How “Old Dogs” Become Better Change Leaders
September 28, 2020
September 28, 2020

Charles Darwin wasn’t necessarily known for his business prowess, but his observations about human nature prove that business and biology aren’t mutually exclusive—especially his thinking on the subject of change: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, not the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” When it comes to defining what makes a great leader, and what it takes to succeed in a world where disruption is the norm, Darwin hit the nail on the head.

While I agree that adaptation is a key component of the “survival of the fittest” doctrine, I also can’t deny that few people take to change with the fervor that’s required to really leverage it. Not without practice, at least.

As a longtime consultant and leadership coach, I’ve helped businesses embrace transformation, cope with uncertainty and do the work that needs to be done in order for lasting change to take hold. This work is not easy, but it’s necessary, and it’s possible. The first step? Taking an honest look at the thought patterns and old behaviors that hold you back, and shifting your mindset to one that empowers rather than stifles your inner leader.

Yes, You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

Someone call the Myth Busters, because this adage needs to be debunked and promptly removed from our collective consciousness, STAT! The idea that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks is simply not true, yet it pervades our culture and our thinking to a detrimental degree. In the realm of business, this concept is often used as a weapon against tenured or senior employees, implying that when it comes time to learn a new skill, system or approach, they’re just not up to the task.

Building leadership capabilities requires agility, which is a skill we all—young and old, seasoned and inexperienced—can hone with a little mindfulness, a little practice.

First, you must identify the habits that impede progress and the knee-jerk responses you have when confronted with change or new ways of doing things. Start by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Where am I rigid in my thinking—where can’t I seem to budge?
  • Where do I have a fixed view that I’m unwilling to change?
  • Where do I need to be right?
  • What am I afraid of losing as a result of the change? (fear of the unknown, loss of control, etc.)
  • Where do I get defensive?
  • Am I fully bought into the change?

Use these questions as a way to examine your subconscious thought processes and get yourself unstuck. Once you understand where you’re getting tripped up, you can begin the work of untangling these patterns and adopting new ones.

Temporal Distancing is the New Social Distancing*

There are four types of gaps—social, spatial, temporal and experiential—that stand between you and your goals. These gaps, or psychological distances, can work for or against you, which is why it’s important to get familiar with them as you work to foster an agile mindset.

Temporal distancing, defined as how much time separates you from the present moment and a target event, can be a powerful tool to leverage when shifting your perspective. It can help you detach from your current circumstances and focus on the future, which can also help you map out your journey toward achieving this future state.

For example, ask yourself how in five, maybe 10 years time, will you want to remember telling the story of how you coped with the COVID-19 crisis? While it may seem lightyears away, we will reemerge from  the pandemic, and simply envisioning the future will put some distance between you and the urgency of the crisis, allowing you to formulate better solutions and make more informed decisions in the moment.

Temporal distancing can also play an important role in keeping your current stress in perspective. We’ve all heard the saying, “this too shall pass.” This principle can help you compare a minor failure in the present to the bigger picture—and voila!—suddenly that bungled Zoom call or failed proposal doesn’t seem so bad. For leaders managing change, keeping this perspective will also help your teams manage their own change-related discomfort in a similarly productive way.

Reemerging with a Renewed Mindset

If they’re going to stick, leadership and change capabilities must first be instilled at the individual level before they can be implemented on a larger scale—but that doesn’t mean these efforts can’t have an impact on the larger group, including your teams and colleagues. A mindset shift can make a leader’s ability to advocate for change genuine, which stakeholders will recognize and pick up on, ultimately leading these stakeholders to buy into the change.

In truth, we’re all “old dogs” in our own way, and something as simple as how we view a challenge can either hold us back or spur us to action. We may have thought our future was certain before, but that was another myth; an illusion. Embracing change, and leading through it authentically and with an agile approach, will encourage your teams, colleagues and employees to do the same.

*For the record, social distancing has not been cancelled—the “six feet apart” rule still applies!