Change leadership: How to make it work

Change leadership: How to make it work

Change … requires creating a new system, which in turn always demands leadership.

Kotter, 1995

In today’s workplace change is almost unavoidable and certain, and achieving successful change is one of the biggest problems that modern organizations face. Change has become a major strategic obligating and it is clear that without doing things differently, companies are unlikely to succeed, or last. It is rare for large organisations to not have to undergo, at some point in their lifecycle, a change that fundamentally shifts the business. The causes for this can be numerous and diverse, including responding to technology changes, market maturation or wider macroeconomic environment. Regardless of the cause, large-scale change is required, and for successful change strong leadership is key.

Change leadership is a type of leadership that focuses on these large-scale changes within an organization. It is the ability to influence and enthuse others through personal advocacy, vision and drive, and to access resources to build a solid platform for change (Higgs and Rowland, 2000). Change leadership concerns the driving forces, visions and processes that fuel large-scale transformation. According to John Kotter, the chief innovation officer at Kotter International, a firm that helps leaders accelerate strategy implementation in their organizations and the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership, Emeritus, at Harvard Business School, it can be likened with putting an engine on the whole change process and making it go faster, smarter, more efficiently.  

Change leaders are key in selecting and motivating a high performing team. During transformation and throughout the embedding to ‘business as usual’ (BAU) leaders who rely on their skills to ensure that the teams that work for them continue to be focused on the objectives of the change. Crucially change leaders are needed to drive the move into BAU and to support the cultural shifts that large-scale changes often require.

Machiavelli wrote: “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” To see what drives successful change leadership, The Center for Creative Leadership conducted a study to determine what those change leadership skills are. The survey sampled participants who were senior executives “with more than 15 years of management experience, responsibility for 500 or more people, and decision-making authority as members of top management teams.” Through the study, they identified nine characteristics of change leaders falling into three categories.

  • Communication

When communicating they focus on the why of the change as well as the what. Their communications become even more powerful when they are connected to the values of the organization.

  • Inclusivity

Successful change leaders are not bound by structure and silos. They bring employees into the decision-making process early, engaging the needed resources for collaboration both in planning and executing change.

  • Believe in the change

Successful change leaders don’t expect others to commit to changes that they are not fully on board with themselves. They experience their discomfort while moving through change but are persistent in sustaining the change process until the desired results are achieved. By contrast, unsuccessful leaders are impatient with results and do not display an ongoing commitment.

Leading the Change Process

The study also identified three characteristics of successful change leadership in leading the process.

  • They ensure that they are engaged in a process that develops a clear vision and case for change, as well as alignment around achieving it.
  • Successful change leaders are involved in the change strategy, including identifying what will change and what will not.
  • They stay involved throughout the execution of the change, monitoring progress, ensuring the right people are put into the right positions and that the wrong people for those positions are removed. They ensure that small wins are celebrated, and momentum is maintained.

Leading the People

Successful change leaders ensure that they maintain a focus on the people side of change.

  • “Successful change projects were characterized by leaders removing barriers to employee success. These include personal barriers such as wounded egos and a sense of loss, as well as professional barriers such as the time and resources necessary to carry out a change plan.”
  • Successful change leaders pay attention to those who can influence others and bring them on board with the change.
  • They don’t assume they have all the answers or that they won’t make mistakes. They learn from their own experience and they learn from others along the way.

Real change leaders (RCLs) are more concerned about a large, transformative vision for the business and how the employees become empowered enough to contribute to the creation of that vision. One risk of change leadership, however, is it has the potential to get out of control and not account for the smaller details in that line of work. In addition, a company may not act upon every proposed change to the established structure.

Change leadership quotes

  • Change before you have to.”– Jack Welch, LinkedIn
  • “Change Leadership is action, not a position”― Peter F Gallagher  Ranked #1 Global Thought Leaders and Influencers on Change Management (May 2020) by Thinkers360, Author of the Change Management Handbook
  • Companies that change may survive, but companies that transform thrive. Change brings incremental or small-scale adaptations, while transformation brings great improvements that ripple through the future of an organization. – Nick Candito, Founder of Progressly (which helps customers transform the way they do business.)
  • “Everybody has accepted by now that change is unavoidable. But that still implies that change is like death and taxes — it should be postponed as long as possible and no change would be vastly preferable. But in a period of upheaval, such as the one we are living in, change is the norm.”—Peter Drucker Management Challenges for the 21st Century (1999)

Change Leadership is important for influencing and inspiring action in others, and responding to vision and agility during periods of growth, disruption or uncertainty to bring about the needed change.

Fadzai Danha is a consultant at Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd a management and human resources consulting firm. Phone +263 4 481946-48/481950 or email: or visit our website at


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