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Book Summary: The Heart of Transformation – Build the Human Capabilities That Change Organizations for Good

The Heart of Transformation (2021) is a how-to guide for changing an organization. It focuses on six specific capabilities that leaders can adopt to meet the demands of the twenty-first century.

Introduction: Learn six capabilities that can transform your organization for the better.

Technology – especially digital technology – has changed the way we do business. Many of the old rules of the game no longer apply. Unfortunately, most organizations are still abiding by them, too stubborn or shortsighted to change direction.

Just consider General Electric. For more than a century, it was a stalwart of the economy – a titan of American industry that seemed untouchable. Then, in a few short years, it was shaken to its core and needed to be rebuilt from the bottom up.

The case of General Electric illustrates just how fickle the modern economy can be. But this summary to Michael Leckie’s The Heart of Transformation is here to help.

We’ll explore how organizations can use six transformative capabilities to build resilience in the fast-paced and unpredictable nature of this new era. You’ll also learn how to incorporate these actions into your company through a series of questions that pertain to each capability.

Book Summary: The Heart of Transformation - Build the Human Capabilities That Change Organizations for Good

Exploring before executing

So, how do you transform an organization for the better? The first step is to explore before you execute. To be clear, there isn’t anything wrong with executing per se. Execution simply means carrying out a plan or course of action – and every business relies on execution to some degree.

But fixating on execution becomes a problem when the needs of an organization change. Execution is all about sticking to the plan. Trouble arises when the plans that fixed yesterday’s problems don’t work for today’s. More specifically, leaders get stuck when they refuse to question whether once-useful strategies are still viable.

This is where exploring comes in. You have to ask whether the systems and practices of old still work, or whether they need revising. It can be hard for leaders to challenge the ideas they once championed. But this kind of exploration is exactly the type of leadership that results in transformation.

So, what does exploring before executing look like in practice? Here are five questions to ask others – and yourself – to accomplish the task.

First up is, “What do you think?” As simple as it is, this question activates the curiosity necessary for transformation.

Second, “What are you assuming is true?” Assumptions shape many of our ideas. Laying them out in the open helps everyone better understand where stakeholders are coming from.

Third, “Whose voice is missing?” This question takes aim at the echo chamber. It invites diversity of thought – which is more important than ever, given the information silos many people occupy today.

Fourth, “What is your third-best idea?” There’s a method to this madness: Typically, the first answer people give is the “safe” answer. Their second choice is usually just the first answer in different words. It’s often not until the third-best idea that people start thinking outside of the box.

The fifth and final question is, “What didn’t you say that needs saying?” This urges people to state the things that are uncomfortable or scary, but that need to be heard.

These five questions can help leaders explore the best ways to address rapidly changing problems before executing their plan of action.

Learning before knowing

Knowledge plays an important role in any organization. But, Leckie argues, learning is even more important – especially in today’s digital world.

This shift from knowing to learning is a relatively new phenomenon. For previous generations, a worker’s knowledge is what created value for a business. These “knowledge workers” – such as lawyers, doctors, and engineers – came to dominate the economy. First, they acquired specialized knowledge. Then, they got a job and put that knowledge to use.

But the digital world has disrupted this paradigm. Nowadays, the knowledge that workers have when they’re hired simply isn’t enough. The value of modern workers comes from their ability to learn on the job. The more digital technology speeds up the pace of innovation and change, the more “learning workers” will dominate organizations.

So, how exactly can you make the switch from knowledge worker to learning worker? Well, it may be obvious, but putting learning before knowing requires you to question what you think you know – and a willingness to quickly change course if needed.

First off, ask yourself, “Who challenges my beliefs?” Seek out people who will tell you when you’re wrong. Give them permission to challenge you, and thank them for their willingness to call you out.

Second, “How is my idea wrong?” By asking how an idea is wrong rather than if it’s wrong, you preempt others from affirming your idea. While it’s uncomfortable to have people point out where you’ve erred, it’s a necessary part of learning.

Third, “What is my blind spot?” This question serves to pick up on patterns of error. If you’re constantly overlooking one part of a problem, others are likely to spot where you’ve gone wrong and help you correct the course.

