The DNA of Change: Secret Ingredient - Good Leadership

The following speech was presented by Carolyn Barker AM FAIM, Chief Executive Officer of AIM Qld & NT, at the LGMA Annual State Conference in Rockhampton on 24 October 2007.

Being a leader is a tremendous responsibility. People rely on you explicitly or implicitly. They watch you. They watch the way you communicate. They listen to what the informal networks are telling them about you…in short you are as public a figure to them as the nightly newsreader. Now that's pressure!

So what is leadership? It's a reciprocal relationship, based on influence, not coercion or command and control. It is about "going somewhere together". To this end, AIM's definition of leadership is "the engagement of followers (others) in the pursuit of shared goals". Underpinning this forward-oriented view is the concept of leading through constant change, 100% ever present, macro and micro change.

The success of leadership intervention during change will depend on the "inner condition" that we exhibit as change leaders, and that in turn will depend on who we are and what characteristics we display as we lead.

Now let's talk about the concept of DNA.

DNA molecules carry the instructions for making all the structures and materials the body needs to function well, or in some cases, not so well. It is the genetic blueprint that determines the features of a cell, a body and, we would propose, an organisation. As with humans each entity is unique, different from the next and made up of that fragile combination of molecules that is like no other.

In our minds this represents the culture – the script that tells people "that's the way we do things around here".1 This can be done by discovering, describing, talking about and leveraging organisational DNA – the invisible building blocks of leadership, innovation, team performance, communication, processes and policies that come together to create the unique organisation.

The challenge is therefore, the ability to read change signals accurately in real time, link those signals to leadership action and frame the basic principles that hold the organisation together under chaotic circumstances.

But how do we lead effectively through change? There are dozens of sound leadership models in existence, but I would like to share a leadership framework that is Australian in orientation, and now validated through research. This framework suggests an approach that is about the individual gaining personal mastery that is recognised by others who then willingly follow. It is original work that Professor James Sarros from Monash University and I have been working on for the past 5 years.

We call it The Virtuous Leadership Framework and it was developed here in Australia. It is made up of seven characteristics that leaders at all levels should possess: courage, integrity, humility, compassion, passion, wisdom and humour.2 The basic proposition is to accept that good leaders create positive environments, and positive environments breed real change. Good leadership can be learned and, while that's not always an easy journey, developing and exercising these leadership characteristics can be an act of will every minute of every day.

But this is academic stuff, I hear you say to yourselves…

No, I need your energy and your total concentration because good leadership, a strong personal plan and an understanding of the DNA of Change is going to set the scene for this conference. I'm going to take you through the seven virtues and I ask that you think about yourself in respect to each of them.


To use courage is to set the direction for the long term and then doing what you believe to be the right thing to take people along with you. It is a characteristic I hear most about in a leadership context. It is not about the total absence of fear, but rather the courage of conviction to step up or speak out… and that's sometimes hard, even career limiting.

Other words to describe courage – bravery, commitment, conviction, faith, fortitude, hard work, hope, loyalty, perseverance, self reliance

In periods of enforced and or structural change, courage in formal leaders is paramount.


In essence, integrity is doing what you say you will do , walking your talk. It is not just about morals, ethics or standards – these are prerequisites. Instead, integrity is about adherence. The absence of integrity leads to the lack of trust, suspicion, paranoia and toxic workplaces.

In an Australian context, one often hears the descriptor "honesty" coupled with good leadership. Honesty is a cousin to integrity and is best defined as consistently being truthful with others.

Other words to describe integrity – authenticity, diligence, ethics, equity, fairness, honesty, justice, rectitude, responsibility, trust, truthfulness.

In terms of the DNA of Change, the leader's integrity is examined every moment of every day – more so within the heat of major upheaval.


To lead with humility is about accepting rank (for example formal leadership) and then using it on behalf of others. At the same time it is about having a modest sense of one's own significance… but it is not about standing in the background or not speaking up.

Instead, leadership with humility involves channelling ambition into what is being built, instead of into your ego. Guess what… this is a behaviour that can be practised and therefore learned.

Other words to describe humility – compromise, cooperation, flexibility, humbleness, modesty, respect, responsiveness, self-effacement.

Jim Collins talks about Level 5 leaders being "in the background", without ego, humble but strongly focussed and strategic agile".3


This is defined as deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it. To lead with compassion is to afford to o the rs that which we value ourselves. It is not solely about empathy, sympathy or kindness (though it embraces all three). Showing compassion is not a sign of weakness either, because great and generous people exercise compassion.

