21st Century Change Agent: The CEO as a Social Architect by Stephen Long

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Transformation efforts fail due to many reasons. Usually there’s a lack of urgency, or executives underestimate the power of resistance or are just too complacent. The bottom line is that most CEOs fail to master change-agent skills. The 21st Century is proving to be a turbulent, volatile era and chief executives who’ll successfully lead their organizations will have one thing in common—they’ll be the Social Architects of their organization, designing systems for consistent high performance.

The 21st Century Change Agent realizes they’re the one who sets the pace, who sets the structure for behavior. Dividing and then assigning tasks enables employees to fulfill responsibilities and get things done. It’s the establishment of the social architecture—knowingly or unknowingly—that directs people toward objectives. An unskilled social architect creates a culture of “no”, where objectives overshadow results. As a result, employees hold a shortcut mindset in which they believe a new product, service or line of business will save them from extinction. A dysfunctional social architecture distracts everyone from their primary tasks and core business. One thing is certain in the 21st Century—organizations that lose focus lose customers. The 21st Century Change Agent concentrates on one thing and one thing only—customers—keeping and gaining them.

Social Architects align systems designed to accomplish a primary goal. All systems directly or indirectly align people. Ineffective executives rely on some psychology textbook filled with trivialities and theoretical models to build these essential systems. Take Theory X and Theory Y, for example. Any theory that generalizes across all demographics is inherently flawed. There is not one person on the entire planet for which either theory can be applied all the time. Also, neither theory can be universally applied. Any theory which implies it’s always true is not only wrong—it’s also dangerous! Leaders don’t have to choose between the profit motive and human development. The two are bound together—leaders are not only encouraged to use both, but the 21st Century demands it.

The Nucleus of Social Architecture

Douglas McGregor, the creator of Theory X and Theory Y, wrote the following in his landmark book, The Human Side of Enterprise (1960):

“Every managerial act rests on assumptions, generalizations and hypotheses, that is to say on theory about human nature and more specifically about motivation in human nature. Our assumptions are frequently implicit, sometimes quite unconscious, often conflicting. Nevertheless, they determine our predictions. Theory and practice are inseparable.”

Ultimately, it’s the leaders’ beliefs that determine the actions of the workforce. Beliefs are the predecessors of actions—beliefs are built on “…assumptions, generalizations and hypotheses.” Next time you attend a staff meeting, jot down the assumptions—beliefs—about human behavior. You’ll notice a strong relationship between what is believed about people and what executives decide to do. Time clocks are a good example. Management relies on time clocks to make sure blue collar workers arrive on time and doing the agreed upon work in the time specified. Would you ask your spouse or children to punch a clock? Effective parents instill a sense of responsibility and trust in their family relationships, but when it comes to professional relationships, those two timeless qualities are usually the last things that come to mind. The belief is, “The workforce can’t be trusted. We have to create a system where we can check that the people who we work with aren’t screwing us!”

Less trusting relationships are usually formed by experiences outside the organization. Many executives generalize a negative external experience to inside the organization, which results in cynicism and a culture that doesn’t adapt to change effectively. The quest to make a good computer chip, to manufacture a good car, or to make a good anything requires the same exact thing—discipline, ambition, precision, dedication and perseverance—otherwise known as character. The 21st Century is defined by a growing global economy derived from all forms of governments including capitalism, socialism, fascism and communism. However, it’s important to realize that humanism trumps all other ‘isms.’ Social Architects who devise systems leveraging human capital to the fullest degree gain the greatest advantage.

Accountants have devised efficient forms of feedback including profit-loss statements, balance sheets, inventory statements, production reports and quality assessments. These microwave-type feedback mechanisms illustrate systemic effectiveness and efficiency. If the bean counters are going to provide enhanced value in the 21st Century, one of them will devise an accurate and complete report measuring return on investment of human capital. PsychologistAbraham Maslow believed, “…accountants must try to figure some way of turning into balance sheet terms the intangible personal values that come from improving the people of the organization.”

The act of communication derives from the beliefs a person holds; these beliefs determine whether executives apply a democratic or authoritarian leadership style. Authoritarian executives don’t ask, listen or solicit honest and open feedback. Rather, they dictate, order and pronounce without obtaining clear and complete feedback, evaluation or gaining any valid knowledge of how the system is actually working. When they do look for data, it’s usually in the form that supports only their point of view. Authoritarian executives believe they know enough—they fail to learn unless they’re forced to.

Social Architects aspiring to apply the democratic leadership model have a profound respect for human capital. They have an eagerness to listen rather than demonstrating an aversion to or façade of paying attention. They believe people have a higher nature that can continuously be developed. They experience not only psychic rewards from helping people grow; they realize it’s the most efficient way to grow the organization. Authoritarian executives reject fellowship with their workforce, whereas democratic leaders actively seek out healthy relationships for both the profit motive and human development. Democratic leaders believe they can continuously learn because their people are an educational resource.

