Leading Change

Overcoming the Ideology of Comfort and the Tyranny of Custom


James O’Toole

Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995


This book on leadership is interesting because of its insistence on the necessity of “moral, values-based” leadership, and because of its historical study of human behavior, both of leaders and followers.  The first half studies leaders, the second half, followers.


This is not standard, step-by-step how-to.  O’Toole is a professor and his work is more thoughtful and descriptive.  He takes the four presidents on Mount Rushmore for his models of moral leadership and contrasts the contingency styles of most modern leaders.  His section on why people resist change has a great list.


Although written for secular management, it applies to a variety of circumstances such as missions, evangelism, change in the church, and the organization you happen to work for.



Today’s corporate executives believe they are struggling “to create internal strategic unity within a chaotic external environment.”  They must “create strong, shared corporate values to unite their increasingly decentralized operations, but ... this is easier said than done in a world characterized by pluralism, diversity, and...other fragmenting forces.”   “Organizations must decentralize, de-layer, and destroy bureaucracy...to obtain the entrepreneurialism, autonomy, and innovation needed to serve customers effectively.  Yet in meeting that imperative, leaders must not lose the cooperation, synergy, economies-of-scale, and sense of community that are the central benefits of the corporate form of organization.”  The only “glue” powerful enough to overcome these centripetal forces is trust.  And “trust emanates from leadership based on shared purpose, shared vision, and especially, shared values.”  xiii


The primary determinant of a leader’s success is the leader’s beliefs and attitudes.  xiv


Key Question:  “If I’m offering the right strategy, why isn’t anyone following me?”  xv



“...if the leader listens carefully to what the potential followers say they need and want and responds thoughtfully, they will become engaged in the process because they will have been given what they all crave: respect.”  “Moral and effective leaders listen to their followers because they respect them and because they honestly believe that the welfare of followers is the end of leadership (and not that followers are the means to the leader’s goals).”  “What creates trust, in the end, is the leader’s manifest respect for the followers. That requires putting them first....” 9


“In the end the leader’s vision becomes their vision because it is built on the foundation of their needs and aspirations.  They see in the vision what they desire, and they embrace it as their own.”  10


“To become an effective leader, ...one must become a leader of leaders.” 11


“Leaders must...adopt the unnatural behavior of always leading by the pull of inspiring values.  The difficulty lies in that imperative always.” 11


“...treating people with respect is what moral leadership is about, and nothing could be harder.”  12


“Everybody resists change-particularly the people who have to do the most changing.”  13


“...all successful organizations become prisoners of comforting ideologies that eventually lead to their downfall.”  “...there is a natural conservatism in all human societies that typically delays the acceptance of requisite change until it is too late.”  15


“Leadership is largely a matter of how to be, not how to do it.  Leaders need to lead by example, with clear, consistent messages, with values that are ‘moral compasses,’ and a sense of ethics that works full time.”  Francs Hesselbei, former head of Girl Scouts.  40


How can there be resistance to change if the source of innovation were the followers themselves?  (speaking of Max De Pree) 45


“Integrity has at least two meanings relevant to...leadership.  It is synonymous with truth-telling, honesty, and moral behavior.  In addition, the leader needs that related type of integrity that has to do with ‘selfness,’ with the integration of one’s personality.  Integrity in this sense refers to the much-admired trait of wholeness or completeness that is achieved by people who are said to have healthy self-confidence and self-esteem.  Their self-esteem allows them to esteem and respect others.”  46


“Leadership requires listening to followers but not becoming prisoners to their low expectations.”  47


Paradox of values:  “Leaders must create a culture with strong strategic unity while at the same time fostering sufficient internal openness to encourage freedom of action and entrepreneurial initiative.”  “The resolution of that paradox...is an attitude,...respect for people.”  47


“Respect for people leads to the right of all employees to participate in the decisions that affect their own work and the right to share in the fruits of their labor.” 48