Fourth, “When was I last wrong?” If it’s been too long since you were wrong about something, chances are you’re not getting quality feedback. Pointing to a specific mistake, acknowledging it out loud, and learning from it will help you build trust and respect.

And fifth, “Am I OK with not knowing?” This question is meant to foster humility. It’s OK not to have the answers. It’s also OK to move forward even when this ambiguity is present. Learning before knowing means having the agility to put a plan in place – and then to alter that plan as you learn more along the way.

Changing before protecting

It’s perfectly natural to protect the things we care about. But if done improperly in an organization, protection can become a liability. In order to grow, adapt, and improve any business, leaders and managers must be willing to embrace change.

Organizational change happens little by little – and person by person. This kind of change is hard, and it requires us to accept the discomfort that comes along with it. But Leckie has laid out another series of questions to help facilitate the process.

First ask, “What’s the worst that could happen?” When it comes to a new business idea, the answer is usually that it won’t work. Failure is never fun. But admitting the possibility of failing out loud can actually help change seem less daunting.

Second, “What’s the cost of staying safe?” Of course, change is risky. But maintaining the status quo can be risky, too. Make a list of the positives that might be missed if you keep sticking to the old script.

Third, “What am I afraid to do? This question is more personal. It focuses on what you as an individual are risking by making a change. Asking this helps reveal what you value, and where your priorities lie.

Fourth, “How can I lead out loud?” Change requires leaders to embody the behavior they want their organizations to adopt. So, find the best way to model the change you want, and others will be more likely to follow.

Fifth, “When did I last ask for help? To truly know if you’ve changed, you need to enlist the help of others. For instance, getting feedback is a great way to measure if substantive change has taken place – or if your words need to be backed by more action.

Pathfinding before path-following

Next, we’ll examine the virtue of pathfinding before path-following. Pathfinding is about establishing a set of values and granting others the freedom to forge their own path forward.

To illustrate what this looks like in practice, let’s consider the Canadian paper manufacturer Abitibi. Leckie was working at the company in the 1990s, when it suddenly fell into financial hardship. It needed to cut costs by 10 percent – fast. The company’s first impulse was to evaluate spending across every team, and to institute a budget that detailed how money should be spent down to the dollar.

Instead of this top-down approach, however, the company chose a different tactic. Leadership instructed each team to cut their costs by 10 percent, but left the details up to them. In other words, it let them find their own path to the 10-percent target. And it worked! By the next quarter, expenses had plummeted by 15 percent.

Now, let’s turn to the questions you can ask to put pathfinding before path-following in your own organization.

First inquire, “Where are we really going?” This question clarifies the destination – the North Star that your company is trying to achieve not simply through words, but by acting on its values.

Second, “What is most important?” This question speaks to the tacit assumptions of an organization – the unspoken parts that make up a company’s culture.

Third, question your accountability by asking, “Is this who we are?” It’s a way of checking in to ensure that your day-to-day actions are getting you closer to your North Star.

Fourth, “Who would know best?” It’s important to ask the right people for help – those who might have special insight into a subject.

Fifth, “Can we discuss our differences?” There’s no way around the fact that disagreements are going to happen. This question opens the door to awkward or uncomfortable conversations that need to be had.

And sixth, “What am I hiding from you?” This is a question to ask yourself. If something feels off with a decision you’ve made, try to explore what’s causing your inner turmoil – and confront it head-on.

Innovating before replicating

Every business seems to want to be a leader in innovation. But the truth is, most companies don’t innovate at all – or even try to. They mostly focus on replicating and scaling what works.

This obsession with replicating and scaling is a double-edged sword. It usually works – for a while. But then it doesn’t, and businesses get stuck replicating a business plan that’s no longer useful.

So how can you put innovating before replicating? By learning from your mistakes – and by playing the long game.

Just consider Amazon. Before taking the company public, Jeff Bezos laid out his plan for the company to lose money for at least five years. The company needed to gain market share and get to know what customers wanted. Through trial and error, it did. And shareholders were rewarded in the long run.

Not every company can be Amazon. Still, learning from failure and adopting a long-term strategy are tenets of true innovation. Here are some questions that can guide you along the way..

