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Change Management

The Importance of Change Leadership – Beyond “Step Models of Change”

Why is strong leadership so important to the success of change programs? Why do so many change efforts fail or dwindle without committed leadership?

“Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better”. Harry S Truman (1884 – 1972)

Pettigrew & Whipp (1991) summarise in their “Receptive Contexts for Change” the importance of a coherent change program and a consistent, committed approach to leading change across the whole organisation.

Coherent Change Program

Most change initiatives rely upon Step Models of Change to provide appropriate structure. The majority of step models originate from Lewin’s original “Unfreeze-Move-Refreeze” model, and include well known offerings such as Kotter’s 8 Step Model and Prosci’s ADKAR® model.

*For more information on Kotter see my earlier articleMartin Webster’s blog, and also the Change Management blog.

All of the models try to achieve three things:

    • Unfreeze – convince the organisation that it needs to change.
    • Move – move the organisation toward the new vision.
    • Refreeze – embed the new reality into the organisation and its culture.

Whichever model you choose to use, leadership is key to success or failure. Peter Drucker stated that “Leadership is about results. A leader’s vision must in the end produce the desired results: successful, profitable change where employees are committed and engaged”.

Senior Leadership of Change

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things”
Peter Drucker (1909 – 2005)

Change requires strong leadership from Senior Management, with them painting a clear picture of the reason for change, leading the impacted staff towards a new vision (“the promised land!”) and then anchoring that new reality in the organisational culture.

Change is not just about following a well written check-list that says do x then y then z. Whilst a check-list can add structure to the process it does not remove the need to understand the people, their concerns and the feelings of the organisation. A good senior leader will intuitively know the mood of the organisation and will provide the guidance and direction needed to move forward.

We can be as technically excellent in execution as possible but without that seemingly intangible prescence of leadership, our people will not necessarily follow us to a sustainable outcome no matter how desirable the end vision. The larger the change the more important charismatic leadership becomes to a successful result.

Carnall in his “Change Capability Framework” (Carnall, 2007) describes change leadership as follows:

    • Leaders are credible
    • Leaders are accountable
    • Leaders are accessible
    • Leaders are open to ideas
    • Leaders sponsor people in change

Change Leaders within the Organisation

A recent McKinsey article “Developing better Change Leaders” discusses the importance of Change Leaders throughout the organisation and how they can often be the catalyst to maintain momentum. They listen to employees effectively, confirm what has been communicated, place it in context, feed back to Management, coach for results, and explain how the visible end results are linked to the decisions made by the employees.

It is important that the Change Leaders engage staff not just intellectually but also emotionally, so they become committed to the new approach and understand why it was better, even though many may have seen it originally as threatening.

Senior Management should consider how they develop their management teams and equip them with appropriate change skills and create networks of Change Leaders. Change programs falter when early successes remain isolated in organizational silos and are not replicated across the organisation. A network of Change Leaders can be used to spread good ideas and increase the momentum.

The challenge for many organisations is finding or building sufficient quantities of Change Leaders and then giving them the time required to effectively undertake the role (in order to build rapport and trust).

Importance of Change Leadership

Whilst researching this article I came across an interesting thread on one of the LinkedIn forums on the difference between Change Management and Change Leadership. One of the most succinct summaries is reproduced below:

Change Management = project management, planning and organising

Change Leadership = Communicating the vision (the end game) and what the journey will look like (but not in detail), engaging staff and other stakeholders, role modelling new behaviours and supporting when things get tough.                                                                       (Jan Bowen-Nielsen )

Understanding the critical difference between ‘managing things’ and ‘leading people’ is sometimes missed. The ‘leading people’ part often gets included in the process management and leads to project failure or results that are not sustained.

As a leader, you shift the energy away from the feeling of being powerless and the feeling of the security of the past to seeing opportunities for the future.       (Joshua Brusse)

In summary, change led by a charismatic senior leader, who builds networks of Change Leaders (the ‘Instrumental role’) and provides them the time needed to achieve results has a better opportunity for success (see diagram below).


Thanks to Brian Stackhouse for his input and contribution to this article.


Related articles:

Change Management (Part 1) – Cracking the Code of Change
Change Management (Part 2) – Step Models of Change
Change Management (Part 3a) – Change Capability
Change Management (Part 3b) – Success with IT Change
Change Management – What’s in a Name?
Why are IT projects Change Management time bombs?


27 thoughts on “The Importance of Change Leadership – Beyond “Step Models of Change”

  1. Join the discussion on this article at the Enterprise CIO Forum


    Posted by Martin | August 16, 2012, 9:50 pm
  2. Reblogged this on Martin Davis' Blog.


    Posted by Martin | October 3, 2016, 2:04 pm


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