Effecting Lasting Change: Leadership, Legislation, or Something Else?

By | October 2, 2014

Seated man with laptop I believe that most of us would describe ourselves as welcoming positive change.   However, most managers would say that change, especially in large organizations, is enormously difficult.

What makes change so difficult?

I frequently hear comments from those expressing a need for change that: “we just need some legislation…” or in other cases “we just need stronger leadership…”

Do we need legislation, leadership — or do we need something else?

Examples of Significant Change

During my career, I have observed many examples of significant change resulting from effective legislation.  The Goldwater Nichols Act of 1986 had enormous impact on the structure and roles of the Department of Defense and its acquisition organizations.  The Clinger Cohen act of 1996 also fundamentally changed the way that information technology is managed in the Federal government, establishing a model that in many cases was followed by industry.

I have also seen numerous examples where strong leaders were able to effect enormous change.  As an example, during the Year 2000 (Y2K) preparation efforts, John Koskinen, as chair of the President’s Council on Y2K, mobilized the entire country to respond to the challenge.   I also remember the actions of then Secretary of Defense Bill Perry when he cancelled all of the department’s military-unique specifications and standards with a simple edict.  His message was that the exclusion of commercial solutions and the bureaucratic inefficiencies of these specifications and standards were getting in the way of needed change.  His leadership actions worked.

Legislation is a “blunt instrument” that needs to be used with caution when attempting to use it to effect change.

Despite these wonderful examples, I resist the all too frequent statement that nothing can be done in the Federal space unless Congress or a very senior leader institutes the change.  Laws are enacted every year.  Many have little impact and some have unintended negative consequences.  Legislation is a “blunt instrument” that needs to be used with caution when attempting to use it to effect change.

Similarly, despite the fact that there are many initiatives for change endorsed by senior leaders of organizations, only a small number result in significant and long lasting change despite the energy expended.

The Success Criteria for Lasting Change

I recently had the opportunity to attend the 2014 Service to America Medals Awards event.  I was enormously impressed by the accomplishments of each of the nominees.  Each had achieved major change, in some cases resulting in global impacts.

Reflecting on the accomplishments of these individuals reinforced my personal belief that significant change does not only come from legislation or the actions of very senior leaders in government and industry.  The recipients of the Service to America awards were mostly mid-level or junior Federal employees.   Yet, they each had effected significant change.

How did they do this and what does that mean for the rest of us?

From my experience and observations, I would offer that efforts that result in lasting change have the following common characteristics:

  • A clearly articulated and well-focused purpose that is broadly recognized as beneficial — A Noble Purpose
  • The people effecting the change are visibly committed to the change and leverage partners to implement the change — Strong Commitment and Partnership
  • Those pursuing the change had sustained involvement and were willing to take personal risks to achieve the change — Personal Leadership

I would submit that effecting lasting change can be achieved by anyone in an organization who is willing to align with the success criteria listed above.

We need individuals who decide to pursue a noble purpose, with strong commitment and partnerships, and are willing to provide the needed personal leadership.

Clearly, the scope of change that one can effect is somewhat dependent on an individual’s role in an organization.  However, the recipients of the Service to America Medals provided many positive examples where partnerships significantly expanded the impact of the change.

No Need to Sit on the Sidelines and Wait

While legislation and senior leader actions can effect change, there is no need to sit on the sidelines and wait.  So, what do we need to create lasting change?  We need individuals who decide to pursue a noble purpose, with strong commitment and partnerships, and are willing to provide the needed personal leadership.