Over twenty-five years ago when I began working in the field of organizational development (which as a translation is essentially helping organizations change and grow) I have to admit I had it all wrong.  As many competitive high-achievers approach learning something new, I would take every class and certification I could find to learn as much as I possibly could, build my competence in the field, and seek to become the best practitioner anyone had ever known.  I wanted to learn practical tips and techniques to apply immediately and help the organizations I was working in become more productive and navigate through change effectively.

In one of my organizational development classes, an instructor who was clearly much wiser than I was at the time introduced a notion that she posited as the real foundation of all change work.

“This work is not about having a bag of techniques,” she asserted.

“A musician uses a piano as an instrument and learns to play it masterfully.  In this line of work, you are the instrument.  You use yourself and how you interact with the system and the people in it as the agent for change.  Honing yourself as your instrument and playing it masterfully is the most important thing you can do to be good at this work.”


Even as someone who is highly intuitive and loves metaphors and poetry and hidden meanings and innuendos, I didn’t quite get it.  I was seeking tangible exercises and assessments I could plan out, use, and prescribe to the teams I was working with.  How could me showing up and trusting that I would just know what to do and say in response to the dynamics in the moment even be a possibility?  How could I be the instrument?  Wasn’t that egocentric to think anyway?

The strongly practical, results- oriented side of me rebelled against her assertion and I chalked her up as someone who obviously hadn’t worked in “real” organizations like I had.

Just a couple years later, I got it.

I had been teaching leaders in organizations basic leadership skills and realized that all the best management and leadership training in the world wasn’t going to cause them be real leaders.  They could use all the techniques and apply all the theories they had learned in their classes and “act” like leaders.  But to really be leaders, they had to do much deeper work on themselves.  They had to continuously look into a mirror at the darkest parts of their reflections and learn how to get beyond their own egos.  They had to realize that leadership was service, and in order to serve, they had to put aside their own defenses and really connect with and listen to those who they were serving.  They had to assess people and situations and learn to influence them to achieve a collective goal—rather than just tell them to.  They had to model for others what it meant to be a real leader.  They themselves were indeed the “instruments” of organizational change.

This realization many years ago not only changed me and how I approach my work but it also impacted its quality and impact.  It deepened it to a level beyond what I expected.

I am clear that in any change work you do, whether it is organizational, leadership, or personal, there is a key instrument that you need to hone along the way in order to have a meaningful impact.

That instrument is YOU.

You must spend time not only learning about the concepts and theories and competencies, but about yourself.  Look in the mirror often and ask others to give you feedback on the reflection of how you show up each day and how you interact with others.

What behaviors do you exhibit as a person as you interact with others?

Are you a deep listener?

Do you merely transmit your opinions all the time, or do you learn from others by asking lots of curious questions with intent to learn?

Do you have a handle on the impact of your automatic responses?

Are you aware of your own emotions and do you self-monitor their expression?

Are the motivations behind your actions self-serving?

Must you “win” at all costs?

Do you adapt your behaviors and style to what is needed for the situation and people at hand?

Identify ways to work on your own self-awareness and self-management—in other words, ways to hone your instrument.  There are many facets to this and it is indeed a life-long endeavor, but here are three to think about right away:

1      Deepen Your Listening

We all know that listening is not just hearing.  Being fully present with someone and giving your undivided attention to what you are hearing is one piece.  A deeper piece of listening is being tuned into everything that is being said and not being said.  Observing facial expressions, body language, energy quality—and all the other unspoken nuances that are happening while things are being said.  Deep listening is the ability to pick up on the mood, tone, and underlying messages that aren’t even spoken.  In order to do this, you have to practice tuning deeply into the other person or people you are listening to and keenly observe the interaction space.  You also have to practice making the space for others to talk.  If you are constantly talking or thinking about what to say next, that space just isn’t there.

2      Keep Your Ego in Check

You can’t help others change and do what is best for the collective if everything is about you.  We all know leaders who spend the entire time you interact with them talking about themselves.  We hear only about how brilliant they are, how they did things in the past, and their opinions on everything.  Me, me, and more me.  I have even met a few organizational development consultants and coaches who exhibit the same behavior.  How can you make the space for organizational growth and change if everything is about you?  (And the profound news flash here—it really isn’t.)

Your ability to separate yourself from people and situations and observe them from afar is critical.  The mantra to repeat for this one is, “It’s not about me.”  Try to look at things as if you had nothing personal to gain from your actions.  Would you still make the same recommendations?

3      Notice and Manage Your Emotions

As human beings, we all get angry, annoyed, frustrated, and experience an assortment of emotions all the time.  Allowing ourselves to be consumed by them puts us into a reactive place.  It is difficult to influence when we are consumed by anger or personal frustration.  Learning to notice our own emotions, name them, and look at them from afar is a critical piece of managing them.  When you acknowledge that an interaction is making you feel angry, just stating to yourself that you notice it has a calming affect.  Learning to observe your own feelings and separate them from the situation allows you to make choices about your subsequent behavior.  You deliberately can choose your reaction and the best response for the situation, rather than have your emotion react for you.

Self-development is a continuous journey for all of us.  Each of us is an instrument that can be a catalytic force for change.  How we each show up in the situations we are in and with the people we are trying to influence has an immense impact, whether we realize it or not.

I am sure  that what Ghandi was trying to convey to us with those simple yet oh so profound words:

Be the change you want to see in the world.”

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Leave me a comment or send me a note about your experience honing yourself as an instrument of change…