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Thought Thursdays
Transition Leadership


Observing what happens in our country, I am often reminded of what William Bridges wrote twenty years ago in Managing transitions: Making the most of change. He starts the book with the following statement: “It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions. They aren’t the same thing.” Change, Bridges argues, is situational and happens whether we like it or not. Transition, on the other hand, is psychological and has to do with how we process change. Change is fast, ​transition is slow. We do not experience, process or manage them i​n the same way. 

In South African terms we so often speak about the change that came about in 1994, but we seldom speak of the aftermath thereof in terms of transition. Yes, we do label the change as ‘transformation’ to emphasise the paradigmatic proportions and the all-pervasive societal influence thereof, but do we have enough conversations about how to successfully manage the transition that resulted from it? Transition management is about understanding and creating space for the processing that we have to do as we deal with the consequences and navigate through the landscape of change – a task that for most people is often easier said than done.

In our own context we have evidence of how complex transitional processes can be, the emotions that they can stir up, the amount of time they absorb, and the multiplicity of positions that people may take in respect of either denying, rejecting or accepting their consequences. After twenty years of democracy we are as yet not a fully inclusive and integrated society: we are still rebuilding educational and health systems, and we are still figuring out land reform, to name but a few of our toughest challenges. The transition is far from complete and, as we continue along this path, new challenges, followed by new transitions, show up and add to the complexity of what already exists.  

Societal transitions are by their very nature uncomfortable, but they certainly present unique opportunities for unlearning and new learning. Transitions dislodge many deeply entrenched and outmoded ways of thinking and doing, and create opportunities for critical thinking, alternative behaviours and the rebuilding of systems. If approached with an attitude of receptiveness, transitions can lead to the imagining of new visions, the discovery of mutual interdependence among divergent groups, and the development of new relationships. But transitions can also “do us in”, as Bridges warns us, if we are unaware of the amount and type of work that we need to do to see them through successfully. 

In recent months a group of researchers  interviewed several CEOs and senior managers of large South African companies. Among other things, the research team was interested in the challenges that senior executives experience in running their businesses. These interviews were very insightful, in that they were marked by stories where managers personally came to terms with, and led others through, very complex landscapes of change and transition. From an external societal point of view, they spoke of the post-recession economic instability which was combined with domestic labour and civil unrest, and they expressed concerns about the quality of education, the lack of appropriate skills, growing unemployment and widening inequality combined with the social expectations and regulatory imperatives that compel them to play their part in the country’s post-apartheid transformation and development agenda.   

From an internal organisational perspective, they mostly spoke of identifying and implementing those changes that would keep their enterprises efficient, effective and competitive in a globalised business context, and combining this with the imperative of transforming their organisations to represent South Africa’s cultural and demographic composition, thereby playing their part in undoing the injustices of the past and building a demographically inclusive and equal opportunity society. Leading a business in this context entails trade-offs such as balancing business expansion with transformation imperatives, maintaining profitability in a socially responsible way, pursuing the best interests of both shareholders and other stakeholders, and sourcing the best talent while simultaneously working on employment equity. 

The interviews also produced important perspectives on the personal worlds of these leaders as they navigate through this landscape of contextual and organisational change and transition. Their narratives also speak of a very personal journey of learning and development as they had to lead their organisations and build the requisite human capabilities, systems efficiencies, financial sustainability, and social legitimacy. Their stories speak of the necessity of keeping abreast of change while staying adaptable, flexible, and responsive, as well as developing tolerance for failure as a learning opportunity. 

Transitions are certainly unsettling and challenge us with the unknown and in a strange way they seem to make us more aware of the communal nature of our existence, helping us to understand that we are indeed not alone in this world, but deeply dependent upon our fellow human beings as we seek direction in the face of the unknown. Transitions seem to create a desire for learning with others and co-creating new realities in collaboration with them. Therefore, in the light of where we are as a global and national community, it should not be surprising to us that we currently speak so much about having dialogue, engaging with stakeholders and working together across the boundaries of disciplines, industries and sectors. 

At this point a question may arise about the implications that transitions hold for leadership. I would like to suggest that, in the unsettledness of transition times, it is of utmost importance that leaders are trustworthy in word and deed and that they exercise mindfulness in deliberations, foster collaboration in problem-solving and show empathy with the struggles of followers, employees and communities in their coming to terms with the consequences of large-scale change. Whereas these leadership practices appear to be slow and time consuming, valuing their potential and benefits often makes the difference between a failed and successful transition. 
Change is fast, transition is slow. To quote Bridges again: “We know that managing people and organizations during times of tumultuous change is one of the most difficult tasks a leader faces. We are beginning to get glimmers of the future, but there are still many unknowns and much uncertainty. During such times, a leader might be tempted to take short cuts, to focus on new vehicles for accomplishing quick results. We caution against such tactics”.

Arnold Smit.jpg

Prof Arnold Smit ​is the director of the Centre for Business in Society at USB Executive Development. His areas of expertise are responsible leadership, corporate sustainability and change management.
Twitter: @SmitArnold ​
LinkedIn: ​​​connect here

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