Leaders' Edge Advisor

by Gary De Carolis, President

Leadership and Honoring Loss in System Change Work

“When we are working with change, it can take varying roles but one constraint applies to all: our pasts must be respected.” Bruce Flye, Center for Change Leadership

“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.” Thomas Jefferson

As we move ever quicker to design, build and implement new integrated organizational or community systems we may be missing an important part of how to go about building that new future. A quiet yet powerful part of system change work is honoring the past. The people, practices and processes that at one time might have been the best available might now be yielding to a new set of practices and processes that can demonstrate positive outcomes. There are some who will indict everything about the old system for what it didn't do or what it did do that now requires a different approach. That kind of leadership perpetuates the myth that we can only advance from one practice to another by condemning what existed in the past. A more positive approach respects and honors the positive aspects of what did exist, most especially the people who gave their all to a system that is no longer; we then move forward, building on the lessons learned as we create a new reality from those beginnings.

While we are moving away from systems that may have been harmful to the best interests of the people they served, we need to respect and honor the loss that individuals, who did the best they could do to make life better for those under their care, must be feeling as they experience the upheaval of change.

Why is Honoring the Past Important?

Honoring the past allows us to benefit from the wisdom of people who devoted themselves to making what did exist be the best it could be. It opens the door for those who worked in earlier systems to be a part of what is now being built. It respects contributions to the earlier system and invites future contributions, rather than dismissing people as outdated or even worse, condemning them as wrong for doing what they did. How many times have we witnessed new systems built on the condemnation of the old system?

Thomas Jefferson makes a great point about progress and moving forward. Most of us would agree with him, but we need to find ways to honor those who toiled in the work that we are now departing from to move ahead. We hope that many people who worked in the old system will be significant contributors in the emerging system. We need their expertise, experience and wisdom. By not honoring loss people feel when system change is taking place, we leave them frustrated, feeling they are not heard and with no vehicle for them to shed the past and embrace the future.

Strategies for Honoring Loss

So how do we do this important part of system change work? Probably the most significant thing we can do is to listen to the fears and concerns of those that are struggling with all the change we are promoting to realize the new system of care. By listening, we can develop the needed information, pace the work of change to reflect the ability of people to adjust to change and also create opportunities to say “thank you” to all those that have done an exemplary job of helping children and families over the years.

If we do those three things: listen, pace the work of change and recognize good work done, we will likely maximize our ability to successfully transition to our new way of doing business and minimize the resistance to change. One further approach I have used, is to have someone who has gone through change, processed the loss of the way things were, and now sees the benefits of doing their work in the new paradigm, come and speak to those approaching and resisting the change ahead. The idea of having a peer talk about the transition to a new way of doing the work seems to help reduce the fears of what might be ahead for them and acts as a guide on how to move forward.

Will there still be resistance to our emerging system? Most likely, yes. Some people are just not going to be able to make the shift no matter what we do. Some people will leave their positions by choice and some will try to resist the change, but with time, most people will move forward into the new paradigm you are helping create.

Some questions to ask yourself

  • How are you doing with the sense of loss people may be feeling?
  • What have you done to help promote positive change?
  • How are you going about building your new system and looking back at the system you are leaving?
  • Are you respecting and honoring the work done by others in the past?
  • Are you creating opportunities for them to tell their stories and share their wisdom learned over the years, so that your new system can benefit from prior knowledge?
  • Have you built in mechanisms in your current organization/system work that honors the loss of the work that you are leaving as you build your new organization/system?
  • Do you know of anyone who has already gone through the proposed changes who can now talk about the benefits of doing things in the new way?

I do hope that you will take the time to honor and respect the noble work of those who have been involved in your organization and community by recognizing their good deeds, holding onto the many lessons learned from their efforts and seeking their continued wisdom as you build your new community or organizational system.

Center for Community Leadership · P.O. Box 3069, Burlington, VT 05408-3069
ph: 802-863-9132 fax: 802-863-6586 · info@centerforcommunityleadership.com

Copyright 2005 Gary De Carolis. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.

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