If you’ve ever tried to initiate a significant change, you’ve probably found that logic and rational thinking is no match for a lack of interest, commitment or focus. It’s like trying to push a piece of string; the quality of the string doesn’t matter, if it doesn’t have the right backing the string will just meander all over the place with little purposeful direction.

For twenty years or more, we have talked about employee engagement; that the way to get an organization to perform or learn is to tap into the hearts and minds of the workers. To get them motivated and thinking for themselves and passionate about what they do and to engender the kind of loyalty that transcends benefits packages and employee of the month programs.

Some organizations have made some headway in this regard but without leadership engagement it’s largely a superficial and somewhat hypocritical initiative. Why should employees be engaged if the leaders don’t show up? Or if they do show up, they do so in a way that is out of touch, unprepared or too busy to add value. What sort of example or platform does this provide for real and sustainable change?

A woeful one at best.

One that is likely to lead to initiatives that go nowhere and achieve little. Projects that produce impressive PowerPoint presentations and powerful insights that decision makers don’t bother to read or give the sort of attention to which reflects the effort that was put into their creation. It’s like a tacky form of cultural glue that keeps the organization stuck where it is, unable to break out of its own tactical tailspin.

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

~ Ghandi

Indifference is insidious no matter the level of the organization where it is manifested. It doesn’t just make the carrier blind to everything they’re missing, it affects everyone it touches and slowly and cumulatively eats away at their motivation as well. When the indifference is demonstrated by a visible leader or a leader who holds the power to make change happen, it can be a showstopper. If you suspect you might be one such leader, stop thinking about employee engagement for a moment and take the time for some honest and personal reflection. Look at the beast and realize what you bring to the table.

There are theories abound about why leaders aren’t engaged. Even with initiatives they’re willing to spend scarce resources on, sometimes millions of dollars. The theories range from banal (such as a lack of manners or arrogance) to the credible (such as the pressures on time and focus created by the need to deliver to short-term shareholder expectations) but the theories don’t change much in reality over the longer term. And neither do the initiatives intended to correct them – better selection processes, more leadership training or lucrative (for the consultants) cultural awareness programs.

None of these things are new and all of them have been pondered by psychologists and sociologists for decades but such pontification does little to actually change the situation. They happen all over the world, in organizations large and small, with people of all races, genders and political affiliations. The clues may be in the people themselves but the clues might also be red herrings and we must look further to the systemic patterns that enable, reward or sustain such dysfunction.

Ghandi was wise to know that personal and social transformation are inextricably linked. The same goes for organizations. You cannot simply change the leader and expect the organization to change. This goes back to the mythical or romantic notion of an all-powerful leader, a Steve Jobs-esque figure, who has the charisma or intellect to shift ingrained dynamics that prevent or enable transformation. It’s unrealistic and upon deeper investigation doesn’t even have robust evidence to support it. They are just fables that appeal to our desire for quick fix solutions, which can lead to quick fix solutions that quickly fail.

So where do we begin? With the acknowledgment that personal transformation is not enough. Leadership matters but it doesn’t work in a vacuum. We cannot blame our leaders for a lack of engagement anymore than we should blame our employees. Blame is futile. It may satisfy our need for an explanation or a home for our righteousness but don’t use it in the business case template and risk inflaming defensiveness or combative behavior. Think deeper and think wider – actually look at the systems that perpetuate the status quo and bring attention to those. Be prepared for the longer journey and expect that a backlash may leave you personally scarred because the more you push, the more the system pushes back. Change that is worth making rarely comes easily. It takes persistence and discipline and the willingness to suspend judgment and show vulnerability instead.