Change Leadership, Defined


leading changeBecause the world is changing fast, leading change is perhaps the critical leadership capability.

Here are some useful distinctions.

Leading Change: A Dismal Track Record

John Kotter, at Harvard Business School, branded "change leadership" with his 1996 book, Leading Change (republished 2012). He's a lucid writer; it's worthwhile reading. He argues the facts: we are simply not that good at leading change.

With a global survey of 1500 leaders, IBM drives the point home: 70% of change initiatives fail to meet project objectives of time, cost and quality. Moreover, only 20% of organizations can be considered competent at leading change.

The same terrible numbers appear in mergers and acquisitions, and for similar reasons.

So How Can You Think About Leading Change In A Different Way That Is More Likely To Succeed?

Most thinkers define 'leading change' by contrasting it to 'managing change.' They do this to point to a trap. Great managers who are poor leaders inevitably fail at change, rearranging the deck chairs while the boat sinks:

  • Managers focus on tasks and outcomes, while leaders focus on relationships and conditions for success because they know community-building comes before problem solving.
  • Managers negotiate commitments, while leaders inspire because they know inspiration fuels engagement.
  • Managers act like they know what's going to happen, while leaders ask people to lean into the experiences required for authentic transformation.

In short, change leaders want people to self-organize in healthy ways around relevant issues.

Different Definitions Of Change Leadership

From a Forbes Magazine interview, Kotter again:

"Change leadership is concerned with the driving forces, visions and processes that fuel large-scale transformation. Change management, which is the term most everyone uses, refers to a set of basic tools or structures intended to keep any change effort under control."

From the British Columbia Public Service website:

"The change leader learns from other leaders, models the vision, and encourages others to commit to and champion the vision. The change leader inspires others into new ways of thinking and doing business. The change leader routinely energizes the change process and removes barriers to change."

At Growth River, we approach this a little differently. We start by acknowledging that true leadership is one part art, and one part science. 

...the art of change leadership is inspiring others to face into uncertainty together as accountable members of a team.

...and the science of change leadership is building a shared language for optimizing cultures of accountability and business models. 

Here is our definition:

"Change leadership is the capacity to lead people in complex social systems, like teams, businesses and organizations, on develepmental journeys from where they are now towards better and inspiring futures."

What does this look like tactically? In organizations where change leadership capabilities have been built, critical conversations are identified and driven to resolution, and as a result meaningful actions are taken.

Bottom line: the right people are generating the right results.