Read time: 10 minutes
Even the most pioneering, innovative leaders can find change a challenge if it’s unexpectedly thrust upon them.
But change is inevitable and essential. The Greek Philosopher, Heraclitus, is famous for writing…
“We all face changes every day – whether it is a simple change in the weather, our schedule or expected change of seasons. Change affects us all and we each deal with change differently. This only constant in life, the only thing we can be sure will happen.”
Change is a reality for everyday life and it’s also an essential aspect of the gospel. We are personally supposed to be changing every day to become more like Jesus.
In Romans 12:2 Paul writes these words…
“Don’t copy the behaviour and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.”
The original Greek word for ‘transform’ in this passage is ‘metamorphoo’. It’s where we get the English word, metamorphosis. Metamorphosis is incredible, but it takes time and it’s not always easy.
Just ask a caterpillar!
A caterpillar is transformed into something completely different. A butterfly. It’s beautiful. It’s incredible. But it doesn’t ‘just happen’ in an instant. There’s a process. It takes time, and it happens in 3 core stages (which are fairly linear for the journey from caterpillar to butterfly, but in wider life and leadership we experience these stages in overlap).
Stage one is letting go of what has been. The caterpillar probably loves being a caterpillar. It’s got this fine long body, with multiple legs, and a cool caterpillar walk. Being a caterpillar is great. But there’s something even better for the caterpillar if it’s willing to let go of what ‘is’, in order to become something ‘even better’.
But letting go is tough and we find ourselves – or others – experiencing the powerful emotions of sadness, loss, and grief.
Years ago, when I was the Chief Executive of the national youth and children’s charity Crusaders, I led the name change to Urban Saints. We loved the new name and its missional potential to connect better with 21st century young people. But I wasn’t expecting over six hundred letters of complaint from ‘Crusaders’ who couldn’t believe we were changing the name of something that was such a huge part of their life story. With God’s help, we responded with compassion and empathy to all those letters and emails because we recognised that people were grieving. It was hard for them to let go of the name Crusaders because it understandably meant so much to them and had become part of their own identity.
How do we navigate this first stage?
- Own the pain.
It’s not wrong to feel a sense of sadness and grief when we let go of what has been. It’s understandable. It’s natural. It would be weird if we – or others – didn’t feel that sense of loss.
- Look back with gratitude.
We don’t live in the past but we’re thankful for it. We celebrate it. We learn from it. We build on it. We honour the past by creating an exciting future.
- Help people see why change is necessary.
It’s human nature to avoid pain, and that’s why people reject change because we don’t want to experience pain. But we need to help people see that the pain of staying where we are will ultimately be greater than the pain of moving on.
Letting go is the first stage of leading through change. It’s true for the caterpillar and it’s true for us.
Stage 2 is living in the messy middle. This stage goes by many different names. William Bridges calls it the Neutral Zone. Jeff Manlon calls it the Land Between. Brene Brown calls it the Middle Space. In the scriptures, we see it in the metaphors of wilderness, desert, cave, and tomb.
The messy middle is the place of great uncertainty.
The caterpillar forms a chrysalis – a cocoon – and in this place something incredible is happening. The caterpillar is literally being deconstructed and reconstructed. For a while, it’s no longer a caterpillar and not yet a butterfly. It’s in the messy middle. And when you’re stuck in the messy middle the powerful emotion you feel is anxiety. Perhaps the caterpillar is thinking to itself, have I just made a terrible mistake? What was I thinking?
It can feel like that moment when you’ve just arrived in a new house or job. You feel the sadness of leaving your old home or job, and yet the new home or job doesn’t feel like ‘right’ yet. Anxiety reigns. And that anxiety can trigger one of three unhelpful responses; fight, flight or freeze.
- Fight – we can get angry – at ourselves, at others, at the situation.
- Flight – we want to run – we want to go back to what was.
- Freeze – we feel paralysed – we don’t know what to do.
Leaders must learn to embrace the mess of complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty.
Navigating the messy middle is one of the greatest challenges and opportunities in leading through change but wonderfully, when we look at the biblical story, it tends to be the place where God does His best work. How do we navigate it?
- Keep it real.
Don’t be surprised by the anxiety you, and others, might be feeling. Again, it’s natural. Name it. Be real with each other and lean into each other and be real with God and lean into God.
- Keep looking, listening, and learning.
When we’re in the messy middle we need to be looking at what’s working, what’s not working, and be willing to flex. Consider questions like…
- Where are the signs of life?
- Where are opportunities opening, and where are we hitting a brick wall? Why?
- Where are we seeing the finger-prints of Heaven?
- What are we sensing?
- What are people saying?
- What is God saying?
- Keep going.
Don’t give up. Don’t quit. Don’t surrender. Keep going. Keep moving. You don’t know when things might shift out of the messy middle.
And so now we come to the final stage of change. Stage three is laying hold of the new – and again, the butterfly has something to teach us about this moment.
If you’ve ever seen a butterfly push itself out of the chrysalis then you’ll note that it’s quite a struggle. But that struggle and squeezing is drawing all the moisture and gunk out of the wings so that it can fly. The struggle and squeezing are essential, but it’s no surprise that the over-riding emotion is fear. Perhaps the butterfly is thinking, “I’m about to squeeze myself out of this cocoon and step into nothingness. Will these wings work?”
Fear can keep us trapped in the messy middle, but we need to be bold and brave as we step out into the new thing.
In May 2006 we announced that the name of Crusaders was going to change to Urban Saints in January 2007. From that moment on, we entered seven months of the messy middle, and even then, the messy middle still overlapped into 2007.
But regardless, there was a defining moment where we decided…”We’re going to do this. Hopefully as many people as possible would come with us, but some people had stopped giving and praying for us, and some volunteers no longer wanted to serve. We can’t wait forever for the new thing to come.”
Former chairman of Intel, Andrew S. Grove, once said…
“There is at least one point in the history of any company when you have to change dramatically to rise to the next performance level. Miss the moment, and you start to decline.”
As we navigate this final stage we must remember two things.
- New beginnings are rooted in faith not certainty.
We never truly know how things are going to pan out. God doesn’t give us guarantees that everything will be ok. If He did, there’d be no faith.
- New beginnings mean new challenges.
The new thing will always have its own bucket of problems. Sometimes we avoid laying hold of the new thing because we expected it to be plain sailing. That’s why the Israelites initially rejected going into the Promised Land. They didn’t expect big cities and giants. But scripture reminds us that new chapters equate to new challenges. As someone once said, new level – new devil!
Leading through change is one of the core responsibilities of a leader, and key challenges in life. I hope and pray that the metaphor of the butterfly will help you understand what’s happening on the journey, equipping you to lead with kindness and confidence, following the pace of Jesus every step of the way.
May God grant you wisdom, courage, and favour as you move on.