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Leading on a Monster Boat Ride

As I lay in bed - eyes open each night, this article has been running through my mind. I wrote it long ago when internal/external organizational changes came and went for my clients - always too slowly but always inevitably passing. Like most everything around us, it's time for a re-write - and here it is....

These days it feels like we are on a monster boat ride - end destination not quite certain - aftermath not quite clear. Change often feels like that - one particular ride comes to mind.

A little while back, my family and I took a ride on a "Monster Boat" on the east coast of North Carolina. It’s one of those super-fast boats that skips and skims across the ocean. Our boat had a huge, scary shark painted on the side which should have been a clue for me.

The data suggested something strange was in store for us - exiting the boat were a lot of smiling, laughing, drenched people. What could go wrong?

On a whim, we bought our tickets.

We stepped onto the Monster Boat and strategically chose our seats; we were hoping to stay dry and certain we'd have a good time. But as the boat left the dock and picked up speed, it became inescapably clear that this was not going to feel like a joy ride. In fact, the ride kept getting rougher and rougher.

The mantras ran quickly through my mind: boat in motion - can't get off - manage the ride - hold on - smile - try to have good humor about it - don't get sick.

I was taken by surprise when our skipper purposefully dove into a wave which created a huge boat-soaking splash.

We were drenched from the first dive. As my makeup ran down my face and I caught my breath, I realized that this wasn't going to stop.

We continued to dive and speed for another 45 minutes which seemed doable - at first. We laughed and shook our heads as bucket after bucket of ocean water dumped relentlessly on our already soaked heads.

But as time went on, the collective mood on the boat changed.

This was a fast and unpredictable ride! Some were oblivious; others stared blankly at their feet; while others determinedly locked on the horizon hoping to prevent seasickness. It was easy to sense people's emotions switching from enthusiasm to shock, disbelief and then to acceptance, hope and, eventually as the ride neared its inevitable conclusion - back to enthusiasm.

We all looked like we had showered with our clothes on but, like the people on the ride minutes before us, we smiled and laughed when we eventually - left the boat.

The Two Faces of Change

There are two faces of change.

When I've been called in to work with companies on managing change over the years, I used to give a pep talk that exclusively focused on the positives - but over the years, as I have experienced more change, I have realized that it's not enough to talk about the positive parts of change - it's also important to acknowledge that change can be challenging.

Like now.

There's the up side of change which argues that change is good and inevitable - some spiritual leaders are explaining this now - talking about how our world is in a major, difficult and ultimately positive reset mode. From a personal perspective, I hope, pray and will expect that this is true.

Can't wait.

The change management literature has long argued that change invites growth and allows for our inevitable and positive expansion. Product, service and technological innovation - the pivots we see businesses and individuals doing right now - are awe-inspiring examples of adaptation brought about by our changing world reality. Educational systems, the restaurant and retail industries, nonprofits who rely upon people to serve the underprivileged or elevate the world through artistic contribution, and so many more - are pivoting right now. They are growing, innovating and becoming nimble in ways previously unimaginable.

The monster boat ride - and a time like now - acknowledge the other face of change also dealt with in the literature on change management.

Change can be invigorating and exciting but sometimes it feels more like it is something being done to us rather than by us. It can be unsettling and frightening.

Moments like this in our world feel like we are being forced into a collective "pivot" while crashing through the waves on a monster boat ride. Like the monster boat, the experience can feel challenging, relentless and tiring. It may make us feel uncomfortable and even queasy. It may feel like buckets of bone-chilling water are being dumped on our heads no end in sight. We stare fixedly at the horizon and wonder if we have any control over the situation.

It is natural to have mixed feelings about change - and it important to acknowledge those feelings. I really hated the monster boat ride - I won't do it again - but many years later, I can look back on the things I learned from the experience that are more profound than, "I'll never do that again."

And as I write that last sentence, classic mom wisdom runs through my head as it whispers, "this too shall pass."

The truth of the matter is - sometimes we can't wait for that moment when it passes - that moment when hindsight and the ever-ironic "2020 vision" is finally old enough to be true. There have been many times in my life when that has been true - and it is true for many of us now.

