Change brings instability, and effective leaders provide consistency and vision during these transitional times. While management is geared toward addressing systems and processes, leadership works with the humans executing the process to work through their difficulties and leverage their strengths. Change that is executed by effective leaders brings a community on board and coordinates diverse skills and broad-based energies to achieve real results.


The leadership role in change management is that of a therapist, cheerleader and coach.

Levels of Change Leadership

Because change leadership is a process of harnessing the energies of different people at different levels of an organization, it requires three different orientations:

  1. Self. Before beginning to bring together a group of people around a shared challenge, leaders should first take serious looks at their own attitudes and capacities. This level of change leadership training takes stock of personal tools as well as individual biases that may stand in the way of effective leadership. It takes a strong leader to recognize weakness and blind spots as well as strengths and to delegate as needed.

  2. Others. To truly lead an organization through change, a leader must take stock of the feelings and dynamics that could get in the way of achieving synergies and working collaboratively toward goals. This interpersonal managerial skill should be independent of personal judgments and geared mainly toward creating harmony and inspiring staff to get on board with changes with as few reservations as possible.

  3. Organization. The importance of leadership in management grows out of a company culture and collection of shared resources that are available for taking the planned next steps. These may be internal capabilities such as infrastructure, equipment and companywide training. It can also extend to external circumstances such as the regulatory and political climate or the availability of necessary materials.

Phases of Organizational Change

  • Understanding. To set a change in motion and have it gain traction, members of an organization should be on board with the upcoming shift. A leader's role is to communicate about short- and long-term upcoming changes, minimizing surprises and making sure that staff members know what to expect.

  • Decision making. Although the push for change may be coming from upper-management levels, skilled leaders also find ways to bring employees into the decision-making process. This involves allowing some autonomy when working out details rather than micromanaging strategies and processes that can be most effectively planned by the people in the trenches because of their hands-on knowledge and experience.

  • Action. Effective leaders get things done. They motivate staff and ensure that everyone knows what to do. If there has already been work on understanding the process and engagement in decision-making for moving it forward, the action phase may flow relatively smoothly, although it will still need to be managed because of inevitable wild cards.

  • Evaluation. No matter how carefully a leader may plan and spearhead a process of change, some things won't gain traction. By taking a clear and honest look at what worked and what didn't, an effective leader can not only manage the changes that are currently taking place but also set up an organization for ongoing strategic evolution.

Leadership and Internal Change

It is usually easier to manage change that your organization sets in motion intentionally than to integrate unplanned changes spurred by external forces. The process of leadership for internal change works well when a long-term vision is widely shared and shorter-term goals are synched with this narrative. Clarity and communication are key for both logistical and interpersonal reasons. People work effectively when they know just what to do and also when they have a stake in the company's outcomes.

Internally planned change can give a leader the luxury of getting staff ready and checking in with them about preparedness and possible resistance. You know what's coming or at least what you're aiming to achieve, so you can build support and manage expectations. You can engage a team to act rather than react and to take pride in outcomes and responsibility for shortcomings. You are making the change happen rather than having it happen to you.

The processes that bring about internal change can be coordinated across different levels of an organization because you see the shift coming and can visualize and manage possible outcomes. Although you can't always predict precisely what will occur, you can be ready for different scenarios with a series of plans and backup plans.

Leadership and External Change

External change that comes from circumstances beyond your control can be more difficult to manage than carefully planned transitions, but these challenges make the leadership role even more important. The uncertainty of an unplanned major change such as a management upheaval or the failure of a critical product line may take your organization by surprise, creating the need for a leader to soothe frayed nerves or develop a critical plan without sufficient time to work through all of the details.

As with leading a team through internal change, communication is critical for navigating through unplanned upsets. When upheaval strikes, nobody will know precisely what to expect, but transparency on the part of leadership can at least give the message that everyone is working together to address the situation. Open communication builds trust and community, while secrets and withheld information create division and dampen employee willingness to stay with the company despite uncertainties.

In times of unplanned and difficult change, a leader can't always make the situation better, but the leadership role in change management can keep employees working together as a team rather than sowing distrust and discord, which will only make the situation worse. If employees know that their concerns and opinions matter, they're more likely to weather uncertainty. If an organization is poorly managed, and its lack of leadership leads to even greater unpredictability, their loyalty will wane.

Importance of Leadership in Management

Although leaders are often managers, and managers are often leaders, these two functions aren't necessarily the same. Managers deal with logistics, while leaders deal with people. It is the job of a manager to make sure that all of the physical, mechanical and technical aspects of the change process have been effectively coordinated, and it is the role of a leader to bring the crew into the equation with engagement and motivation.

Leadership is connected to company culture. A business that cares about its employees and treats them as partners rather than puzzle pieces will have an easier time managing change in ways that benefit both management and staff. Employees will be invested in the leader's efforts to effect change gracefully, and leadership will take extra steps to connect and communicate with staff. A business that sucks its employees dry and provides disproportionate rewards to its upper echelon will be unlikely to address employee concerns during a period of ongoing change and in return will likely lose their loyalty.

In contrast, management takes care of practical necessities, making sure the timeline flows smoothly, and the physical infrastructure is in place. Leadership and managerial roles in the change process overlap because transition is even more difficult without the personnel to do what is needed. Leadership plays the role of keeping these staff members on board as vital, contributing participants in the process.