Making Change Happen

Tom Morris

Several years ago, at the insistent urging of a young philosophy professor, I bought all the Harry Potter books that had been published at the time ? the first four. Standing in line at the bookstore with lots of small people who were picking up volume four, I had no idea what these books had in store for me. They ended up being so incredibly interesting that, in a very short period of time, I read each of them six times through. Then I bought and read each subsequent book as it came out. I was amazed at how J.K. Rowling, former classics major, had captured in her immensely popular stories some of the greatest practical wisdom of the ages about leadership and change, focused particularly on the personal strengths, or virtues, needed for transformative leadership in challenging times.

The Importance of Courage

Among all the classic virtues embodied by various characters in the Harry Potter books, courage is particularly important. Harry displays this specific virtue in a consistent and dramatic way. He is a young man who is very sensitive to danger and is as susceptible to fear, anxiety, and jittery nerves as any of us could ever be. And yet, when confronted with the most challenging dangers of his day, he?s always able to step up and do the right thing. How does he do it? And what can the rest of us learn from his experience?

Courage in danger is half the battle.
Plautus

In answer to these questions, I began to see a pattern in Harry?s conduct over time that can be articulated as five simple steps. Harry Potter doesn?t seem to be aware that he is doing anything so powerful and profound as generating within himself the conditions for courage, but he just intuitively does everything necessary to muster the courage he needs whenever he needs it. The application of his pattern to our own challenge with change is quite simple and straightforward. Big changes are often scary. And perhaps the number one problem people have with making the changes they know they need to make in their lives is a problem of courage. We?re afraid to move forward in new ways. We?re hesitant to try the new thing. And yet we?re often frustrated about our own hesitation. Harry?s formula for courage is exactly what we need.

Harry Potter?s 5 Steps to Courage

(1) Prepare for the challenge.

(2) Surround yourself with support.

(3) Engage in positive self-talk.

(4) Focus on what?s at stake.

(5) Take appropriate action.

By doing these five things well, we can all position ourselves to summon the courage we need, when we need it, and like Harry do the right thing when it needs to be done. What I didn?t realize when I was first discovering these five simple steps is that they have a bit more universal scope as well. They are indeed deeply relevant to our mastery of change and adaptation.

Managing Change

One night on the internet, I was Googling the title of the book I ended up writing on all this, ?If Harry Potter Ran General Electric? ? yes, we authors do such things ? to see what people were saying about the book right after its publication. I happened to come across a Power-Point Presentation that had been created by a British physician and professor of emergency medicine to accompany his talks to hospital Emergency Room staffs in the United Kingdom on how to launch and manage change in their procedures, and in the process, save more lives. It turns out that this doctor had seen my book while on holiday in Canada, had read it right away, and had discovered in it some ideas he knew he could use. I clicked eagerly through his presentation to see what he had to say. He was obviously doing important work. On one of his slides, I saw something very interesting indeed. It laid out the 5 steps to courage, but with a new heading:

Harry Potter?s 5 Steps to Managing Change

(1) Prepare for the challenge.

(2) Surround yourself with support.

(3) Engage in positive self-talk.

(4) Focus on what?s at stake.

(5) Take appropriate action.

It was a classic ?Aha!? moment for me. The professor of medicine was absolutely right. Our young wizard?s actions capture some of the most important insights for anyone contemplating change, or undergoing change, and especially for anyone in a leadership position who is actually launching new change. And this was a connection that I honestly hadn?t already seen. The things that Harry Potter so conspicuously does, and that we all need to do, in order to position ourselves for courageous action in any challenge are precisely what we need to do in order to initiate any major change in an organization, and sometimes in our own personal lives. The famous young wizard, it turns out, is a master of adaptation. And that is a key to his tremendous success.

When change efforts fail, it?s often because one or more of these five steps has been ignored. When such efforts work, it?s typically because all five steps have been taken and are being monitored and cultivated on an ongoing basis. Changing behavior in an organization is always a process extended through time. It can?t be rushed, but it can be helped along when leaders do the right things and do them well.

