Stewards of the Status Quo

There are many impediments to addressing and solving executives’ toughest problem – see my last post.  Resource limitations – time, money, and people – can obviously be impediments.  Less obvious, and often much more troublesome, are the stewards of the status quo.  These stewards include people and organizations who are determined to keep everything as it is – markets, products, salary structures, pensions, tenure and so on.  They want all entitlements – legally mandated or socially perceived – to remain just as they are.

Such responses are not unexpected.  Getting people and organizations to buy into and support fundamental change often requires great creativity and compromise.  Often, this creativity is focused on inspiring a sense of urgency or precipitating a “burning platform.”  Once people truly believe that change is inevitable, they will usually constructively engage in deliberations on the nature of change and how it should be implemented.  A good example of this is the healthcare delivery system in the U.S.  There is much valuable dialog going on currently among a wide range of stakeholders.  Few people still believe that this system is fine just the way it is.

Perhaps the biggest impediment to change is when the stewards of the status quo are in charge.  When the leaders of the organization constrain thinking to business as usual, perhaps on steroids, fundamental change becomes very difficult if not impossible.  It is common for such leaders to use the vocabulary of change, e.g., new directions, strategic leaps, and enterprise transformation.  However, this is just rhetoric.  Their real goals are to keep the troops fed, make sure the trains run on time, and avoid rocking the boat.

This form of leadership is most common in enterprises that are shielded from market forces.  Government, education and religion, for example, typically attract and recruit these types of leaders.  The process of searching for new leaders in these types of enterprises places enormous emphasis on identifying candidates that will not be disruptive.  This does not always succeed and occasional change agents will secure major leadership roles.  Frequently, their tenure in these positions is relatively brief.

Stewards of the status quo thwart change to such an extent that the roots of change typically emerge outside of the mainstream.  People such as Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison, and more recently Steve Jobs, formed new types of businesses and, over time, fundamentally changed our day-to-day lives.  The phone business, lighting business, and portable device business were not just business as usual on steroids.  These men and, of course, many other men and women invested little energy in preserving the status quo.

In general, change happens when market forces drive it.  When forces for change are prevalent, enterprises led by stewards of the status quo, suffer, fail and disappear.  Such forces may emerge in education, but are unlikely in government and religion.  If forces for change become prevalent in education, one can expect to see many leaders who are ill prepared to be other than stewards of the status quo.  Then, slowly and painfully, change agent leadership will become more the rule than the exception.

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