Orchestrating From Behind the Curtain

Social Architects understand their organization and how it works. They know who says what to whom and what kinds of actions are taking place. Social Architects govern the way people act, but not in a domineering manner. Principles of high performance are subtly transmitted that bind the organization together.

Social Architects:

  • Create the understanding, participation and execution of the change
  • Generate the commitment to principles and values toward the change
  • Present a shared interpretation of organizational events, teaching people how they are expected to behave
  • Serve as a control mechanism, rewarding and reinforcing required behavior to accomplish the change
  • Provide the context and system of change that brings about commitment from all stakeholders

Whether they know it or not, executives devise a social architecture that either progresses or limits the change effort. Some are too hard (authoritarian) and some are too soft (autonomous)—the key is to understand what type of people you have and what they respond to best. An entire range of leadership strategies exists between authoritarian and participative management approaches.

Some executives rely on rules as a form of control, others seek consensus over compliance, while others use discussion as a basis for decisions. Executives don’t fit nicely into a box. No executive is a purebred—everyone is a mutt—and they adopt leadership strategies from here, there and everywhere. They use what works for them rather than conforming to a particular theory. Any change in the management process, organizational structure and leadership style must all support the desired end—change. Words, symbols, communication, recruiting and training don’t go far enough. Beliefs must be changed in order for actions to change. Only then will change occur and take hold. 21st Century Change Agents turn intention into action. It’s not just altering the organizational mission. It’s not just altering the organizational chart. It’s not just altering the human resource systems. Social Architects engineer the political and cultural forces that drive the entire organizational system. They take full advantage of the opportunity. They don’t delegate this responsibility. Social Architects personally drive this process more than any other because beliefs drive the organization.

21st Century Change

Last century, executives approached change through top-down communication where they were reactive, remedial and rehabilitative. The big mistake was focusing on big, hairy, audacious change that resulted in painful resistance and cynicism. They learned the hard lessons of team-building.

In an effort to achieve organizational evolution, 20th Century executives attempted to create harmony and cohesiveness. Instead of reaching cohesiveness, at best they created massive groupthink by facilitating a sense of tribalism and survivalism. People came away with the belief that “our human group is superior to others.” This is not only evidenced in the corporate world, but is equally apparent in politics, religion and sports. Openness goes out the window when people believe they have found the “truth.”

The 20th Century approach to change led to work overload and burnout. Employees became cynical and lost trust in leadership. Middle managers were isolated—they became too independent at the expense of critical interdependent relationships. Change initiatives were received with skepticism. Instead of slogans that generated positive energy like “Remember the Alamo”, the unofficial motto for change was “BOHICA—Bend Over, Here It Comes Again!”

21st Century Change Agents are proactive and performance oriented—internally aware and externally focused. The primary purpose of the 21st Century organization is to generate value for their stakeholders through the creation of effective solutions. Change is invigorating rather than painful. People are enthusiastic about the opportunities to contribute rather than wasting energy putting up resistance.

Managing Interdependent Relationships

People need each other. Hierarchy matters less now in the 21st Century because of two primary factors. First is diversity. People have different goals, motivations, values, background, personality, communication styles and beliefs. Second, interdependence exists in a greater degree throughout organizations. Interdependence occurs when two or more people have power over each because ironically they depend on each other to accomplish their own personal objectives. As opposed to 20th Century organizations, power is now derived from developing and strengthening cooperative relationships with superiors, peers, subordinates and external stakeholders such as suppliers and clients. The greater the dependence found within multiple relationships, the greater the interdependence and hence greater the power one garners throughout the organizational system.

The 20th Century organizational chart looked like this:

Not only is the traditional org chart unproductive and ineffective, it’s also based in theory, not practical application. In what organization do people influence only those who are in the boxes connected to them? 21st Century org charts are based on reality:

The 21st Century requires a new model to manage relationships and the interdependencies that exist within an organization.

Interdependent relationships are demonstrated when people gain an understanding of another person and themselves in terms of strengths, weaknesses, works styles and needs. Both people then use the information in a healthy, productive manner. Interdependent relationships meet the needs of each person and are characterized by compatible work styles, assets and mutually agreed upon expectations.

People who hold authentic power in the 21st Century organization are able to manage up, down, across and outside the organization—power is achieved by gaining cooperation without formal authority. Managing relationships is tested by the willingness and ability to deal not just with individuals, but also with human systems comprising of many inherent interdependencies among and between stakeholders throughout an organization. Social Architects establish systems where all employees—managerial, technical and professional—are not only competent in the area of expertise, but also more importantly have mastered the skills of interdependent relationships. Expecting competent work from employees in their primary fields is no longer sufficient in the 21st Century. Fast-track executives think of their jobs as providing leadership through their expertise, even though the people they lead probably don’t report to them.

