How your leadership can make or break change

Before the internet transformed the world, a change was predictable, could be planned for and was an event. In today’s global marketplace, change is constant. To be successful, organisations need to be able to adapt, flex and change on a shoestring. The mindset and hierarchical leadership practices from pre-internet days may have managed to deliver relatively successful change and development programmes in the past.

Today, however, a new paradigm of leadership is required to ensure commercial survival. Several models have been developed around leadership and change, the work of John Kotter and Peter Senge stand out as practical models for leading and embedding successful change.

What is the difference between leaders and managers?

The terms “leadership and management” are often referred to interchangeably, where an effective manager might be assumed to be an effective leader and vice versa. Although both leaders and managers are critical to business success, they are in fact different in role and effect.



Focus on the internal processes and systems. They function to ensure products are developed and delivered on time, and their workforce has the tools and time necessary to deliver.



Take an external focus. They are the visionaries, the individuals that look for opportunities on the horizon, take risks and make decisions on the future direction of the company. Without leaders, managers wouldn’t have a business to work in, and without managers, leaders would have chaos and little product delivery. Although some think of leaders as those at the top of the organisation, leadership behaviours can be exhibited by anyone in an organisation!

How can leadership styles impact on change?

When focusing on change, Kotter (2002) categorises three different leadership cohorts. He identifies the line managers, network leaders and executive leaders as the three critical leadership groups that enable change to occur.

  1. Line managers are at the sharp end; they ensure the specific change in behaviours are embedded and positively reinforced.
  1. Network leaders are those that work across the organisation such as learning and development practitioners, or internal communications executives. They are critical as they spread messages, best practice and ideas and have broad influence across the organisation.
  1. Executive leaders; the primary decision makers at the top of the organisation who set the direction and vision for the future.

For change to be a success, it is unfounded to think that it is just the executive leader’s role to make change happen. Change must occur at all levels in the organisation and be reinforced by those that believe in the change and actively exhibit the new behaviours.

The belief that responsibility for change cascades across the organisation introduces a mindset towards organisational design and culture.

How can a learning organisation support change?

Peter Senge (1999) introduces the concept of the learning organisation. Here he highlights the importance of leaders to encourage and reinforce a culture of learning, development and accountability. Through embracing opportunities to learn from mistakes and develop new skills, organisations will be more versatile and easier to flex and change. Senge introduces the five principles to support the learning organisation.

  1. Personal mastery, this focuses on individual’s ability to grow and become the best versions of themselves possible, to keep learning, to develop abilities around problem-solving and promote the learning of others.
  1. Mental Model: Senge encourages individuals to challenge the models they have of the world. The way we see the world is governed by previous experience. Change in our mental models occurs when we take different perspectives, consciously challenge ourselves to think differently about something and to experiment with an idea to understand if it will work or not. By being open to new perspectives and possibility we are more likely to embrace change and make a success of it.
  1. Aligning to a common purpose: Aligning individuals around a common goal and purpose results in everyone pulling in the same direction. If everyone understands and believes in the vision, they’re more likely to work together to achieve the outcome. This suppresses the ego, reduces competition and builds self-esteem as individuals are motivated to achieve.
  1. Working as a team: Effective teamwork is essential to mobilise and embed change. Working together, sharing skills and knowledge results in fast delivery and high performance.
  1. Systems thinking: Finally, systems thinking. Individuals and teams cannot work in silos; they must view their work in the context of the bigger picture. They need to understand how their contribution impacts the rest of the organisation and the outputs. Having a systems view of the organisation ensures individuals can understand the importance and impact of change when it is upon them.

The five principles create an empowered decentralised approach to leadership and organisational culture which creates a solid foundation from which regular change can occur. However, Kotter (2002) highlights eight accelerators or steps leaders need to follow to ensure change is delivered successfully.

In summary, change agents need to demonstrate a need for change, an urgency around the change; highlighting the risks if change doesn’t occur. This can be challenging to engage the emotion of staff. Some leaders have demonstrated tangible problems such as videotaping an unhappy customer and showing it to groups of employees, helping them see the reality of the poor service the customer was getting. This evokes emotion which will create a buy-in for the change required. Engaging the head and heart around a need to change will result in a more successful outcome. The leadership group needs to be made up of managers and leaders from across the organisation to ensure the change proposed is relevant and necessary. But importantly, those in the guiding group need to believe in the need and urgency for the change. Through engaging the head and heart, executive leaders can create a compelling vision of the outcomes and communicate it effectively up and down and across the organisation. Ensuring everyone has the knowledge and is informed of the vision, the urgency and their role in the process will ensure it change has a greater chance of success.

Once the vision is sold, employees need to be empowered to get on and make the changes necessary. This involves removing the barriers to change – often the role of a non-believing manager. To keep up morale and reinforce the need for change, the process should include the opportunity to achieve some wins along the way. Having to wait two years for the effects of change can be demotivating, so building in some quick wins will keep momentum. Change, however, doesn’t happen overnight, when negativity starts to emerge, and the pace might alter, leaders cannot give up, they need to reinforce the vision. Finally, make it stick through allowing the change to grow roots, through promoting and recruiting people based on the changed behaviour and never stop telling stories that will reinforce the need for change.

Although the eight steps outline an effective approach to change, Senge (1999) outlines some challenges which leaders should anticipate ensuring the change is successful. What this highlights is the complexity of change and the new role of the leader. Gone are the days of the hero-leader who is parachuted in to rescue an organisation. Organisations need effective leaders networked throughout the organisation. Coupled with a culture focusing on empowerment, humility and self-awareness, leaders can generate more creativity, buy-in and motivation from their teams to engage in new and changing requirements. There is a great deal of information on the qualities of an effective leader. However, the one worth noting is the ability to walk the talk. Leaders need to embody the change and never let up in living and breathing the new behaviours.

If you are planning a change within your organisation then contact us and we can advise on how to take this forward across every level of your team. Contact Penny by email or call 0115 880 0098.