By Robert E. Quinn
A former executive MBA student came to see me. He was scheduled to be in another part of Michigan, but said he wanteto make a special trip to Ann Arbor because he had something important to share it with me.
He is an executive in his early forties. Prior to attending our program, he had worked in one of the Fortune 500’s most aggressive firms. He entered my class believing he was already a leader, and wondered if there was anything to gain by taking the required course.
One of his assignments was to become a mentor—not a normal mentor, but a transformational mentor, a mentor who radically alters the outlook and capacity of another person. Like many of his fellow students, this one failed to alter the person he selected for his assignment.
This happens often. I give this difficult assignment for a reason. Many EMBAs are accomplished executives who think they understand change leadership. What they actually understand is change management. The failure to help another person transform often brings humility and openness to the notions of change leadership—a valuable lesson.
In his case the failure made the student aware that what he knew how to do was be an authority figure in a hierarchy. He did not know how to change the fundamental mindsets other people held. He did not know how to change behavior so as to achieve collective excellence. Because he failed the mentoring assignment, his interest grew and he reread all our course’s books and reexamined everything we covered. He ended up valuing the concepts and was committed to live them.
He told this part of the story with a sense of gratitude. Then he grew even more sincere. He told me he wanted me to understand how important the course was in his life. A sacred feeling filled the room as he told me about it.
At the end of the EMBA program, he took a position in another large firm. He was given responsibility for a change project of over $100 million in magnitude. An analysis suggested it would take seven years. He was asked to do it in three. Others who were involved were making assumptions based on change management. None seemed to understand what he now understood about change leadership.
He decided that if he were going to succeed, he would have to acquire moral power by living principles of higher purpose. The first thing he did was use the fundamental state of leadership questions to help him examine his values. In doing so, he made a counterintuitive decision. While he was facing the greatest time pressures he had ever faced, he determined to go to the gym every day and to eat only healthy foods. He determined to stay connected to his wife and children. These things were the opposite of what he would have normally done.
Meanwhile, there was the project, designed by executives and consultants. They laid out the plan and they expected the workers to implement it. My former student knew the process would not work. He knew he needed to be other-focused. He needed to connect with people, understand, and build mutual trust. He determined to spend long hours listening to the people. He listened to their fears. He shared his own. He clarified that fact that he needed them. As this process unfolded he developed a relationship of increasing understanding and trust.
This process allowed him to become externally open. As he worked with the lower-level people, he allowed them to constantly teach him. These people saw hundreds of issues the planners did not see. The issues included things they wrestled with every day such as safety and cost. He joined with these lower level people in co-creating revised plans, plans everyone could believe in.
The impossible change project was completed successfully. He said that in the EMBA program he learned valuable tools in every class, whether marketing or finance. But he now understands that leadership is the tool belt that holds all the other tools in place. He said that leading the change process not only altered the company, but it also altered him.
He now sees himself in an entirely new light. He feels clear about his purpose, and he is living as a self-empowered person. He told me that next year he plans to quit. His goal is to find a company that is struggling. He wants to acquire such a company and transform it. He wants to connect the people to a higher purpose and he wants to build a positive culture in which all the people can flourish. He did not speak of these desires as if they were a dream, he spoke of them as if they were already a reality. I was deeply touched by his visit.