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Thursday, April 24, 2014
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Leading Change Efforts in a Less Ugly Way


24/06/2013 07:23 (304 Day 09:20 minutes ago)


The FINANCIAL -- During my final year at Harvard, I took a class during which the professor handed out one-page document that was titled “How to reduce your ugliness”. That piece of paper has been on my refrigerator ever since. Whenever I take food from my fridge, I read Dean William’s advice on how to become less ugly.


The class in question was one on international and cross-cultural leadership, taught at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and as you can probably guess, the advice didn’t concern one’s physical ugliness. Instead, the one-page list commanded us what to do when stepping into adaptive leadership challenges. In this article I will focus on a few of Dean William’s lessons, and how we can apply these in the context of Georgia. We will discover that the key to becoming a less “ugly” leader is anticipating resistance by understanding the context and not pushing ahead irresponsibly, whether we are foreigners trying lead a change effort, or whether we are Georgians trying to push change on our fellow countrymen.

One of the answers to the question of how to reduce your ugliness is to “be aware of your might think that “those” people are backward, ignorant, and that your group is morally superior.” I see this very often in Georgia, when groups of people see other groups as being uncivilized or backwards. If you are trying to lead a change effort in a community, it is very hard to do this properly if you view that community as backward. What will happen is that you will ignore anything that comes from them, after all, why would you listen to something that comes from a group of backwards people? Your works will become a one-way interaction, with you pushing things on the group. It becomes even more dangerous if you start to see yourself as the person who just wants to do good for the old, while ascribing dark motives to the group you are trying to change. You are probably not morally superior.

Another answer that Dean Williams gives is to “be committed to understand the essence of things versus stopping with a superficial appearance. Realize that there is always something in the background that you don’t understand or appreciate.” Often the groups that you work with will be hesitant to allow you to look behind the veil. They will try to keep up an appearance, for their own purposes. Sometimes people are ashamed of the truth, and they will lie to you. They don’t want you to know about the problems they have, or the conflicts that exist within their  communities. The simplest example is probably a Georgian who has absolutely no money: he will still feed you at his house or offer to pay for your dinner. But sometimes issues can be more complex. At a Georgian anti-gay protest for example, a foreign friend asked one of the protesters what they were protesting against. The protester replied that they were protesting in favor of the prime minister. We can only guess his motives, but perhaps he was trying to hide the fact that the country has certain social issues.

Williams also says we become ugly by “failing to appreciate the losses people might have to sustain in order to change or make progress.” Change is hard because it brings uncertainty. The old ways of doing things may not make much sense for you, but people have muddled by with them for a long time, and they know that their old ways will yield at least some results. By asking people to change, you are asking people to spend their last money on a lottery ticket: if they win they will become very rich, but if they don’t, they will have lost even their last money with which they could have bought some food to feed their families. You have to understand that change is hard. Understand where people are coming from. Take the example of a farmer. He might grow crops that are just enough to keep his family alive. You have a fertilizer that could quadruple his output. Seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? The caveat however is that this is risky for the farmer. You know what the fertilizer will do, you know what a future with fertilizer will look like, but the farmer doesn’t. He is taking a huge gamble: if it goes wrong, he will lose even that little bit of crop that he used to feed his family.

Many change efforts also require people having to change the narrative about themselves or about their group. For example, maybe you are of the opinion that Georgian English teachers lack the proper English skills they need to teach their students, and you want to organize training programs to correct that. However, English teachers in Georgia have a certain narratives about themselves: they are English specialists and their English is perfect. For them to come to these trainings, they would have to change their narrative: after all, why would someone with perfect English come to a training to improve his or her English? Pushing change too fast in a situation like this will cause people to push back: they will become angry instead of cooperative. In this case, you need to proceed slowly, and gain the trust of teachers before jumping into an effort like this. Perhaps you need to frame the problem in a different way, so it doesn’t conflict with the narrative that the teachers have about themselves.

Leading a change effort is hard, and many people get badly burned. They become bitter, and their voice starts sounding noticeably more angry when they talk about “those people”. But if you care to understand where people are coming from, what their narrative is, what the essence of the situation is (instead of its appearance), and don’t look down on the groups you work with, you may actually become less ugly, and achieve successful, lasting change. Good luck!





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