Management genius Peter Drucker wrote in Management Challenges for the 21st Century:
Everybody has accepted by now that change is unavoidable. But that still implies that change is like death and taxes — it should be postponed as long as possible and no change would be vastly preferable. But in a period of upheaval, such as the one we are living in, change is the norm.
Fewer things are more difficult than leading an organization through change. Leading through change in periods of upheaval should come with battle pay. Good transitional leadership is priceless. To borrow from Jim Collins it should have a Level 5 designation all its own.
There comes a moment in a transitional situation when the thing which the leader has envisioned, planned for and hoped for must start. The big leap. The point of no return. Crossing the Rubicon. Stepping out.
The key question for most leaders is "When?" Below are four things leaders should consider when approaching the critical moment at which the transitional leap must begin.
1. The longer you wait to make the transition the more likely momentum will be lost. In any organization facing change there is a struggle when to make the leap. Personal preparation takes a while, getting buy-in takes a while, explaining and re-explaining all take time. There is a time, however, that the transition must start.
When you announce the goal/vision your early adopters will buy-in. Over the course of time you will reach the point at which you must leap. Indefinite waiting may see a gain in mass but you will lose momentum. As a result the difficulty in making a successful leap is increased.
Imagine running toward a gully with a goal of jumping over. You have the supernatural ability to extend your run distance at will to gain momentum, but each time you exercise that power you gain excess mass, slowing your pace. You cannot gain mass, reduce speed and make the leap. Yet this is how some leaders think about taking additional time to try and "get as many people as possible on board."
It is impossible to sustain momentum indefinitely.
2. The longer you wait to make the leap, the fewer early adopters will remain with you. Early adopters (or risk takers) are energized and enthused by the vision. The people who are afraid of moving forward, or are reticent about it, or who will not move until the very last minute are the ones who will not be pushing toward the goal. Many of them never will.
The mistake many leaders make is thinking that everyone in the organization has to come along. The leader adopts a "no man left behind" mentality. This is almost never feasible in a strategic sense. You must identify both the critical mass of supporters and the critical time at which you must make the leap. Then you leap with those who are ready.
3. Do not inadvertently trade risk-enthusiasts for the risk averse. Simply put: the people who are visionary, early adopting risk enthusiasts are energized by the idea of doing something new, big and challenging. Your risk averse people can be put off by the same thing. They are afraid of change, afraid to move forward, afraid of what might happen. They are as fearful and hesitant as the risk takers are fearless and ready.
In the vision casting stage you will attract to your side those who are risk enthusiasts or at least risk tolerant. They understand things worth doing entail an amount of uncertainty. Consequently they will embrace that uncertainty as part of the challenge.
Those who are risk averse will stand back in an ongoing state of evaluation. Rather than getting behind the vision they are forever analyzing what they think will and will not work. They tell you what will and will not work, and tell others what will and will not work. But the primary thing that will not work is the risk averse person.
The longer you wait to gain greater numbers of risk averse people into your critical mass, the greater the danger of losing your critical moment. When you lose your critical moment you lose a percentage of your risk embracing people. This void is filled by more risk averse people. Why? Because the slowing momentum signals no substantive change will take place. At this point they are more comfortable, but the goal, as the leader envisioned it, is most likely lost. Thus, they know you have to be willing to move with those who are willing to move.
4. Risk takers will identify–and stop following–leaders who they identify as risk averse. They understand that forward momentum necessarily entails a certain amount of risk. When leaders are unwilling to embrace the risk or unable to build critical mass or unprepared to move at a critical moment they are revealed as weak. Those who embrace risk and catch the vision will stop following that leader, or they will themselves become part of the muddled mass as they lose their enthusiasm. They rarely quit; they reroute those energies to a different project behind a different leader so their unique giftedness and ability to lead and bring others along does not go to waste.
While you are trying to build mass (thereby losing momentum) these will have moved on to something that is more meaningful and visionary. Too many leaders judge these people but the reality is they recognize true leadership.
Too many times, when such people move along, they are criticized for lack of staying power, "They were with me in the beginning, but then they left the church/organization right when I need them." This might be unfair. The issue is weak, indecisive leadership. They were there when you needed them and beyond, you just did not realize it. They recognize ongoing delays in making the leap reveals a severe lack of leadership. The risk has affected the leader more than anyone else.