“Bill Gore wasn’t into making decisions or setting rules; he was too busy practicing values-based leadership.  He was constantly on the road, talking to all his employees about the vision, the purpose, the objectives, and the philosophy of the company.  He was convinced that if his associates understood and shared his values, there would be no need for him to control them.”  60


6.5 million women entrepreneurs head over a third of all businesses in America (up from only 5% in 1972).  69


“A culture is a system of beliefs and actions that characterize a particular group.  Culture is the unique whole--the shared ideas, customs, assumptions, expectations, philosophy, traditions, mores, and values--that determines how a group of people will behave.  When we talk of a corporation’s culture, we mean the complex, interrelated whole of standardized, institutionalized, habitual behavior that characterizes that firm and that firm only.  Thus to talk about a culture as ‘it’ is absurd: culture is ‘us.’  To talk about top management’s role in changing corporate culture is to talk about people changing themselves, not changing some ‘it’ or ‘them’ outside the door to the executive suite.” 72


“Effective change builds on the existing culture.  A group will reject a foreign system of values the way a healthy body rejects a virus.”  73


“...success depends on the active support of the people, and for the people to become involved in change, they must see some familiar elements of continuity.  Franklin Roosevelt could succeed in changing America because he put the radical reforms he sought in the context of traditions, systems, and beliefs with which the people were familiar....”


“(When the leaders) understand that change must be based on the current culture...and when they have the patience to involve the entire organization in the process of change, it is possible to turn a company around--given the better part of a decade to do it.”  74


Successful processes of change initiated at companies cited:

·   Change had top-management support.

·   Change built on the unique strengths and values of the corporation.

·   The specifics of change were not imposed from the top.

·   Change was holistic.

·   Change was planned.

·   Changes were made in the guts of the organization.

·   Change was approached from a stakeholder viewpoint.

·   Change became ongoing.   74-5


(Model leaders) “create a climate in which assumptions can be continually tested and, if proved wanting, revised.”  76


Most students of leadership today subscribe to contingency theory, that how they lead change “depends on the situation.”  97  “The moral and logical error inherent in contingency theory is relativism, the belief that there are no universal truths or objective knowledge save scientific proofs.  In the relativist’s belief system, there are no rights and wrongs...”  98


“Trustworthiness, respect, promise-keeping, service, faithfulness--these are moral principles.”  99


Rushmorean leadership is founded on a few clear, inviolable moral principles.  99


Leaders in the Realist-relativist-contingency school are prone, when pressed by the inevitable exigencies of public life, to behave in ways that destroy the trust of followers.  Because people will not follow the lead of those they mistrust, contingency leaders will often encounter insurmountable obstacles on the road to leading change.”  99


“...people will follow only leaders who take them where they want to go.  Leaders thus beget followers, and they do so by allowing the followers to take the leader’s dream as their own.  This can occur only when leaders acknowledge the legitimacy of followers’ competing beliefs and diverse values.”  124


“No leader can command or compel change.  Change comes about when followers themselves desire it and seek it.  Hence the role of the leader is to enlist the participation of others as leaders of the effort.  That is the sum and essence not only of leading change but also of good management in general.”  “In reality, such leadership is extremely difficult because it is unnatural.”  133 


List of 33 hypotheses for causes of resistance to change - pp. 161-164



To understand the behavior of any group of people, it is necessary to get down to the basic premises of their belief system, to root out, in effect, their most fundamental social and ideological assumptions.  These are the glue that holds a group together and binds them in such a way that they can act purposefully.  The ideas that people in a group hold in common, and hold absolutely, allow for effective social action--as opposed to less efficient individual action.  For any social organization to function, then, it is necessary for all its members to share a common worldview.  In the worlds of Polanyi, “By holding the same set of presuppositions they mutually confirm each other’s interpretation of experience.” 


