Leadership Courage in Organization Redesign

Aristotle is credited with saying: “Courage is the first of human virtues because it makes all others possible.” His observation is as true in business as it is in life. Without courage there would be no innovation, no calculated risk-taking, no growth. Courage is also the foundation of strong leadership, which requires decision-making that might be unpopular but necessary, such as when a leader undertakes any kind of significant organizational transformation.

There are three aspects of courage you need to focus on as a leader. The first is courage upward. Do you have the courage as a leader to say to the people above you in the organization hierarchy: This change is worth it. It’s going to be good. Trust me.

The second aspect of courage is with one’s peers. Even when people question what you’re doing, you must have the courage to not only stand firmly behind your decisions but also to negotiate with those colleagues to make sure that your changes still fit with the rest of the organization and how it operates.

The third aspect is with employees, being able to look someone in the eye and say: This change is going to significantly affect you, but it’s still the right thing to do. That may mean having a smaller department, it may be a new position, or in the worst case it could be losing their job altogether. At times it might not be clear exactly how it will wash out, so you need the courage to say: We don’t know what your new role is going to be. So, be patient as we work through this.

The truth is, the moment you decide on undertaking an organization redesign, you know it’s going to adversely affect somebody. Because if it didn’t, there wouldn’t be change, which is the point of an organization redesign. The real question is, how significant will that change be? Sometimes that change might be as simple as you’re going to start a new job, and we’re just going to change a few of the things that you need to do as you perform your job. Other times people will lose their jobs due to cost savings or more radical restructurings.

So while you know upfront something is going to happen, you just don’t always know how dramatic it’s going to be or how many people may be affected by it. Even if there is no cost or headcount reduction, you may still have a situation where you don’t need the work or skills that some people have provided in the past because you need something different in the future, such as when an accounting department installs new IT software that automates accounts receivable.

It is a tightrope leaders have to walk without a net. I was recently corresponding with a colleague who commented how when you start to go through a significant organization transformation, it takes managerial courage to step up to the challenge and have the fortitude to do what is required. They noted that sometimes it deals with leaders wanting to blame others. I’m only doing this because everybody is expected to do it. But the authentically courageous leaders own it and adopt it themselves. Genuinely courageous leaders are going to step up to the plate right away and not try to delay it. Truly courageous leaders involve their teams in the process of redesigning and orchestrating the change rather than leaving people in the dark then announcing the changes later.  

Beyond figuring out the nuts and bolts of the redesign and answering the strategic questions that arise when planning the new alignment, beyond sticking to the plan and implementing the redesign, perhaps the truest test of leadership courage is to keep the organization redesign as transparent as possible to engender trust and provide a full, clear vision of what is to come so everyone who will be part of the new alignment can integrate more seamlessly, and those who won’t be can have the time to plan accordingly.