Social Architects create environments where built-in, unavoidable conflicts lead to creative solutions instead of roadblocks. Destructive power struggles, bureaucratic infighting and parochial politics are minimized. Social Architects who successfully implement change experience technological breakthroughs, innovative products and services, greater return on investment and a good place to work.

Empathy is vital to productive interdependent relationship. Not only do people need to understand their own works styles, strengths, weakness and communication styles, they must also be aware of others. Only then will they be able to match needs, styles and expectations. Through transparency and honesty, interdependent relationships take an organization to the next level of performance. Cooperation and awareness are the building blocks for consistency.

The Change Paradox

Social Architects devise systems that help employees manage the inherent paradox between change and stability. Change initiatives are proposed to preserve and improve the quality of life within organizations. Successful change is illustrated by preserving the best of what has preceded and moving toward a profitable future. It’s proactive, not reactive. It’s developmental, not instrumental. It’s holistic, not segmented. It’s appreciative, not evaluative. It’s hopeful, not filled with despair and fear.

The term “change” implies a final destination. Another term should be used because change is one of two primary forces of life—and the other being “stability.”

C – O – N – T – I – N – U – I – T – Y

Continuity is a process of continuous, but relatively small change efforts. Continuity reduces anxiety and develops skills that change initiatives demand. Continuity is not a binary choice. Continuity provides a range of options along the change-stability continuum. Continuity provides meaning, learning opportunities, and a collective experience where people experience trust, enthusiasm and dependability. Social Architects connect the past to the future. 21stCentury Change Agents utilize continuity to move their organizations toward achievement while maintaining its sense of history. Continuity enables Social Architects to manage the inherent challenges of the change paradox—fuse two ends of apparent polar opposites.

The Latin root of “continue” translates to “hold together.” Social Architects examine the genesis of their organization and identify the principles and values that held the company together not only during its start-up period, but also when it faced its toughest challenges. It may be found in:

  • The core enterprise—what you do
  • Business practices—how you do it
  • The founder’s vision—what he or she wanted
  • The firms trademark product or service—what the marketplace identifies you with
  • The organization’s culture—the collective belief system

The goal is to define the relationship between the past and the present. Social Architects move their organizations forward by understanding where they’ve been, where they are and how they got there. Continuity enables Social Architects to transfer what was valued in the past and apply these values to current situations. That, by definition, is holding the organization together rather than ripping it apart by the seams as is experienced by most change initiatives. Breaking down the organization then building it back up again is a 20th Century approach that’s expensive in terms of both financial and human capital.

Social Architects identify the ways in which the organization works best—the guiding principles by which the leader runs the company. Principles are the bedrock of the organization. Principles are stable, whereas practices can, should and will change, depending on current demands. The 21st Century Change Agent then moves the organization forward by employing continuity tools. These enable the organization to evolve while remaining true to its principled foundation.

At the heart of change is individual performance improvement. Social Architects employ a system of high performance that’s not only valid and proven, but also measurable. Social Architects reengineer the collective belief system that opens the pathways to change. Most change initiatives dismiss and devalue the individual contribution to cultural change. They work from a macro-theoretical view. Social Architects recognize that long-lasting change starts individually by getting people to understand how they work best and what they need to do to progress the organization. Continuity begins with a micro-pragmatic view, empowering individuals and then spreads throughout the entire company in an organizational tidal wave.


Water rises to its own level. Every leader is a social architect, designing the systems that define behavior and attitudes, therefore determining the type of culture within their organization. 21st Century Change Agents provide a system where individuals express their talents to the fullest degree possible, while the organization receives the contribution it needs to meet market demands. The organization will only rise to the level of the competency of its leader. Social Architects position their organizations for the opportunities and challenges the 21st Century presents—all others will wash away in the turbulence of white water.


As founder and president of The Institute for Level Six Leadershipand author of the critically acclaimed book, GOLD!: Applying Level Six Performance to Capture the Runaway American Dream, Dr. Stephen Long has proven that leadership is a learned skill built upon inherent strengths. Through his work with champion athletes, top salespeople and corporate executives, Dr. Long has helped permanently raise corporate and team productivity from adequate — to outstanding. Level Six Leadership™ is a breakthrough social operating system that immediately enhances an organization’s productivity and efficiency. Applying his coaching and leadership techniques, Long’s coaching has helped a variety of companies realize a significant increase in performance.

Contact him at doclong@levelsixleadership.com

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