First ask, “What have I learned from my failures?” Make a list of your failures, and try to identify patterns in them. That way, you can make a concerted effort to avoid those same mistakes in the future.

Second, “Can I stomach the long game?” It’s hard to adopt a long-term strategy, especially given the short-term motives of many shareholders. This question helps you acknowledge the costs of the long game – and assess whether you’re willing to pay them.

Third, “What’s the cost of replicating our success?” This question addresses the opportunity cost of replication. When you advise workers to simply replicate a strategy, you’re basically telling them not to bother coming up with better ideas.

Fourth, “How can I stop being the center of the world?” Looking at problems from the perspective of others is hard. It’s also worthwhile – and necessary.

Fifth, “How would I disrupt me?” Consider, from your competitor’s perspective, how you might be weak or vulnerable. By being proactive, you can identify and strengthen your weaknesses before others take advantage of them.

Humanizing before organizing

The final capability we’ll examine is humanizing before organizing. This approach is all about the way you treat people in an organization. Specifically, it’s about treating your colleagues as full people, and not simply as the positions they occupy.

Every organization has defined roles – from entry-level worker to CEO – that come with a set of specific expectations and responsibilities. The trouble is, people often outgrow their role and become capable of offering a lot more. But because doing so might violate their role’s specifications, they usually just put their head down. This is a huge missed opportunity to get the best out of your team.

It’s also important to humanize people by getting to know who they are outside of work. When you know someone, it’s easier to be honest with them, rely on them, and make sacrifices for them – all of which are assets. Even though this kind of intimacy is difficult to achieve in large organizations, it’s worth investing the time and effort to build it.

Here’s one more series of questions to ask your peers, which will help you put humanizing before organizing.

First, “When are you at your best?” This question gives you an idea of when and where people are most productive.

Second, “How will we know when things have started to go sideways?” Any relationship has the potential to veer off course. And when things go wrong, shame usually starts to creep in. Recognizing this preemptively – and out loud – can mitigate that shame and help you improve your situation.

Third, “How could we work better together?” As obvious as this question may seem, it’s one of the most vital. It gives both parties permission to alter their working dynamic for the better.

Fourth, “What’s most important to you?” Understanding people’s motivations can help you relate to them better. In turn, this can help foster a better working relationship.

And last but not least, “What do you want from me?” Asking this question earnestly and with genuine curiosity can go a long way toward humanizing a workplace relationship.


In this summary you’ve learned the six capabilities that can help transform an organization. Let me repeat them for you: exploring before executing, learning before knowing, changing before protecting, pathfinding before path-following, innovating before replicating, and humanizing before organizing.

About the author

Michael Leckie is the former Chief Learning Officer for the Digital Industrial Transformation at General Electric (GE) and is currently founding partner of Silverback Partners, LLC, an organizational consultancy based in Ridgefield, Connecticut. He also held the position of Managing Vice President in Gartner’s Executive Programs business, managing teams that provided executive coaching, strategic guidance and research-based advisory services to Gartner’s C-suite clients. He speaks, coaches and advises all over the world and across most industries: public, private and non-profit.


Entrepreneurship, Management, Leadership, Corporate Culture, Career Success, Business, Business Structural Adjustment, Organizational Change, Business and Organizational Learning

Table of Contents

About the author xi
Foreword by X xii
Acknowledgments xiv

Introduction: Learning to swim 1

01 Getting Started with a Heart of Transformation 7
What is at the heart of transformation? 7
Why did I write this book? 10
Why another book on change or transformation? 11
Digital transformation requires human transformation 12
The human capabilities that drive transformation 16
Endnotes 19

02 Why Does Our Digital World Demand a Human Solution? 21
Too many things to too many people 21
The stagnation of human systems in a world of rapidly advancing technology 25
A brief history of organizations 26
Talking ’bout a revolution 29
Recoding our brains, for change 31
The role of group dynamics in individual change 34
How to hack change 35
Endnotes 36

03 The Challenge of Change 37
They myth of changing your mind 37
The central problem of change management 39
How the nature of change is changing 40
Leaders need to guide adaptive change 42
Change is personal—and hard 44
Moving from problem solving to problem finding 45
The six human capabilities required for adaptive change 47
Living the six capabilities 49
Endnotes 49