  Stated positively, this shared worldview that allows for concerted action is much like the transcendent values that leaders call on to unite their organizations and give common direction to the group.  Stated negatively, it is, paradoxically, also a source of resistance to change.  This form of denial of reality appears to operate in all societies.  169


“Alas, nothing fails like success.”  180


“Shared assumptions--common cultural values--are thus the powerful force that, like subatomic gluons, bind together the many facets of a culture.  Though such forces are necessary for efficient and effective cooperation, paradoxically, they are also a prime source of resistance to change.”  182


“...the skill of overcoming resistance to change is what separates the mass of individuals with good ideas from the few leaders who are able to implement them.”  200


Ideas from John Stuart Mill:

“The majority, being satisfied with the ways of mankind as they now are...cannot comprehend why those ways should not be good enough for everybody.”  “Great souls have always met with violent opposition from mediocre minds.”  …because individuality is universally viewed not as a source of progress but as an affront to custom, and consequently rejected.  230


Society mobilizes against those who challenge its basic premises or belief structure. 232


The problem of change rests neither with leaders or followers alone.  Resistance almost always results from the dynamic process of interaction between the two parties.  237


O’Toole offers a “good enough” explanation of resistance to change: it upsets the “comfort” of people.  Thus, not only followers, but leaders are afraid of change!:


“And nothing is more certain to stir up resistance to change than a challenge to the psychological comfort of the powerful.”  238


 “From Wall Street to Washington, from boardrooms to union halls, what anybody with power is most scared of is change.  Any kind of change.  Especially change that’s forced on them.”  Lee Iacocca.  239


Groups resist any kind of change and particularly abhor change that’s forced upon them.  If this is true, then leaders can succeed in overcoming resistance to change only when followers feel that they are not being forced to act against their will.  239


The most powerful members of a society are those most comfortable with its ideology.  That is, they have something to lose if the status quo were to be overturned, even if they have no wealth at risk.  Because they have something invested in the system in terms of status, beliefs, or values the vast majority of “haves” embrace the dominant ideology.  247


Resistance to change arises when a would-be leader challenges the comfort of the group.  Inevitably this agent of change is perceived as trying to impose his or her will on the group.  They resent having the ideology with which they are comfortable called into question, and they resent even more being forced to question that ideology themselves.  248


In modern democratic societies, no person is seen as having the right to impose his or her will on another.  249


It is an unacceptable affront to be forced to change one’s mind.  Individuals are what they believe, and groups are their cultures; hence to require a group to change its shared beliefs is to threaten its very existence.  Therefore, for any system to change peacefully, the majority must willingly admit the position of the minority.   Peaceful change thus requires acquiescence in upsetting the dominant worldview--in effect, the collective eating of crow by those who have the most power to resist change.  Why would any group be willing to do this?  250


When O’Toole looks at how Drucker and Deming were so universally ignored in the U.S. for decades, he concludes “it is progressives inside and outside the corporations who face resistance from the people who have the most power to resist: the established leaders.”  253


“In all instances in modern society, then, change is exceptional.  When it comes about, it does so primarily as a response to outside forces.  It may also occasionally occur through shifts in values....  And most rarely, it may come about as the result of leadership.  But in no case does it come about readily.”  253


“In essence, then, the challenge in a modern nation or organization is for leaders to distinguish for their fellow ‘haves’ the differences between moral and immoral, virtuous and evil, and true and false change.  ...the natural conservatism of groups can only be over come by a leader’s appeal to a manifestly moral necessity.  The leader must convince the people with power of the rectitude of the proposed change.  Even more, the leader must be able to show that the proposed change is a necessary step toward progress as defined by the haves.”  254


“This is the most difficult challenge of leadership.  Bringing about change without imposing one’s will on others is a paradoxical, but not impossible, art to master.”  254


“At its core, the process of values-based leadership is the creation of moral symmetry among those with competing values.  While values-based leadership requires listening to all sides, it equally demands being dictated to by no one side.  Instead, (it) brings order to the whole by creating transcendent values that provide a tent large enough to hold all the different aspirations, and in which all can find satisfaction.”  258