Looking Back as a Way Forward: Bruce Avolio’s Organizational Transformation Research Presented to the University of Edinburgh

Written by Bruce Avolio

I had an opportunity to visit the city of Edinburgh in late January to present my newest research on organizational transformation to the University of Edinburgh. No one would accuse you of going to Edinburgh this time of year to enjoy the weather, as it is much like Seattle in terms of short days and ‘some’ rain. However, it is perhaps one of the best times to go to this amazing city, in that you can get a hotel room/apartment on High Street, right in the heart of ‘old town’, for $100 per night with panoramic views of the old and new towns.

Scotland has a deep and long history and everywhere you go this is evident. The new town in Edinburgh is older then founding of the United States. The old town is threaded with little alleyways called a close, where you can walk between buildings and end up in a garden, a pub and/or meeting a person playing a guitar! The Scottish people that I met on the streets surrounding the university or in town were friendly. They were also in the midst of considering a referendum to separate from England again, so there is a bit of angst in the air.

Scotland Poster

One of my presentations was at the university, which was sponsored by the Business School. The group in attendance included executives from the public (e.g., National Health Services, university administrators, etc.) and private sectors (e.g., Royal Bank of Scotland, J&J, etc.), executive MBA students, alumni, faculty, and doctoral students. I started my presentation on organizational transformation where I asked the participants to assume the voice of their organization. I then asked them to tell me what they would say, ‘if they were the organization’ and asked to change. I cold-called about seven people from various organizations and one after the other each person gave a rather negative response.

I can say with confidence that one would not find too much of a difference on this side of the pond in terms of reactions to organizational change, which according to evolutionary history, is inevitable. (Please see my picture above of the Royal Scots and how they had to change) Indeed, one of my reasons for writing my 12th book, which is forthcoming this spring with Stanford University Press, was to try and challenge the notion that organizations can’t change.

Parliament Building

I have always been impacted by the context in which I live and visit in terms of my thinking about leadership and organizations. Visiting the magnificent and ancient Edinburgh Castle reinforced how history and context are so important to strategic thinking. You have to look back to advance forward. For example, in the many wars the Royal Scots served, the memorial museum displayed over the centuries how the technology of war had evolved so significantly over time. However, one aspect of war that has not changed is what we call in our U.S. Military the Warrior Ethos: “[never] leave a fallen comrade behind.” This was also displayed in war after war and in battle after battle that the Royal Scots served. I concluded that this might even be considered a first principle of how the best organizations and militaries throughout history have built the best cultures – one warrior taking home another warrior who couldn’t return on their own because of being wounded or killed in battle. There were countless honors bestowed recognizing the Warrior Ethos long before the United States existed.

The Cavern Liverpool

Before leaving the UK, I was able to stop in Liverpool, to do what you do in Liverpool you go see where the Beatles started. If you have not been to Liverpool, go. Liverpool is an amazing city focused on culture, arts, and music, as one would guess in large part due to the Fab Four. Thirty years ago, it looked like Detroit on a very bad day!

I will leave you with some pictures of Edinburgh and Liverpool to enjoy. I am adding in the dog cemetery at the Edinburgh castle, as the Scots not only honored their fallen comrades they had the good sense to honor their fallen dogs, too!

Dog Cemetary