04 Exploring Before Executing 51
A story of execution 51
Becoming a digital industrial 52
What is execution? 58
The five questions of Exploring Before Executing 61
Curiosity is at the heart of transformation 65
Tools for transformation—operationalizing your curiosity 68
Making it real—three times with your whole heart 69
Endnotes 70

05 Learning Before Knowing 71
A story of learning 71
The journey from labor to knowledge to learning 73
How technology advances demand human advances 78
Learning to learn 80
Why my truth is truer than yours 81
The truth that saves can also derail us 84
The five questions of Learning Before Knowing 88
Learning from the best—the art of self-interrogation 91
Making it real—learning out loud; the art of the debrief 93
Tools for transformation—the debrief 94
Endnotes 97

06 Changing Before Protecting 99
An intersection of friends 99
A story of not protecting 101
Why protecting might not be good protection 105
The five questions of Changing Before Protecting 108
Learning from the best—the virtue of small recoverable tests 111
When bold changes are needed 118
Endnotes 119

07 Pathfinding Before Path Following 121
A story of pathfinding 121
From following the path to finding the path 128
Losing control to gain engagement 129
The five questions (plus one) of Pathfinding Before Path Following 136
Endnotes 143

08 Innovating Before Replicating 145
A story of innovating 145
The replication religion 148
The costs and rewards of fearlessness 150
Challenging assumptions with platform thinking 151
The five questions of Innovating Before Replicating 155
Learning from the best—the awesomeness of awkwardness 161
Tools for transformation—turning awkward into forward 162
Endnotes 164

09 Humanizing Before Organizing 165
A story of humanizing 165
The problem with scientific management in a digital age 169
Why personizing matters more 171
Schein’s levels of relationships 173
Get engaged with goals before roles 180
The five questions of Humanizing Before Organizing 184
Endnotes 187

10 Your Heart of Transformation—Making It Strong 189
Getting started building your heart of transformation 189
Begin the begin—how do you start building a heart of
transformation? 191
Being foolish for fun and profit 194
Where do you start building a heart of transformation? 195
Your roadmap to a heart of transformation 197
Learning from the best—analyze and then aggregate to see your patterns 201
Finding your pacemakers for your heart of transformation 204
The value of thinking time to a heart of transformation 206
Getting help with your thinking time for a heart of transformation 208
Finding your thinking group for a heart of transformation 209
Tools for transformation—building heart health 210
Your story is still being written 211

Endnotes 213
Index 215


Technology doesn’t transform organizations – people do.

In an era of technological and constant change, companies are bombarded with urgent advice to become more agile, lean and digital. Billions are spent on digital transformation efforts with the promise that these efforts will increase competitive advantage. Yet even when only 30 percent of these efforts succeed, this hard-won competitive advantage only lasts until the next disruption before the cycle repeats, causing transformation fatigue. The Heart of Transformation breaks this cycle by suggesting that the pace and complexity of change is too great and too complex to be addressed by a single change effort or transformation. The answer lies in the organization’s greatest asset: its people. In the face of complexity, it is the people and their ability to adapt and learn that are the true engine of organizational change.

The Heart of Transformation outlines the six human capabilities (Exploring before Executing, Learning before Knowing, Pathfinding before Path Following, Changing before Protecting, Innovating before Replicating and Humanizing before Organizing) that create competitive advantage for organizations organically, quickly and from the bottom up. The book translates those capabilities into simple and immediately adoptable behaviors for leaders and every person in the organization. It offers a new standard for organizational excellence, one that is dependent on the organization’s ability to be deeply human. Instead of offering another one-size-fits-all solution, The Heart of Transformation reveals that by leveraging our most human of capabilities, organizations can change better, faster and achieve excellence much quicker than imagined.


