With clarity of vision and courage to take risks, an organization can unleash power and achieve excellence by tapping into the potential of its middle management. To initiate changes, middle managers must overcome three barriers:

  1. A bureaucratic culture enforces the perception that initiatives for change must originate only from top management. Change is perceived as risky–if change agents fail, they are punished, and if they succeed, they become so indispensable that they are not promoted. This type of culture exhibits short-term thinking, limited rewards, lack of vision, and an emphasis on the status quo.
  2. Embedded conflict can affect three aspects of the organization. Conflict between functions in the organization makes it difficult for managers to take both a corporate and an innovative perspective in making change. Also, conflict between peers undermines efforts to gather support for initiating a change. Additionally, many managers encounter resistance from their direct subordinates, making it difficult to communicate a vision.
  3. Personal time constraints have increased in the work place, requiring employees to do more with less and on tighter schedules. This adds stress on middle management roles, leaving little time to think about initiating anything new while they are trying to accomplish existing planned efforts.

These barriers are the natural consequence of the organizing process. Managers receive powerful directives to conform from every aspect of their surrounding environment. Middle managers can successfully initiate change through a process of redefining themselves and their organizational roles. Gaining a new perspective, they obtain courage, the tools, and the empowerment to take risks and initiate action. This approach is based on a continuous evaluation, reinvention, and realignment of self.

Though many people make the transition from individual contributor to manager, many (including CEOs) fail to make the much more difficult transition from manager to leader. Their failure to make the transition to the transformational paradigm prevents many CEOs from recognizing their most potent tool for change and their ultimate source of power in the organization–modeling the change process for other individuals. To be able to model the change process, leaders must themselves become engaged in the deep change process.

CEOs are expected to play four general roles: vision setter, motivator, analyzer, and taskmaster. They enact these roles within four domains: the organization, the future, the operational system, and the market. In some roles, the CEO functions in a transactional paradigm. As an analyzer, the CEO attends to efficiency of operations, evaluates proposed projects, and integrates conflicting perspectives and needs. As the taskmaster, the CEO watches performance, focuses on results, solves problems, and influences lower-level decisions. However, in other roles, the CEO functions using a transformational paradigm. As a vision setter, the CEO must look to the future, remain up-to-date with emerging trends, focus on purpose and direction, and communicate a sense of where the company will be over the long term. When the CEO acts as a motivator, he or she must emphasize commitment and company values, challenge people with new goals and aspirations, and create a sense of excitement. In trying to lead, CEOs face the challenge of overcoming the attraction toward transactional roles that involve preserving the status quo. The key to being a successful leader is the ability to integrate the transactional roles of analyzer and taskmaster with the transformational roles of vision setter and motivator.

To internalize the transformational paradigm, the leader must become free of the organization’s most powerful expectation, see it from a self-authorized perspective, and still care enough to be willing to be punished for doing whatever it takes to save the organization. To survive, organizations need leaders who are courageous and who care enough to take risks for the organization.

Many senior people have no idea how to develop a vision and find it very embarrassing to be reminded repeatedly that their company lacks an adequate vision. Visionaries are internally driven leaders. Their main objective is the realization of their vision. Few managers and CEOs have internalized the transformational perspective. Those that have done so can be found at any level in an organization. In internalizing the transformational paradigm, the leader becomes independent of the organization but remains attached to the organization by choice, not fear. The leader’s moral position and pursuit of what is right motivates other organization members.

Excellence is a dynamic process. Although some systems within an organization can attain extraordinary levels of performance, these peaks cannot be sustained because of the limitations of other subsystems in the organizations. Sustainable excellence is difficult to achieve without the transformation brought on by deep change activities–precipitated by risk taking and learning. Every system is evolving through a transformational cycle in four phases: initiation, uncertainty, transformation, and routinization. To remain healthy, a system must continuously circulate through the transformational cycle and avoid getting bogged down by stagnation or confusion. For deep change to continue, the transformational cycle must be complete. Change will continue when there is an ongoing evaluation, reinvention, and realignment of self and the organization.

Sustaining excellence usually requires an internally driven leadership that is highly disciplined and not afraid of risk. Leaders that suffer the difficulties of those who dare to serve with transformational leadership have discovered that the pain of leadership is exceeded only by the pain of lost potential. They understand that excellence is punished, but they have developed a value system that provides no acceptable alternatives.