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How to be a Change Leader - tips from the top

Posted by Bob Little | 04-Jun-2019 11:33:00
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If you want to be a successful change leader, you must understand your assumptions about managing change – if only to help reduce your frustrations as your change projects progress. You should also examine the possibilities offered by different assumptions about leading change – along with the metaphors for how organisations work.

Adopting different change metaphors results in different assumptions about what good leaders should do. Some of these metaphors are examined in Gareth Morgan’s work on organisational metaphors.

He says the most commonly-used organisational metaphors are the:
• Machine metaphor
• Political metaphor
• Organism metaphor
• Flux and transformation metaphor

The machine metaphor lies behind many approaches to organisational change, especially project management and planning-orientated approaches. Many people believe the political map of organisational life to be significant; while others believe that the flux and transformation metaphor provides a model of the true complexity of how change happens.

Viewing organisations as a collection of open, interconnected, interdependent sub-systems sits within the organism metaphor. This model, which underpins much of the thinking that drove the creation of the HR function, views change as a process of adapting to environmental changes.

Although the hero-leader is a popular leadership image, history shows that leaders with different styles can be equally successful.


Peter Senge advocates dispersed leadership, identifying three types of leader in the organisational system. Mary Beth O’Neill names four key leadership roles in any change process.

Warren Bennis, in distinguishing leadership from management, champions visionary leadership - and John Kotter echoes his view. On the other hand, Jean Lipman-Blumen, Ronald A. Heifetz and Donald L. Laurie argue against the need for visionary leadership.

Heifetz and Laurie believe in adaptive leadership. This is about taking people out of their comfort zones, letting people feel external pressure and revealing conflict. Lipman-Blumen emphasises the need for leaders to ensure connectivity via perceiving connections among diverse people, ideas and institutions - even if those involved don’t perceive these connections.

Howard Gardner’s research indicates that leaders who had great influence embodied stories and ensured they connected well with their audiences. Other research - comparing the effects of ‘transformational leadership’ with those of ‘transactional leadership’, in studies carried out at the end of the 20th century - concluded that the most reliable elements in producing team success were charismatic and inspirational leadership.

As the pace of change has increased in the 21st century, ideas have emerged that leaders need less vision and more connectivity.

Emotional Intelligence

Daniel Goleman’s checklist of emotional intelligence competencies includes elements of inner (what goes on inside the leader) and outer (what the leader does) leadership. Defining six leadership styles, Goleman also says that a leader should select the right style for the right situation, taking into account the necessary conditions for success and the long-term consequences.

Meanwhile, Esther Cameron & Mike Green identify five leadership qualities, arguing that leaders must demonstrate these in varying amounts, according to the type of challenge being faced.

Both Bennis – who emphasises the need for self-knowledge - and Stephen R. Covey – who lists principles and guidelines to help leaders develop positive thinking patterns - place high value on the leader’s inner life.

Kotter says that the hard work in leading change must be put in early in the change process, while Rosabeth Moss Kanter says the hardest part of the job comes in the middle of the process - and adds that perseverance is key.

Vision, Identity and Values

For change to be sustainable, that change must align with the organisation’s vision, identity and values. Then you must ensure that people have the necessary skills, capabilities, processes and behaviours to embed the change.

The degree to which any change is successful tends to be associated with the success of the leadership. So, from a leadership perspective, it’s important to create a culture where individuals see change as a normal, everyday, evolving opportunity rather than as a constant threat.

Of course, the most effective leaders don’t instigate change purely for change’s sake. Rather, they have a sense of what’s wrong in an organisation and develop an engaging vision of how things need to be different. They find ways of articulating this and taking people with them - including using professionals to support the change if necessary.

So, the leader must ensure that followers understand the change holistically. This means there’s a clear, understood alignment between the organisation’s mission and purpose; the improved outcomes sought for stakeholders; the business results that will arise; the necessarily changed behaviours; along with the values of the organisation and its people.

If the leader gets it right, the followers choose to follow - and those who choose not to should be able to say so and be treated with dignity.

This means that an effective and successful change leader must be courageous and self-aware. They must choose the right action at the right time and keep a steady eye on the ball.

However, the leader alone can’t make change happen. A team needs to be in place, with well-thought-out roles and committed people who’re “in it for the duration”, not just for the “kick-off”. Moreover, change happens in the workplace every day - often happening un-noticed.

In reality, responsibility for ensuring that this change happens successfully lies not just with the leaders but also with the ‘followership’.

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