What Change Leadership Really Means

Is there a difference between leadership and change leadership? After all, a leader is a leader, whatever the situation.

And, you would argue, considering the pace of change, nowadays every leader should be a change leader.

Change leadership is a balancing act. As a change leader, you are constantly navigating between opposites. Your role is to always keep in mind both sides of a situation, however complex the change process may be.

Change leadership means understanding that you need to be a leader, but also a manager, that you need to celebrate success, but also allow failure as long as you can learn for it, that you need to think both local and global, team and organization, and pay attention to each individual in your team, but manage your team as a whole.

And on top of that, you need to be a visionary. Doubled with a pragmatic.

Let’s see more in detail what each of these 6 elements mean.


1. Change Leadership Is both Leadership and Management

Change leadership means combining enthusiastic purposeful leadership soft skills with hard skills. For the change efforts to succeed, you, as a change leader, have to be the one who “holds the dream alive”.

But you also have to be the pragmatic and knowledgeable manager.

A change leader is also the person who, in times of change, helps the team understand why the status quo is a dangerous place to be.

But, as a manager, he or she will have to understand what are the tools and knowledge his team needs to advance, provide the tools, and help the team acquire the knowledge.

The leader should point the desired direction. The manager should be able to show the team how exactly they should navigate the change process to arrive to what we have set as desired “to-be” state.

A good example where it’s important to make the right choice between managing and leading is the “comfort zone”. Comfort zones are great places to be. Nobody in their right mind will want to get out of there and into the unknown and turmoil of organizational change.



If, you, as a change agent, will try to “manage” your employees out of the comfort zone, the result will be the opposite of what you desire: the resistance to change will only increase. And your team will become reluctant to follow you.

On the contrary,  if you show your team a compelling vision of why they sould get out of the comfort zone and you make your team to feel part of that grand vision, people will follow. They won’t have to be pushed.

(In more metaphoric terms, this vision should either “slay the dragon” – get away from an unwanted situation – or “save the princess” – aim for a desired better situation.)

As a leader of change, you need to navigate between the two opposites and to know when to choose one over the other. This is not an easy task, even in normal times, due to the increase complexities of business situations.

During times of change, the pressure adds to the complexity, making your decision even more difficult to make. For this kind of times, change leadership requires self-awareness, personal mastery, and a good understanding of the mental models at play in every complex situation.



2. A Change Leader Celebrates Success and Learns from Failure

Of course success is what you should aim for. However, in an uncertain world, even the best executed strategy may fail.

Change management that is only process oriented, ticking boxes or raising flags, is not going to succeed if it’s not taking into account the human side of the change process.

As a change leader, you’ll have to make it clear that failure may be an option. The advantages of doing it? You’ll be giving your team a strong signal that experimenting (in a safe environment) is not only allowed but it’s considered a prerequisite for learning.

In a changing world, a team that is not learning has no chances to succeed. But learning can only happen is a safe environment. As a change leader, you should be able to foster this kind of environment.

The other side of learning from failure is making the difference between a failure that was due to bad execution or sloppy work and something that, even if it didn’t succeed because of external factors, it provided a wealth of information for your team to improve on their next try.


3. Change Leadership Strikes the Balance between Long term and Short Term Goals

Change leadership is visionary by definition. However, in reality, as a change leader you are also a fire fighter. Short term sometimes comes in the way of long term and it can hinder the long term goals if we focus too much on the short term ones.

The opposite is also true: there is no way we can advance towards our long term goals if we do not cater for the short term ones.

Change leadership is a balancing act between the two, and it requires not only knowledge and speed of reaction, but also intuition in choosing on which one of the two to focus at every moment.


4. A Change Leader Pays Attention to each Individual in the Team and Enables the Team

Change is implemented through individuals who are aware of the need for change, understand why change is needed, and have the knowledge and the tools to make the effort to transform the current reality into the desired one.

But one individual won’t be able to do as much as a team can do. If you take the example of a team sport you’re a fan of, outstanding individuals won’t always make a winning team.

That where change leadership should come into play. As it was said in the beginning, change leadership is a balancing act. In this case, it means balancing attention between the individual and the team, helping individuals to understand the importance of the team in achieving the common goal.

The key here is what Peter Senge in his book The 5th Discipline calls team learning. It’s the situation where the team, as one entity, starts learning and improving.


5. Team Level and Organization Level Focus

It is good to strive to achieve the team’s goals but they will be meaningless if the organization doesn’t succeed. Therefore, the role of the change leadership is to balance the focus on the team and the organization.

They need to insure their team success in the bigger context of the organization. And they should integrate this concept into the bigger picture of the system thinking: the team is part of a bigger organizational system (with all the interactions resulting from being part of a system).

As a team leader during times of change, you need to understand that the interactions between the team and the organization go both ways.



6. Change Leadership – A Balancing Act between Visionary and Pragmatic

Going back to the first element, the leader of change as a leader and a manager, you will have to be both a visionary, the holder of the dream, and a pragmatic, the one capable of showing the team how exactly they can achieve their dream, what are the steps, the tools, and the knowledge to be acquired to get where we want to be.


How do you balance the opposites when you lead your team during a change project?