Let?s consider for a moment what each of these steps involves. We?ll begin, as we always should, with preparation.

(1) Prepare for the challenge.

As the author and change consultant Jeanie Daniel Duck makes clear in her very insightful book entitled The Change Monster, too many executives keen on initiating change neglect the genuinely human side of the challenge, the emotional and psychological preparation that is needed to make change work. It?s only when people have been adequately prepared for any new challenge that they?re likely to be able to do what they need to do to work through it and succeed. Harry?s first step of preparing for the challenge is vital.

Success depends on previous preparation,
and without such preparation there is sure to be failure.
Confucius

Preparation creates competence and confidence, and both these things are crucial for success in any new endeavor. Before any new change initiative in an organization is announced, lots of preparatory work needs to be done to see to it that the process will be successful. When we just spring things on people without a proper time of preparation, we all too often merely set ourselves up for disappointment.

(2) Surround yourself with support.

The support of others is crucial as well. No change agent can, like Atlas, hold the world up on his or her shoulders. No one can go it alone, in launching broad change and steering it forward. In order to see any change effected properly and then woven fully into the fabric of an organization, or throughout any group of people, we need a broad basis of support for that change. Properly focused and sustainable change within any group context is always a collaborative effort. Without the right support, it just won?t happen for the long run, whether it?s appearing to occur or not. When we carefully elicit and secure the support of others, we greatly raise our chances of success. This is Harry?s second step.

Two are better than one; because they have a good reward
for their labor. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow:
but woe to him who is alone when he falls;
for he does not have another to lift him up.
Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

(3) Engage in positive self-talk.

With any major change effort, at some point, an attitude of discouragement can set in, because it almost always takes longer than we think it will, and things are nearly always harder than we think they?ll be. And that?s ok, since effort and satisfaction are directly correlated in life. But without a positive psychology to power us forward, we?re likely to give up before the change efforts have been given a full enough chance to succeed. We each need to engage in a process of inner cheerleading for our own efforts, and bring that optimism and faith to bear in what we say to other people who also may be struggling along in the new process of change. An inner cultivation of confidence and optimism within the minds and hearts of change leaders is necessary to bolster a continuous outer communication of positive energy and expectations that can make all the difference for any organizational change initiative.

Any change effort requires an ongoing attitude of inner resilience and positive expectation, along with a properly noble sense of the importance of what we?re doing. Since improvement in anything of significance involves both bursts of progress and times of diminished returns, with even periods of slogging downhill now and then, when we superficially seem to be farther from our goal, it helps immensely to remind ourselves of these facts and use the inevitable universality of this general pattern to bolster our own confidence in the overall process. Harry?s third step of positive self-talk can pay off psychological dividends in every phase of the process along the way.

(4) Focus on what?s at stake.

It?s easy to be distracted and to lose focus during a change effort. Inertial forces will pull us back to a distracted fixation on other things, or on old ways of working, if we?re not insistent to keep our focus on the values that are at stake in the process that?s now underway and on the things that need to be done in order to honor and embody those values. We need to remind ourselves about what?s really at stake in any important change effort, and then communicate that regularly to everyone else who is involved in the transformation process with us. This is Harry?s fourth step for managing change well.

(5) Take appropriate action.

Finally, the only way that significant positive change happens is by people taking action every day. Here, we?re back to the art of positive action, and the consistency condition within the art of achievement. It?s all about governing our attitudes, looking for opportunities, and taking the initiative in little things as well as in big things, on a consistent basis. We have to roll the boulder a little farther each day until it finally gains some momentum of its own. When it?s done right, today?s innovation will eventually become tomorrow?s well-established routine, but to get it there always takes the energy of determined and appropriate action, completed and then repeated. Harry?s fifth step is in some ways the most important one.

Great things are not done by impulse,
but by a series of small things brought together.
George Eliot

Who would have guessed that the world?s most popular wizard could teach us all a thing or two, or five, about courage, change, and any challenge we might face? Following his lead, we can make great things happen in our world.

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