Leading in Transition

May 30th, 2014

If you are a leader, and if you are in some form of ministry, then you almost certainly have had to deal with your fair share of transitions. How have you handled it? What has worked well for you in the midst of transition? What lessons do you wish you knew before you entered a transition?

In thinking about these questions allow me to offer observations from my own leadership transition experiences. Perhaps these will bring to mind some of your own experiences. What questions or ideas come to mind for you?

1) It's not easy.

Change is not easy. This is something any change expert will rightfully say. Thus, transition whether individually (as in my case) or in the case of a larger organization is not always easy. Emotions are involved. Legacies are involved. Questions and uncertainty are involved. Discernment is involved.

What I have found to be most important in being able to get through the tough moments, doubts, and questions is to admit how I am feeling in the moment, and then remember why I am doing what I am doing. Beyond that, I trust that one of the reasons I am doing what I am doing is that its part of something bigger than myself. From a faith aspect I trust in the promises of God- that God is with us, and God is at work here and everywhere and we are a part of that.

2) There is a need for affirmation

This needs a little unpacking. I am not talking about a seemingly vain need to be told that I am good. I am talking about an importance that the individual can trust that what they have done has not been in vain, but rather has laid some seeds or good fruit for the future. This affirmation does not necessarily need to come through words of another, but can be gained simply by taking the balcony view (like Heifetz and Linsky talk about) and comparing the view from the balcony in the present to the view you saw closer to when you started. If you notice a change, a new energy, or at least a new way of doing things and of people being able to be better in community with one another, that's affirmation.

3) Don't feel the need to preserve some legacy, rather be authentic and transparent.

At first blush this may seem contradictory to my previous point. But, its not, at least when allowed to be nuanced. Leaders who are more inward turned, seek to have their reputations upheld even in the midst of transition. In reality, one's legacy has been forming much longer than the transition. If done right, a transition is part of a legacy but it will not preserve or denigrate it. What does within the transition is one's openness, honesty, authenticity, and transparency.  

I have seen a great deal written lately about how millennials value authenticity and transparency. This might be true, but I would hope that all generations value such things. Without authenticity and transparency, it doesn't seem to me one can have a genuine and deep relationship with another person. Leadership depends greatly on relationships and to think otherwise puts leadership within a vacuum which is not all that realistic for the contextual and leadership needs of organizations and groups.

4) Leave it better than you found it.

Deep down, this should be the goal of leadership in general. But it also should be the goal of transition. For as much as you can control and enable, leave the organization or group you are transitioning out of, better than you found it. It's like the same adage your mom probably taught you about cleaning up after being some place. It's a basic stewardship hope too, leaving something at least as well, if not better than how it was entrusted to you in the first place. Obviously, you cannot control or dictate how others act, but at least for what you can be responsible for, make sure its better than you found it.

I like to measure this based on people's openness to dream and question. If people are open (and hopefully more open) to this, to engaging others with their questions, hopes, and dreams I believe I have had a small part in transforming a group to a new state of transparency and vitality for the present and future. Being able and aware enough to question assumptions is important. Allowing room for this, allows room for growth, and theologically I believe this is where room is left open for the Spirit to move us and lead us in new ways as we continue to discern what God might be up to in the world.

There are certainly other things I have learned but these four observations seem to stand out especially.

  • What are some insights you have discovered in your own life when leading in transition
  • Or perhaps some insights you have from your own transitions?

This post was adapted from posts previously appearing on Timothy Siburg's blog

Credits, Resources, and Sources

Peter F. Drucker, The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization, (San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass, 2008). ISBN #9780470227565

Ronald A. Heifetz & Marty Linsky, "Get on the Balcony," in Leadership on the Line:  Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading(Boston, MA:  Harvard Business School Press, 2002), 51-74. ISBN #9781578514373

Gil Rendle & Alice Mann, Holy Conversations:  Strategic Planning as a Spiritual Practice for Congregations, (Alban Institute, 2003). ISBN #9781566992862

Gilbert R. Rendle, Leading Change in the Congregation:  Spiritual and Organizational Tools for Leaders, (Alban Institute, 2002). ISBN #9781566991872

Anthony B. Robinson, Changing the Conversation:  A Third Way for Congregations(Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eeerdmans Publishing Company, 2008). ISBN #9780802807595

Mark E. Thibodeaux, SJ, God's Voice Within:  The Ignatian Way to Discover God's Will(Chicago, IL:  Loyola Press, 2010). ISBN #9780829428612

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