“If you’ve ever felt alone in your enthusiasm for helping people embrace a digital world, you need to meet Michael Leckie. Drawing on a wealth of experience as a transformation leader, his passion for change leaps off the page and his advice is as encouraging as it is practical.” ― Adam Grant, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Think Again and host of the TED podcast WorkLife

“When I first met Michael, I was deeply interested in how passionate he was about our collective abilities to help organizations to transform. We talked extensively about how learning could facilitate this as an outcome and the role of leaders in empowering this. What I love about this book is that it reminds me of those conversations as it is written in the same way. It is enjoyable and reminds you of the things that inspire you the most.” ― Jig Ramji, Group Head of Talent, London Stock Exchange Group

“I met Michael Leckie when he was responsible for culture change during the Digital Transformation of GE. At the time, I was impressed by his natural humility, his ‘everything is possible’ mindset, and his incredible skill to connect people together. If you haven’t had the chance to know Michael personally, you will through this book. It is not a book full of words. It is a book full of life. It is not about theory, but about someone who has been there: humanizing before organizing, learning by asking powerful questions, and going where the fear is. I recommend this book!” ― Dr. Bruno Kahne, Vice President, Learning & Development of CMA CGM Group

“Michael Leckie has always had a way to take concepts that are complex and lay them out in a very clear and concise way. In my experience, curious people are unstoppable, and Michael frames curiosity at the heart of transformation. This book is packed with practical steps a leader can take to ensure transformational change can succeed. Curious about how to make organizational change real? You must read this book!” ― Jason Strle, Executive Vice President & Group CIO at Wells Fargo

“Through a myriad of stories and examples, and sharing of formal and experiential knowledge and personal reflection, Michael Leckie vividly captures the formidable yet rewarding challenge of changing ourselves in order to integrate humanity and organization to thrive. He labels it ‘heart’, but there is a lot of ‘soul’ in this book as well.” ― Sue Mohrman, Senior Research Scientist at the USC Marshall Center for Effective Organizations

“It’s not easy to write a book that is both simple and profound, and that tackles organizational transformation in such a personal way, but that’s the magic of what Michael Leckie has done. No matter whether you’re looking to change a corporation, a start-up, or a small team, you’ll find both inspiration and practical advice in this book, the most important of which is to start with your own heart.” ― Ron Ashkenas, Partner Emeritus, Schaffer Consulting, and co-author of the Harvard Business Review Leader’s Handbook

“The Heart of Transformation does beautifully what so many books on change management and leadership fail to do: bring the human element to front and center. Change is not an abstract process that occurs in systems; it is an intensely human process that begins in the change agents themselves and comes to involve all the members of an organization personally. While we take this for granted, it takes a book like this to show us how it works in detail.” ― Edgar Schein, Professor Emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management; Chairman of the Organizational Culture and Leadership Institute

“Michael Leckie’s core premise in The Heart of Transformation is that when people in an organization can learn to care for each other, change can happen. It’s a credo that he picked up in his time at Pepperdine’s MSOD program, and has been applying and refining in a broad career spanning multiple roles and organizations. But it’s not a one-sided, Pollyanna view of the world. He rightly recognizes (through simple, actionable, useful, and relatable questions and stories) that as leaders and people learn to care, they must also create the purposes and management structures, systems, and processes that make caring and change sustainable…for good.” ― Chris Worley, Research Professor of Management at Pepperdine’s Graziadio School of Business and Affiliate Researcher at USC’s Center for Effective Organizations

“This book reminds me how insightful Michael is as a thought leader, adviser, and change agent, both in writing and in person. Michael combines a deep understanding of the human condition, business, and technology. His focus on dealing with the personal aspects of transformation, and the six capabilities we need to succeed, makes this book much more real and usable than many dry, high-level transformation frameworks. Powerful stuff.” ― Dave Aron, Unthinker, Vice President and Distinguished Analyst at Gartner

“Making a change in your own life is hard, and change is even harder inside organizations. Michael Leckie gives us a way to turn this massive challenge into simple and clear actions anyone can take. If you’re struggling with change in your organization, then this is the book for you, and everyone you work with!” ― Dorie Clark, Author of Reinventing You and executive education faculty, Duke University Fuqua School of Business

“Michael Leckie is a real person with real insight, and The Heart of Transformation is a refreshing read in a morass of business transformation tomes. Michael has not been afraid to make a leap during his career, always with heart and collegiality. This book will give you usable ideas at one of the most complicated times in recent human history.” ― Chris Howard, VP, Distinguished Analyst & Chief of Research at Gartner

