Leaders need to change. It’s not about coping with change, or even managing change; the reality is that leaders of and within organisations need to lead change. They need to plan for it, explain it to stakeholders, put the right people in the right places to make it happen. Leading change is about both responding to culture and being on the cutting edge of it.

Here at Arrow Coaching+ we conducted some research on leaders and change, The research findings were fascinating. We noticed that leaders who did not commit to ongoing self-development tended to have a homeostatic culture in their organisation. The culture wasn’t dynamic; it didn’t have a growth mindset, it avoided innovation, and it was slow to respond to movements in global culture, technological developments, and so on. The consequence for non-developing leaders was that they couldn’t, and didn’t, lead change, or know how to do that.

What sets good leaders apart?

What sets good leaders apart is that they have a focus on the future. They are interested in the movement; where is this organisation going? What does it want to achieve? Kouzes and Posners’ third leadership practice is to “challenge the process,” since leadership challenges involve a change in the status quo. John W. Gardner (On Leadership, 1990), says that leaders must foster the process of renewal. All leaders must challenge the current process by searching for opportunities to innovate, grow and improve. What does that involve?

1st and 2nd order change …

2nd order change is about seeing a need, getting some people in on a planning process, developing a strategy, announcing it, and rolling out the plan. But change starts with 1st order change – that is, capturing the hearts and minds of the people, and tapping into their core values. It’s about listening to people and what is on their hearts. It is about understanding the organisation’s people, their history, their culture; it’s about asking questions, understanding the journey travelled. Without starting here, leading change will be an uphill slog all the way.

It’s a team game …

Good leaders know that leading change is a team activity. One of them said: “If you can get 20% of your leaders committed to change, you can change the whole organisation. Less than that, it won’t change.” Another used a coaching approach: “I have attempted to lead change by introducing a coaching culture; this was directed towards people in leadership roles and was exceptionally well received.” A third voice added an equally important perspective: “Leading change is also about leading myself. It meant leading the Board well – leading up. Now with 8 staff, it’s still the same principle.” Leading change is a team game.

The trouble with structures …

The structure is the vehicle that carries the organisation’s vision and purpose; it’s the way the system is designed to embody the mission and carry out the mission. And once we are used to doing things this way, the culture develops that supports it. Now, what happens when you want to change something? One leader said it well: “When leading change, leaders are surprised by push-back; it’s almost as if no one has taught them that if you push on the system, then the system pushes back. It’s normal.” When a structure becomes more important than the function and purpose of the organisation, you know you’re in trouble.

Do you put up with change, manage change, or lead it? What’s the challenge for you?