Organizational leaders around the world are feeling what internationally recognized change leadership expert and Harvard Business School professor emeritus John P. Kotter calls “a sense of urgency.” That urgency needs to be harnessed and directed to produce the desired results. So, we need to change how we think about change, clearly delineating the difference between merely managing it and leading it.
The ability to lead change is an often-overlooked—and most urgently needed—quality an executive in any type of organization can leverage. We live in a time of uncertainty regarding business and social norms. Being adaptable within our organizations in response to evolving market demands and the chain-reaction effects of global events is one key change-leadership skill.
As organizations evolve, their leaders can face harsh reality checks regarding their ability to manage necessary change. To build a robust and resilient workforce, leaders need to incorporate adaptability, flexibility, and strategic recalibration into the core identity of their organization.
Navigating through change involves a balancing act, especially where human talent is concerned: It involves consistent retraining and upskilling of existing teams while providing the support needed to maintain morale and avoid burnout. And building change capacity—the organization's ability to respond nimbly, efficiently, and appropriately to the demands of change—is a piece of any successful corporate improvement strategy.
Kotter’s Eight-Step Change Model
Kotter’s eight-step change model includes leveraging the power of a sense of urgency, creating supportive teams, removing roadblocks, and ultimately implementing and building on change. It continues to be relevant decades after he developed it. In a 2011 op-ed in Forbes magazine, he disambiguated the terms “change leadership” and “change management” in ways that can help any leader move forward with more confidence and effectiveness.
Many of the management systems and practices in place today were created to provide stability and continuity, rather than the adaptability at the core of change leadership. Legacy practices also tend to focus on developing the skills of a finite set of people within an organization to handle problem-solving and people management.
Managing change involves using a set of tools and procedures designed to bound and focus the impact of change. It’s about keeping unintended disruption to a minimum. It focuses on preventing or slowing the pace of specific change-related problems like cost overruns and employee recalcitrance. Most people, most of the time, are working within the narrower perspective of change management.
Change Leadership – Engine of Transformation
Change leadership, Kotter writes, is different in its essence. It centers on the bigger picture and deeper issues. It focuses on creating large-scale, thorough-going transformation. “It’s an engine,” he once wrote. Other experts have elaborated on the theme, arguing that change leadership fosters a climate of experimentation, openness to novel ideas, and flexibility about how to achieve goals.
Change leadership looks at the process of change from a holistic perspective and with intention. Change leaders channel the energies in their organizations, directing resources and empowering staff strategically in order to make their visions a reality. They constantly analyze processes against their larger vision with the goal of streamlining and increasing efficiency. It is within this change leadership where we see Kotter’s sense of “urgency” fully in action.
There’s also a perception that there is more risk with change leadership. The focus isn’t on controlling every aspect of a process to forestall anything going wrong, although in reality that is not possible, it's on momentum. Given the power of this “engine,” Kotter noted that the way to minimize risk is to have a driver who’s working at the top of his or her powers, as well as “a heck of a car.”
Change Capability – An Ongoing Leadership Effort
Building on Kotter’s ideas, other experts have noted that change leadership calls on everyone, at every level, of an organization to help build the organization’s change capability. In addition to establishing frameworks and required tools, increasing your organization's change capability requires intentional growth behavior and outlook. Leaders across the organization need to develop the capacity to not only accept change, but to embrace it on an ongoing basis and to inspire others to do so as well.
In today’s world, change isn't the infrequent punctuation to a steady stream of consistency. If it was, change management might be enough. But because the pace of change has become unceasing and cumulative, the need to build change capacity—and hence, change leadership—has become imperative. Change leadership, Kotter wrote, is about making “bigger leaps,” taking advantage of the right moments amidst a barrage of opportunities.
Educating for change leadership is “the big challenge” facing us as we move into an uncertain future. With relatively few organizations committing adequate resources to it, embracing change leadership could be the deciding factor that moves your organization ahead of the rest.