“In a world that is changing more rapidly and more profoundly than predicted, The Heart of Transformation provides keen insights for leaders seeking to scale to these challenges. Michael Leckie does a terrific job of translating academic theory into actionable advice, while proving it’s possible to lead with your head and your heart.” ― Joe Whittinghill, Corporate Vice President, Talent, Learning and Insights at Microsoft

“Michael’s passion jumps off the page in this guide to operationalizing curiosity and caring. We have to challenge ourselves to not get bogged down by the ‘digital’ words of the day, but ask ourselves to get reacquainted with our assumptions and our heart.” ― Byron Johnson, Head of the Global Learning Center of Excellence, PepsiCo University

“Leading an organization through this digital revolution is a complex human journey. Michael Leckie distills his many years of exploration, discovery, and leadership authority into this simple map that walks you through the heart of transformation.” ― Mark Bowden, Co-Founder of TRUTHPLANE® and global authority on non-verbal communication

“Change is about choices, hard choices. There are six that matter most, and Michael Leckie shows you how to make the call in this invaluable book. Of the six principles he lays out, ‘Pathfinding before Path Following’ is the one that personally provoked me, challenged me, and opened up for me a new way of thinking about change. It points to the courage and the smarts you need to navigate a new landscape. In The Heart of Transformation, Michael Leckie provides us an invaluable map.” ― Michael Bungay Stanier, Bestselling Author of The Coaching Habit, named the #1 Thought Leader in Coaching

“Many times, discussions about organizational transformation focus on tools, processes, and structures, leaving out of the mix the most important element: people. In The Heart of Transformation, Michael Leckie reminds leaders that to truly transform, you must enable your people with the skills a data-driven world requires to both see and think differently” ― Mike Capone, CEO at Qlik

“Transformation is an internal fundamental evolution of conscious choice and when it’s done right, transformation has an enduring impact. This book offers a timely and needed strategic playbook that forces us to examine behaviors and capabilities required to drive change and transformation, and how to recode our brains for change. It is replete with actionable examples and a must-read for anyone driving a change agenda.” ― Amber Grewal, Managing Director & Partner, Global Talent at Boston Consulting Group and former Chief Talent Officer at Intel Corporation

“Michael distills his many years of transformation work experience into this amazing, must-read book. His insight into adaptive change and the growth mindset helps us see that transformation is all about people, starting with you, the leader. Michael brings a refreshing approach, showing us that no one framework will ever be superior to an amalgam that morphs to the given contextual challenges. It’s not just about delivering suggested paths toward change, but actually starting with yourself first and modeling the change through execution. The lessons are also delivered with real-world narrative that makes it fun to read and hard to put down.” ― Vincent Perfetti, Chief Digital Officer at Nu Skin Enterprises

“Michael’s quest for knowledge and his ability make very complex concepts relatable and applicable transcend through this obvious labor of love book. As the great conversationalist that he is, reading this book felt like having a conversation with Michael: interesting, thoughtful and full of curiosity. This book teaches us great lessons about how to ask very simple questions in order to help us build open teams, tackle change, and to continuously learn.” ― Barry Warren, President & CEO, DHP Furniture and Executive Vice President, Dorel Home

“Change is hard, and this book is a thoughtful guide to all the amazing people who are engaged in leading it. Michael passionately shares, in a voice and vulnerability which I have come to love, a collection of heart-felt questions and insights to help you navigate your way through.” ― Mohammed “Khal” Khalid, Global Advisory Director at The Leading Edge Forum

“Michael Leckie is by all definitions a true innovator: humble, curious, creative, demanding, observant, and human. His years of experience in leading change in so many different organizations like Gartner, GE, as well as others have been distilled into this incredible book of wisdom. He outlines the myths, the mindsets, the approaches, and the principles to help you lead change in your organization and make progress. When telling the stories of change, Michael is at his best and conveys very deep and powerful concepts in a very digestible and simple way. He will open your mind in so many ways: from execution to exploration, from knowledge to learning, from path following to pathfinding, from making change to creating transformation. I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did. Thank you, Michael!” ― Bob Moesta, Founder & CEO of The Re-Wired Group and Adjunct Lecturer at The Kellogg School of Northwestern University

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