It’s no secret that rapid and disruptive change is a constant in today’s fast-changing business environment. If you’re not moving forward and staying ahead of change, then you are quite literally falling behind — and at a greater pace than ever before.

It’s easy for leaders to sit back and hope that their industries won’t be the ones that are disrupted, that their businesses won’t be the ones that get left behind, and that their people are willing and able to weather the storm while staying engaged in their jobs and staying loyal to the companies they work for. But it’s clear that this is a shortsighted and ultimately ineffective approach.

To succeed now and in the future, leaders must lead the change they want to see, and if they aren’t already doing so, they must start leading that change right now.

How exactly are you supposed to do that? Change is simple, but it’s hard.

In our many years of experience working with organizations big, small, and every size in between, in most every industry, we have found that creating generative tension is an essential element in leading the change that leaders want to see.

Generative tension is simply the gap between our aspirations and our current reality — where we want our organization to be tomorrow, and where it is today. Generative tension is not a new concept. Victor Frankl called it Noö-Dynamic Tension. Robert Fritz called it Structural Tension. Peter Senge called it Creative Tension. Hamel and Prahalad called it Strategic Intent.

The very best leaders cultivate this tension at every level in their organization. They create and reinforce it by committing to what matters most and by fiercely and compassionately telling the truth about current situations. At the personal level, leaders cultivate it by facing their development gaps. At the organizational level, they orchestrate the dialogue that establishes organizational identity (mission, vision, values), an honest SWOT analysis (a study undertaken by an organization to identify its internal strengths and weaknesses, as well as its external opportunities and threats), and the rigors of transformational redesign.

To lead the change we want to see, we leaders must become the Chief Development Officer of our organizations — adopting and taking responsibility for an aggressive development agenda. We do this one-on-self, one-on-other, one-on-team, and team-on-organization. We commit to building the capacity and capability of leaders in teams and throughout the company.

After you start cultivating generative tension in your organization, these four steps will enable you to get ahead of change instead of reacting to it:

1. Tell the truth about what you want. Create vision and focus attention on the outcomes you want to achieve together with your teams and your people. Set an intention to create them and choose to have this become your current reality. Hold and reaffirm this intention daily.

2. Tell the truth about how you are creating your current reality. Tell the truth about the results you and your people are creating right now, especially those that are inconsistent with what you want. Dig deeply into exactly how you are creating your current reality, individually and collectively, until you see the embedded beliefs driving the behavior that gets you what we don’t want. Surface those beliefs within yourself and within your team members. Delve into these beliefs deeply enough to see the falseness in them.

3. Rinse and repeat to continue to hold generative tension. Do this as an ongoing practice — that is, telling the truth about what you want and what you’ve got.

4. Practice every day. Conduct daily experiments to test your ideas and assumptions and take small steps every day to move toward what you want. Learn from your experience. It helps a lot if you…

  • get feedback all along the way.
  • have a practice of daily reflection.
  • trust your intuition and develop the openness to intuitive insight in your teams.
  • do all this publicly, transparently, and with the support of those around you.
  • take a long-term, systemic approach to all of the above within the organization.

By taking these steps, individually and organizationally, you will move your current reality toward your vision — and in the process, you’ll lead the change you want to see. In addition, you will become the leader, team, and organization capable of serving something larger than yourselves and creating outcomes that matter most.

And, ultimately, isn’t this what we all want?

Robert J. Anderson

Robert J. Anderson has been a pacesetter in the field of leadership development for over 30 years. He is the Founder, Chairman and Chief Development Officer of The Leadership Circle and the Full Circle Group and the co-author of “Mastering Leadership.”

William A. Adams

William A. Adams is the co-founder and CEO of Full Circle Group and The Leadership Circle. Adams has over 30 years of experience as a trusted advisor to CEOs and their teams around the globe. He partners with leaders to unlock breakthrough performance, develop deep leadership capability/capacity and transformational business results.

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