Leading Unanticipated Change
Jacob’s story was largely framed by challenging familial relationships. The struggle with his twin brother and chief nemesis Esau began in utero, where each sibling already expressed their unique identities. (See Genesis 25:22-23) Still, even with early indicators of separation and discord, it would take many years for the struggle to fully manifest. And when it did, Jacob, a man known for his simplicity and truthfulness, would be forced to move far out of his comfort zone in order to achieve his lofty aims.
Chapter 27 of Genesis describes the incident. An aging, near-blind Isaac was preparing to bestow the primary blessing, that of the firstborn, on Esau. Rebecca, recognizing the danger of empowering her erstwhile eldest son, instructed Jacob to don goat skins and approach his father as if he were the hairy Esau. The deception worked; Jacob successfully emerged with the desired blessings.
In truth, Jacob should never have had to resort to a ruse. Years earlier, Esau had sold the birthright and its related blessings to his younger sibling for near nothing. He sealed the deal with a vow and had even scorned the birthright, as if it were a burden.
However, Esau had come to regret his impulsive sale and was deeply grieved by Jacob’s ability to deceive him not once but twice. He promised mortal revenge. Fearing for his life, Jacob again heeded his mother’s directive and fled.
Jacob found asylum in the house of his uncle Laban. But Laban was no ordinary loving kinsman; the Torah presents him as one of the biggest swindlers in history, even towards family. Following seven years of labor for the rights to marry Rachel, Laban used a ploy to extract an additional seven years of service from his new son-in-law.
Imagine what was running through Jacob’s mind at this moment. He had fled for his life over a birthright that he had justly acquired and a blessing that Hashem, his mother and, at the end, even is father absolutely wanted him to have. He arrived at his uncle’s home only to be duped in a nuptial arrangement that was not only deceitful, but had cost him seven additional years of intense toil at the prime of his life.
But Jacob persevered without complaint and completed his entire work commitment faithfully. By the end of his stay at Laban’s home, this man of integrity had come out ahead. He was the patriarch of a large, distinguished family and possessor of great material bounty. Jacob managed to remain true to his principles while meeting Laban on his own terms.
Jacob’s metamorphosis through this entire ordeal, from the time that he fled his parents’ home until his return to Canaan decades later, is noteworthy on many levels. He began as an “innocent man”, straight and pure, focused exclusively on study and spiritual pursuits. But God had other plans, and required him to deal directly with some of history’s greatest villains.
Throughout his entire life, Jacob retained his core values. He remained a man of truth, steadfast in his desire to fulfill God's will. Still, he understood that he would have to adjust his approach and think as his nemeses did if he was to survive and even thrive in the face of adversity and mortal danger.
Change is never easy, certainly not for someone with an established persona and modus operandi. Jacob’s character was clearly defined and he was living his life along a clear, peaceful trajectory when circumstances charted him along a new path. Rather than to resist the change Jacob embraced it. He used it to better himself and prepare his family for a long road ahead.
As with Jacob, change and adaptability are crucial skills for today’s leaders. We live in a shifting, unforgiving global landscape. Rapidly changing occupational practices mean that leaders must quickly identify new opportunities and take swift action to capture them if they and their entities are to survive and thrive. Effective change leaders engage in a series of practices that inspire positive transformation. These behaviors include:
- Maintain Low Anxiety Levels – Change leaders fashion trustful environments, where employees feel secure in their jobs. Change cannot be seen as a referendum on their capacity as workers, but as a way with which to adjust to market conditions and help employees become more effective and satisfied.
- Yet Establish a Sense of Urgency – By helping others see the need for change, leaders help others appreciate the need to act swiftly. “Urgent” behavior is driven by a belief that the business world is comprised of great opportunities and great hazards. It inspires a deep determination to move and succeed.
- Be Open to New Ideas – One cannot explore new ideas and learn how to apply them without first being receptive to them. Being receptive, however, is not enough. We must also be mindful, constantly exposing our minds to different perspectives, which can allow us to see more ways new ideas can work.
- But Stay True to Your Values – The dizzying prospect of new opportunity can often challenge us at our moral and ethical core. What are we willing to do in order to remain competitive and get ahead? Defining and articulating our values is a crucial step in helping determine the extent to which we are willing to engage others and the marketplace.
- Don’t Go It Alone – Assemble a group with enough power to lead the change effort, and encourage the group to work as a team. Putting together the right coalition of people to lead a change initiative is critical to the initiative’s success.
- Keep it Simple at First – Generate short term wins by setting goals that can be easily achieved and made widely visible. Recognize and reward employees who were involved in the successes.
- Manage Risk – All actions involve risk and uncertainty, including the “action” of staying in the same place. A healthy risk tolerance means taking all possible steps to mitigate or eliminate risks, and then making a well-calculated advance in a new direction where appropriate.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate – Leaders should make sure that as many people as possible understand and accept the vision and the strategy. Keep the vision simple, visible, and easily repeatable within and without the organization.
Perhaps more so than ever before, leaders today can take advantage of new, far-reaching opportunities. However, these prospects come with the need to manage change and risk while remaining true to your beliefs and values. Leaders who can successfully maintain that balance are poised to sit at the forefront of their respective fields and provide their teams with the vision and motivation for future growth and success.