Change by Accrual, not Transformation

I recently returned from the annual meetings of the Fellowship of Evangelical Seminary Presidents. This is a remarkable gathering of people committed to the management and development of significant academic institutions all over North America. As with every major institution in the 21st century, whether in business, academics, or the church, the major challenge for leaders has to do with managing change. change

Typically, when we think of the institutional leader as a change agent, we are thinking about transformational leadership – leadership that seeks to change the fundamentals of an organization so that it can abruptly and immediately morph. But while the nature of our cultures might seem to require such an approach , the truth is that leading change is almost never so dramatic.

Dan Aleshire, head of The Association of Theological Schools said to us this week that “institutional change is almost always more by accrual than it is by transformation.” This is to follow Ronald Heifetz, who in Leadership Without Easy Answers, suggests that leading change is more about understanding adaptation.

I found this to be encouraging. Whether presidents or preachers, we all feel the pressure to champion some kind of impressive, institution-wide transformation. But such attempts almost always run into opposition from people embedded in the institutional tradition, who will not be convinced of the need for such disruption. Disruptive, instead of adaptive change must always either run past people or run them over. That might not be unreasonable when the situation requires it, or when there are absolutely no other options. But such is very rarely to be the case.

More appropriately, an effective leader will look for incremental objectives that are achievable. A great leader will understand how to put the puzzle together piece by piece, so that the bigger picture change accrues over time. In this way, the changes will run deeper and have greater staying power, while fewer people will be lost along the way.

As I think about the great churches and seminaries that have stayed relevant and meaningful over long periods of time, there is no doubt that transformation has occurred, but this change has been accrued over time, the work of patient leaders who know the times and know the way and who can lead others in the require direction without losing them along the way.