Superheroes are dumb ideas — big, bold, brightly-colored dumb ideas. They are what happens when pure, unfettered imagination encounters our world as it is, finds it wanting, and conjures something to fix it. Something joyous and colorful, something that can perform astounding feats, something that – crucially – is looking out for us. That’s all a superhero is: something wonderful that’s got our backs. – Glen Weldon ‘Floating Eyeballs, Trained Bees: History’s Most Cringeworthy Crusaders’
Change Agents can often feel that they are expected to be superheroes. Organisations can create unrealistic expectations of those leading change. Change Agents aren’t super heroes. They are ordinary humans who do unlikely things together for the benefits of all.
Leap Buildings in a Single Bound
Change Agents like superheroes see the world find it wanting and conjure up something to fix it. They need extraordinary capabilities because they step forward to take on the tough challenges. They look out for others and in so doing take on awesome responsibilities.
The difference with a superhero is that the extraordinary capabilities in a Change Agent are not physical ones that can be “big bold brightly coloured dumb ideas”. The extraordinary capabilities of a change agent are spirit, compassion, intelligence, purpose and initiative.
Change Agents are the people who act when others won’t. They act when permission is ambiguous or even absent. That takes a robust spirit & all the nous you can muster.
Superheroes have a lot of capabilities to stand and defeat their enemies’ bullets. Change Agents aren’t that lucky. They have only one choice. Don’t get hit. Stop people firing and if they must fire then move fast out of the way.
Change Agents sign up for the challenge knowing that at some point the bullets will hit. They hope they can get far enough down the path for the damage to be minimal or at least the project to survive the bruising impacts. Bullets are inevitable. The success of the project depends on momentum and agility.
Mutant Powers with an Unlikely Source
I ran a transformation program and a member of my team started referring to my influence in stakeholder engagement as ‘Jedi mind tricks’. I wasn’t relying on the midi-chlorians of the Force to warp people’s minds. The reality was far more mundane. Most of the influence came from three simple features of those conversations:
- I prepared for each conversation by seeking to understand the stakeholders position first
- I listened carefully, questioned and probed for common ground
- I had confidence in my project, its purpose and the work we had done
Sadly these features of conversation may be uncommon but they are not a rare mutation. Every Change Agent I have met has similar sources of their extraordinary effectiveness in driving change. They do the little uncommon things consistently well. They focus on and leverage the human potential to make change.
Change Agents deal with greater complexity of change than your average superhero. There is no single villain or arch-enemy. Challenges don’t come one at a time. Changing systems is far more complex than saving the world in the pages of a comic. Why? Because the people involved in changing those systems are real three-dimensional people with their own complex agendas, histories and needs.
League of Justice
Superheroes are a lonely lot. Sure they have a few sidekicks. Occasionally they band together to form a quarrelsome league or a partnership where there is more often conflict within than without. Extraordinary physical gifts are isolating and often create extraordinary egos. There’s plenty of literature on the similarity of our superhero fantasies and the fantasies of the dictators of our totalitarian states.
Change Agents understand that networks are their best ally and a great way to overcome personal limitations. They seek to leverage all the human potential that they can to create change. They inspire and lead movements to bring others to help with changing the world. More importantly they are in service of the purpose of the network, not dictating it. Change Agents have everyone’s back too.
Creating super hero expectations for Change Agents is dangerous for the individuals and for the change. Treat them like humans but support their extraordinary powers for change.