05/24/2012 06:41 pm ET Updated Jul 24, 2012

Change's Darkest Moment

With every significant organizational change effort, there comes a time, usually about six months into the initiative, when the full weight of what is required to make the change happen is painfully apparent to the change agents. The stress of doing two full-time jobs (keeping the business running while changing it at the same time) is taking its toll. It can be a very dark moment for the leaders who truly believe in the change. It is draining to see what you judge to be little progress, given so much effort. It's no wonder that even good leaders end up watering down large change initiatives. It's hard work.

This is the exact moment you need to reframe your expectations to something closer to reality when it comes to pace, speed, and capacity. And when my client or I am at this point, I pull out the following analogy from my personal life to help calibrate the situation. I'm sure you have your own version. There's nothing like a good analogy to pull you through. Here's how mine goes.

A few years back I signed up for a four-day, rim-to-rim hike in the Grand Canyon. I thought I did enough training and conditioning ahead of time, only to find out that the combination of a 40 pound pack on my back, narrow, rocky trails, inadequate hiking boots and sheer, exposed drop-offs (see Fear of Heights) would put me in a mindset of gripping panic. For three days I could only think about all the ways I was going to die in the Grand Canyon and that tape ran in an endless loop, 24/7.

Finally the morning of the last day arrived. No sleep for three nights, soaring heat, glaring sun, blisters all over my feet, and calf muscles still aching from two days of downhill hiking (the worst), It would be the shortest distance (5 miles) of the four days but with the highest elevation gain (3500 feet), starting off from Indian Gardens campground. I still remember looking towards the wall of the canyon and seeing the top the South Rim and "safety." I heard myself say, I know there is a trail that will take me up there, it's been there for hundreds of years, thousands of people have hiked it. But is the trail really there? I can't see it snaking its way along the canyon wall. How can it be there if I can't see it, I foolishly told myself?

In my panic, the only solution I could come up with was to walk as far as I could see the trail right in front of me and trust that around the bend, the next stretch of trail would show itself. I forced myself to only think about putting one foot in front of the other. I rested when necessary. I drank and ate when I needed. And I accepted people's offers to lighten my load, as my hiking companions so generously did for me. But I never stopped climbing up the trail. Just keep moving, I told myself, no matter how slow or embarrassing it is that a big, grown man like myself is terrified he won't make it out of the Grand Canyon.

And every time I find myself in change's darkest moment, I remind myself that it does me no good to succumb to the fear of "I don't think I can do this," as I did during those four days in the Grand Canyon. I need to update my reality. That's when I tell myself "You can do this" because I did then and I can now. Simply by focusing what I can see ahead of me, taking one step at a time, and keep climbing. Wait 'til you see the view from up there.


I need to correct a statement I made in my blog a few weeks back. After reading The Rush of Leadership, the real Megan contacted me (so much for my literary disguising ability) to provide me feedback. We talked about our different perspectives on the situations I referred to in my column and she gave me the benefit of her viewpoint. I left the conversation appropriately chastened, particularly regarding the following statement, "and she's a terrible leader because she hasn't learned the key lesson when it comes to being a leader." The histrionics of that statement does Megan a huge disservice. She showed me that true leaders are always working to be the best leaders they can be.