Perfecting Organizational Change: Defining the Role of the Change Leader

As the economy shows signs of recovery, organizations all over the world are facing an environment of unprecedented urgency, high stakes, and uncertainty. Even more significantly, many of the new challenges such as global competition, energy constraints, climate changes, and political instability are beyond the ability of organizational leaders to influence or even predict (Heifetz, Grashow et al. 2009). One implication of this is the need for organizations to change continuously and in new and different ways (Hamel 2009). The ability of 21st century organizations to change quickly, effectively, and with minimal resources is increasingly seen as source of real competitive advantage—but how many organizations can really do this?

Many leaders question the ability of their organization to effectively adapt and change—even when their survival is at stake. The doubts of leaders are very understandable given the track record of organizational change efforts. The truth is that most of these efforts continue to under-perform, fail outright or make things worse (Cope 2003). A key 21st century business question is this: How can organizational change become more effective?

Experts agree that an important—and often under-valued factor in successful organizational change—is great leadership (Ahn, Adamson et al. 2004). Unfortunately, the literature on organizational change does not provide much help in defining the role of the great change leader. I recently performed research in which senior leaders of successful organizations (including three global organizations in the Fortune 300) were asked to help illuminate the role of leaders in successful change (McFarland 2011). Leaders in my study cited eight characteristics of great change leaders.

1. The best change leaders ensure clarity about the purpose of Change
. Leaders emphasized that this purpose must be more than just an explanation of the business need driving the change. The purpose must be explained in the context of the organization’s strategy and core values in order to have maximum motivational impact on people. Explaining how an organizational change is an important next step in achieving what "we" want to accomplish together and what "we" aspire to be together provides an important context for the change effort and can be profoundly motivational—or even inspirational.

2. The best change leaders ensure that the purpose of Chang
e is effectively—and repeatedly communicated to all. Leaders emphasized that in order for a change purpose to be motivational; it must be heard and understood by all. Leaders noted that this communication process can be very difficult in large global organizations whose employees are widely separated in terms of geography, language, and culture. Even so, leaders urged that organizations emphasize the communication process regardless of cost

3. The best change leaders are effective in leading Change
within the specific context of the organization’s culture. These leaders know two important things: when to use features of culture to enable change and when and if to challenge features of culture as a part of change.

4. The best change leaders work to inspire trust.
These leaders share information continuously, are consistently fair, and act transparently. They are seen by their teams as being equally focused on the change effort and on the welfare of the team. The best leaders are seen as approachable and authentic—able to relate to real problems sensitively and constructively.

5. The best change leaders effectively manage the "pace" of the change effort.
Leaders in the study emphasized that it was more important to get and keep employees engaged in the process than to "go fast." Leaders valued keeping everyone involved in the change effort, much more highly than finishing a change effort on time.

6. The best change leaders are great developers of people.
In the context of organizational change, two competencies were highlighted most: The ability to actively involve others in the change effort by sharing real power and the ability to mentor specific individuals as future change leaders. The best leaders think and act collectively and are able to do more than just motivate their teams—they are able to inspire the best thinking and performance.

7. The best change leaders build momentum for Change
. They do this in two key ways: they celebrate success often and they never place blame when setbacks occur. These leaders personally absorb much of the stress of change and do not let it adversely affect their behavior. They are "calm under fire."

8. The best change leaders establish and use processes for learning.
These leaders ensure the team—and the organization—learn from the change process in a systematic way that builds the organization’s capacity for future change. The best leaders know that no change effort is the last one. Instead, each is an opportunity to develop important new capabilities for the team and the organization.

Because the above factors are only a first step in defining the role of leaders in effective organizational change, more research is needed and the following areas are suggested as being particularly important: research that provides direct and prolonged observation of leadership activities in change efforts as these efforts unfold; research focused specifically on large, multi-national corporations; research that explores the best combination of "internal" and "external" change leadership; and research that specifically identifies the components of a new leadership competency focused on "the leadership of change."


Ahn, M. J., J. S. A. Adamson, et al. (2004). "From leaders to leadership: Managing change." Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies 10(4): 112-123.
Cope, M. (2003). The seven C's of consulting. London, Financial Times/Prentice Hall.
Hamel, G. (2009). "Moon shorts for management." Harvard Business Review 87(Number 2): 91-98.
Heifetz, R., A. Grashow, et al. (2009). "Leadership in a Permanent Crisis." Harvard Business Review 87(July-August): 62-69.
McFarland, W. (2011). How internal change leaders think about organizational change: A multiple case study of five organizations. HEC Management School Paris with SAID Business School, Oxford. Paris, HEC Management School. MS.c: 147.