The Leader as Change Agent

The most consistent thing in the 21st century is change. We simply can’t escape it. It occurs so quickly that leaders and organisations have to be adaptable or risk becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Leaders are expected to be change agents in their organisations. They are required to instigate and implement change initiatives that improve the effectiveness, competitiveness and profitability of their organisations.  Change initiatives usually fail because leaders fail to account for the role of transition in implementing them. Change and transition are sometimes used interchangeably but they don’t mean the same thing.

William Bridges in his brilliant book, Managing Transitions, clarified the difference between both terms. Change is situational while transition is psychological. He metaphorically described change as a wall and transition as the gate in that wall. Transition is the process through which people come to terms with the disruptive nature of change. It involves going through three key phases in order for people to accept any change initiative;

(1) The ending: This involves letting go of the comfort of the present to embrace the unpredictability and uncertainty of the desired change initiative. The way things were for the way things can be. Every change is a consequence and every change ends something. Leaders’ concern for future benefits of desired change programs sometimes prevent them from seeing their subordinates’ difficulties in letting go of the present to grasp the future. This is why they may face stiff resistance in response to new change initiatives.

(2) The neutral zone: Everything looks uncertain and confusing in this middle phase because people are adjusting to letting go of their past realities and warming up to embrace the change initiative. People are in a state of limbo and leaders need to support their people as they struggle to make sense of their new state. Critics, sceptics and cynics will pose the greatest threat during this phase. The leader must continually sell the benefits of the change initiative because if the people don’t buy it, then they will not embrace it wholeheartedly.

(3) The new beginning: People finally embrace change initiative and start to demonstrate new behaviours required for it to be successful. They still need time and support from their leaders in order to fully internalise these new attitudes and core competencies. Punishing initial mistakes at this stage will only traumatise the people and hinder their growth and development.

Leaders can either compel their followers to comply with the change initiative or enable them to commit to it. According to Rosabeth Moss Kanter, compliance can be achieved using a bold stroke while commitment comes via going the long march with your people. Most of the time, leaders can see the intended destination before their followers are aware of the race but failing to lead them through the transitional journey could disrupt the change initiative. If you are looking to implement a sustainable and successful change initiative, remember commitment trumps compliance.

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2 Responses to The Leader as Change Agent

  1. Ogechi

    Hmm… this is a complicated article to chew on and grasp. However I was able to pick up on how change requires an ending of something. I also agree that committment requires compliance.

    I also absolutely agree that a leader is a mandatory agent of change. Afterall that’s the whole point of change of power, huh?

    Let me chew on this some more…

  2. Ayo

    As they say, change is the only constant in life, so we all need to get used to it in order to progress. This post tells me that in order to progress under change, I need commitment.

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