Leaders are agents of change.

We change, as Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter has taught us, only when it hurts too much not to change. It is leaders who leverage the points of pain to get people to move forward. When the lever is first applied, the weight of resistance is mighty and so leaders must do it alone. They are sometimes out in front with few people to follow them.

For example, consider the Civil Rights movement. One individual, who led from the front, and not always with much support, was Robert Moses. It was he who initiated and advocated for the Freedom Summer of 1964 when white college kids were recruited to help educate Southern blacks about their voting rights. As Bruce Watson, author ofFreedom Summer, told NPR recently, such an idea was not universally popular among Southern black leaders. But Moses was proven correct. Involvement of Northern whites was essential to creating momentum for the moral imperative that ultimately led to passage of the Civil Rights bills of the mid Sixties.

Leaders, however, cannot get too far in front of their organizations. Many times leaders do fail because they do not bring others along with them. Failure to create followership is sometimes rooted in hubris, the attitude of “my way or the highway” that causes executives to keep their own counsel.

This is what ultimately provoked H-P to oust Carly Fiorina. She had worked hard against corporate headwinds for the merger with Compaq earlier this decade. Eventually however Fiorina’s headstrong demeanor rubbed raw against H-P’s culture that valued collaboration and consensus. In contrast, former CEO Anne Mulcahy of Xerox leveraged the corporate culture to support her plans to reorganize her then struggling company. As a Xerox lifer, Mulcahy worked with her team to develop the right plan and then spent much of her time communicating to all employees.

In business, the need for leaders to rule through consensus is a relatively modern idea. Rule by hierarchy was the norm. This worked well as long as things ran according to plan, as in the high-growth post-War economy. As soon as the need for rapid responses to changing circumstances arose (both inherent in the global economy), the need for decentralized decision making arose. We still need strong leaders, but we need to them to be responsive to change as well as willing to delegate control in order for the organization to succeed.

Leaders ultimately do what the organization needs them to do. In tough times this means that leaders are out front and pushing for changes that initially are unpopular. But with persistence, and with a slowly growing consensus of people who agree and have a stake in the new order, leaders turn goals into results.

First published in Washington Post 9.14.10