So what's a leader to do? How can we lead during monster boat ride?

The Emotions of Change

Some of my favorite material on change comes from change management expert William Bridges. (I highly recommend the most recent edition of his best-selling book Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change.) One of the reasons I love Bridges work is that it operationalizes the experience of change by discussing the emotions that accompany the change experience - and I look at it differently right now.

How does it speak to you?

Bridges notes that every transition begins with an ending. He says that we have to let go of the old (i.e., old ways of thinking, acting, and speaking) before we can embrace the new. Sometimes that takes major upheaval.

His transition scale (see below) tracks the emotional progression we experience as we travel from from endings to new beginnings. Those emotions include denial, shock, anger, frustration, stress, ambivalence, skepticism, acceptance, importance, hope, and enthusiasm.

With regard to changes you are experiencing, where do you fall on the scale right now? What about the people with whom you interact on a daily basis?

And how do we lead when the words we have don't seem to be enough? It's starts with the simplest of conversations.

Leading a conversation about our individual and collective experiences of change using Bridges' scale (above) is a helpful way to facilitate healthy conversation and build a foundation for positive conversations of possibility that are centered around what we can do to get through this together. (See "The Art of Possibility" by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander for an inspirational read on transformation and a further discussion of conversations of possibility).

Using this model as a building idea, here are five more ideas on leading during change.


5 Tips for Managing Change

(1) Promote discussions about change.

Acknowledging feelings, facts and even laughing together is an important building block in times like these. Bridges' model (above) can help in a fast and effective way. It helps to acknowledge that sometimes change can feel like a monster boat ride. Make a point of using this acknowledgment to find humor and/or moments of joy together - make note of successes each day and do your best to bring hope to those around you.

(2) Be positive - even when it's hard.

Communicate clearly and openly about change. Tell the truth – good news and bad. Don’t tell them it’s going to be a joy ride if it’s not. As a leader, your vision, confidence and authenticity are key. At the same time, and even when you don't feel it, find a way to regularly express optimism to your team, your family, your board, your community members, etc. Express your authentic and positive vision for the future and tell them about positive action steps that are being taken to mitigate the impact of change.

(3) Create momentum for positive change - get key people on board.

Facilitate activities, discussions or forums that purposefully help others reconnect to and affirm the mission, purpose and core values of the body you're leading (family, community, organization, etc.). In cases where pivotal changes are being instituted, keep others in the loop and get them behind the effort by talking about the positive outcomes of positive actions. Explain the why behind changes that are being made.

(4) Oversee the people and the process.

As a leader, it is important to oversee the people as well as the process. Change initiatives are more than an announcement – they are a strategic conversation and people are feeling passionate about change right now. Take the pulse - manage the pulse - of the people around you (family members, team members, donors, shareholders, etc. Ask for help in solving the problem - listen to ideas - If pivots are in motion, communicate the reasons behind the changes and monitor reactions.

(5) Uplift your team.

Remember your responsibility to motivate "the team" in times of change. Engage in positive conversations about things you're doing to assist with change and make a positive difference - provide updates and give feedback/encouragement. Express appreciation - and encourage others to do the same on a daily basis. Celebrate wins and focus efforts on boosting morale.


Change can feel like a monster boat ride and, sometimes, it can take our breath away with the speed and surprise of it.

This is a time when leadership is sorely needed - at every level.

Leaders - give us hope for a new beginning.

Leaders help us move, incrementally, from one side of the spectrum to the other where, eventually, we find a moment of hope.

Leaders - give us confidence that we will get through, that there is something positive we can do and that everything is going to be okay.

Leadership is important - now more than ever. And as a leader you have the power to impact the change journey and calm the waters around you.

Thank you for the many ways you are trying and succeeding in making the world a better place.

© Kathy Sturgis, Ph.D. Kathy is founder of Refreshment Zone and is an organizational and personal development specialist with a doctorate in communication. Contact for more information on programs or services.

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