s organizational leaders have many opportunities for change leadership embodiment, and mindfulness plays a key role here because, along with providing many other benefits, it allows leaders to do the following:

  1. Recognize their emotional state before merely acting on their emotions;
  2. Develop the self-awareness necessary to understand how their presence and even subtle actions can impact others; and,
  3. Be both fully present in the moment and serve as an observer in the moment, which can make it easier to course correct.

Buddhist monks and other mindfulness teachers around the world are united in their belief that bringing this kind of presence into everyday life (including the workplace) takes a daily, disciplined practice. For some leaders I’ve talked to, this means twenty to thirty-minute periods of sitting meditation in the morning and again before bed, with various mindful pauses throughout the day.

Others practice mindfulness by taking a long, slow, meditative walk during their lunch break. I’ve met other leaders who micro-meditate for three minutes, upwards of ten times each day, directly before each of their many work calls. For them, spending three minutes in silence while focusing on their breath helps them make better decisions, remain calm in the face of tension, and establish their deepest, most heartfelt intention for each of their calls.

In the end, and no matter what particular shape your mindfulness practice takes, I think you will find that it will open up new and stronger pathways for you to embody change leadership. This will allow you to create the ripple effect that Gandhi lived and spoke about, and that compelled Tinh Giac to wade into the river again and again.


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