In 1994 I wrote a book entitled Eating the Elephant. It reviewed change—or more precisely, the pace of change—in an organization. As you might suspect, the title originated with the well-worn joke: "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time."
The positive response to the book surprised me. Chuck Lawless and I would later write a revised version that is still on the market today. In organizational leadership, change is a topic of much interest. All leaders know they should lead change; many are uncomfortable knowing the best pace of change for the organization.
Countless books and articles have been written on leadership and change. For this brief article, I offer five principles on the pace of change. In other words, I attempt to demonstrate how fast or slowly one should eat an elephant.
The five principles
The first rule is that all organizations are constantly changing. So wise leaders recognize the issue is not whether the organization will change, since that is a given. The issue is how proactive the leader will be in the change process. Those who deny the reality that change is taking place are among the first to lose their leadership rights within that organization.
Secondly, effective leaders are intentional about change leadership. One of my top 10 favorite leadership books is Leading Change, a classic by John Kotter. The title states its thesis: If we are not actively leading change in our organizations, we are ineffective leaders. We must be intentional about the pace of change, the ability of the organization to embrace change, and the impact of our leadership credibility as we effect change. Leading change is active, intentional, and strategic.
Pace of change is also one of the most vital issues in change leadership. Change that is too slow will cause the organization to fall behind—sometimes too far behind to catch up. Change that is too fast will disrupt the organization to the point that change becomes the focus instead of the organization’s mission. Change that is too rapid has also been the reason for the downfall of countless leaders.
Fourth, change is ongoing; so is change leadership. There is no one point where the task is complete. There may be key markers where the organization can take a breather. But the task of change leadership is always active and never done.
Finally, change is first about people. Effective leaders understand that change impacts people. Some deal with it well; others do not deal with it at all. A good leader will understand the diverse ways people respond to change, and will help them manage it. Change leadership is not some theoretical exercise done in a vacuum. Change affects real people in real ways.
The two extremes
We all know stories about the extremes of change leadership. At one extreme is the weak leader who fears change for a number of reasons. He may not want to deal with critics. He may be insecure in his own job and leadership. He may simply fear the unknown of change and prefer the perceived stability of the present.
At the other extreme is the overly aggressive leader who moves so fast that the organization deals poorly with change, or not at all. His leadership proves so disruptive that it weakens and wounds the organization.
Somewhere between those two extremes sits the right balance of change leadership. There is no magic formula or simple chart to follow. Every organization is different. But every organization needs leaders who are effective in leading change.
And the most effective change leaders will know just how much of that elephant they should try to eat today.
Thomas Rainer is the president and CEO LifeWay Christian Resources. He is also a former pastor, seminary dean, and leader of a church and denominational consulting firm. Rainer is the author or co-author of nearly two dozen books.
Thom Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. He is also a former pastor, seminary dean, and leader of a church and denominational consulting firm. Rainer is the author or co-author of 23 books, including his latest, "I Am a Church Member."