In a leadership role, compassion is about listening and responding, and thinking through the ramifications of every one of your actions.

Other words to describe compassion – caring, charity, empathy, friendship, generosity, humanity, kindness, love, responsiveness, social intelligence, tolerance.

In the midst of change – downsizing, rightsizing, shape alteration and organisational re-alignment – a leader who shows compassion is remembered for a very long time even through the most difficult of circumstances and under the pressure of delivering the most difficult of messages.


Is a source of unlimited energy from heart, spirit or soul that can enable leaders to produce extraordinary results. Passion is not unbridled or undisciplined emotion. Rather, it is enthusiasm and desire tempered with reason. Passion is what motivates others. Passion is about creativity and through it creating an organisation that understands the value of innovation and renewal…especially in times of change.

Other words to describe passion – drive, motivation, perseverance, spirituality, vision, zest.


As a virtue, wisdom is defined as integrating experience and knowledge, and then expressing them in action. Wisdom's starting point is a knowledge of self. This may be accomplished by choosing a philosophical or spiritual path and making it your own. I would propose that you can learn to be wise. Wisdom is something that most people would consider in others but not in self.

Other words to describe wisdom – knowledge, love of learning, open-mindedness, self-knowledge / control / discipline / regulation


Finally, humour is the ability to see situations from a comedic perspective to the extent that it impacts wellbeing. Humour as a leadership characteristic is the ability to see the lighter side of a situation especially if it is a painful or tense predicament. But it is more than jokes, gags and laughter.

Humour is a virtue because it can enhance personal and organisational well being. In business terms, humour allows leaders to increase morale and productivity, drive culture and streng then alignment.

Other words to describe humour – fun, perspective, playfulness, light heartedness

Do these words and definitions sound like they're all about the soft stuff? Well they are not. Virtues are character traits, formed from our personal values and beliefs, forged through our life experiences and influences. But in the end they are of little worth unless they translate into behaviour.

Exercising character led leadership involves an act of will. Depending on your own personal style and experiential set, these seven virtues can and should be accessed and applied as the situation demands. This can often take vigilance, hard work and practice, but some of this stuff does not come naturally.

Now for a practical approach incorporating transformational change…this is an AIM perspective and is based on the current view that leaders need to apply principles of self organisation by searching for organisation specific DNA of Change Leadership.4

There is no one "cure all" for change management, however there is a need to move away from finding an inflexible change approach that is essentially a "one size fits all".

Use this list below to create your own approach incorporating your own situational inputs:

  • Start with self. (Master the virtuous leadership model.)
  • Find the natural starting point. (The leadership team first, other important influences and stakeholders a close second.)
  • Channel change. (In challenging the status quo, ensure people have their say.)
  • Understand sponsors and opponents of change. (The 20/50/30 Rule.)
  • Set the conditions up front. (Be clear on the overall direction and some focusing ground rules/governing ideas.)
  • Describe the new order again and again. (Create the rationale and context and lead from the front.)
  • Recalibrate the change program and start again. (Re-stimulate ownership, learning, experimentation and wins.)4

In summary, change initiatives are not linear. At some point leaders must institutionalise the new order. Those change ideas that have survived the culture need to be imbedded in the organisation's systems, structures, inductions, core competences, management behaviour and strategic intent.

Your task as leader is to transform your organisation by influencing and changing the way people think and behave across the organisation over time. There is a common misconception of those leading change that a new order of things will be accepted just because it is a "good idea".

Total ownership of the change agenda will increase only if people have had their say. Even if a new structure is mandated or a new direction is imposed, there is room to move within those parameters. It is individual leadership capability, and I would propose character-led leadership is the secret ingredient in the DNA of Change.

References :

1. Barker, C (Ed.), DNA@Work, John Wiley & Sons, 2007

2. Barker, C and Coy, R (Eds), Seven Heavenly Virtues of Leadership, McGraw-Hill, 2003

3. Collins, J, Good to Great, Random House Business Books, 2001

4. Karp, I, "Transforming Organisations for Organic Growth: The DNA of Change Leadership", Journal of Change Management, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 3-20, March 2006

Note :

"Chaos theory deals with the behaviour of complex nonlinear dynamical systems that (under certain conditions) exhibit the phenomenon known as chaos. Chaos theory is a way of thinking about the behaviour of interacting agents, which sheds further light on the processes of cooperation, coherence, self-organising and adaptation. Systems that exhibit chaos are also deterministic and thus orderly in some sense; this technical use of the word chaos is at odds with common parlance, which suggests complete disorder".4