Thought Leadership

The Role of Leadership in Organizational Change

Category: Thought Leadership
James Carter • December 15, 2020

The initial installment of this Change Management blog series introduced a framework for better understanding and categorizing change, highlighting the relationship between organizational design, management of change and organizational change management.

In this post, I present a brief synopsis of relevant leadership traits. Then, I provide my specific thoughts on the role of leadership as it relates to the change framework.

Relevant Leadership Characteristics

Effective leadership is a critical element of a successful organization, whether it is a large corporate entity, a small business, a megaproject or other group endeavor. Individuals in an organization respond positively to leadership that is credible and respected. This is true in good times, bad times, steady state and changing times, regardless of the fundamental mission of the organization.

The word “leader” correctly implies that there is a “follower.” In the business world, leaders influence or motivate others in the group to pursue business objectives, which often includes accepting change.

Organizational change often creates speculation, frustration, and fear for job security. These concerns are most often due to lack of understanding of the change drivers and the desired end state. Poor communication and lack of confidence in a silent management team can spawn rumors of worst-case scenarios. In times of transition, therefore, the role of motivating leadership becomes critical for providing credible and trusted communication to positively influence an organization’s reaction to change.  

Consider exactly what leadership is and is not. It is not the same as “management.”

Management consists of controlling a group or a set of entities to accomplish a goal. Leadership refers to an individual’s ability to influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute toward organizational success. Inspiration separates leaders from managers, not power and control.”

Vineet Nayar, V (2013 August 2) “Three Differences Between Managers and Leaders.” HBR.

Leaders are not anointed by virtue of their appointed position in an organization. They may be in management positions, or simply de facto leaders recognized by peers as someone to respect.

Leadership goes beyond prudent management. It comes in many styles, ranging from firm and candid direct communication to subtle influential behavior. Each style is based on respect and trust created by a demonstrated balance between business requirements and appreciation of employee considerations (i.e., what it is that moves them to action).

There is no on/off switch for respect and trust. These must be earned by the leader’s actions, words, accomplishments, and reputation. Often, it is a matter of perception. Trust and respect cannot stem from obscure prior behavior or unreliable accounts of past performance. They thrive in real-time demonstration of decisiveness, communication skills (including listening), and honoring of commitments.

Many believe that leaders are born and cannot be developed by training and experience. However, examples to the contrary abound. Readers of this piece may look to their own experiences or behaviors that have instilled leadership skills. They may be able to identify leaders they have known and reflect on the behaviors or actions that contributed to those individuals’ roles as accepted leaders.

In addition, individuals with strong leadership potential and aptitude can command leadership respect quickly by a visible demonstration of leadership behavior. This often happens organically within the ranks of an organization and can be nurtured by a modicum of training and mentoring.

Leadership in Organizational Design

“All organizations are perfectly designed to get the results they are now getting.”

Deming, W. Edwards; Hanna, David; Northrup, Tom (Attribution varies and has been disputed)

Creating and populating an organization (organizational design) is fundamental to the success of an enterprise. Properly done, it is guided by sound business objectives and unbiased decision-making.

Leadership at all levels is critical to achieving an effective organization. Leaders can ensure that appropriate strategic objectives and methods are identified and articulated in the organizational design process, considering roles, responsibilities, authorities, interfaces, and individual skills. Involvement by respected and experienced leadership helps ensure a solid basis for the organization structure and population, as well as acceptance by stakeholders.

Often, key personnel designing an organization are managers of the group. They should employ leadership principles and solicit support from trusted leaders, if necessary. Those group managers should draw on the expertise and opinions of peers, immediate superiors, and trusted advisors within or outside the enterprise, as well as affected employees. In certain organizational changes, especially those of significant strategic importance, an experienced organizational design consultant may also be appropriate.

Leaders outside the immediate design group must visibly support the organizational design development process and execution; they must also be supportive in communicating the plan and results. Most importantly, they must ensure that the best individuals are assigned to positions in the organization without favoritism or bias.

Management of Change

As described in the previous post of this series, management of change involves defining and communicating the business objectives, the culture, and the vision of the end state. It includes establishing the working environment and appropriate sense of urgency required to achieve the change.

Decision-making and communication skills play a major role in managing change, whether it be modifications to the organization, the need to refocus priorities, or the need to change cultural behaviors. The leader must be able to motivate the team to accept change. That is best achieved by effectively communicating the rationale for change and the value of desired results.

Leaders do not stop at merely informing the team. They should frequently reinforce the bases for changing and solicit feedback from all affected personnel. Soliciting employee feedback without addressing employee questions or concerns can result in a negative impact. Once employee feedback is obtained, leaders should respond with an explanation of the issue or effect adjustments in the plan, if appropriate.

Good leaders do not sit in their offices and wait for such feedback to “walk in the door.” They walk around the office or the shop floor, talking to individuals, soliciting questions and inquiring about the understanding and acceptance of change. (The notion of such direct, personal employee interaction should not be limited to periods of change but should be routine practice.)

To effectively manage change, a leader must be committed to the change, be communicative and be accessible throughout the transition period.

Organizational Change Management

Organizational change management is a project, planned and designed to change people and/or process and/or tools. It is a properly resourced, temporary effort with a defined scope, schedule, and budget established to achieve a clearly defined end state.

The leader’s role in organizational change management is no different than for any endeavor requiring an organization to perform. Considering organizational change management as an implementation “project,” the project manager must function as a leader and apply principles of leadership.

To be effective in that role, the project manager must have a clear understanding of the bases for change and be supported by senior management in communicating the change value proposition. Leadership characteristics described in this post’s introduction and in the “Management of Change” section should be employed by the project manager and appropriate members of the project team. Management personnel above the project manager should supplement the communication and serve as advisors on matters related to acceptance of change.


The influence of respected and trusted leadership cannot be overstated. It is an essential element for dealing with change. Ideally, leadership should be pre-existing in an organization, not an afterthought to support a critical issue. Leadership practices for dealing with change should be proactively in place.

The time for strong leadership is now, not when a crisis arises. Businesses should have an effective plan for leadership development and should rigorously execute it, recognize it and sustain it, not relegate it to a three-ring binder on a shelf.