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How to be a Change Leader

Monday, November 25, 2013 - 20:58

By Leon Gettler

Change leaders always seem to have innovative solutions to pressing problems. Passionate about changing the world and organisations, they want to make a difference. They are result-driven, goal-oriented and competitive. The best are also pragmatic, effective, and hands-on. They are flexible and work tirelessly and relentlessly to create the change they desire. They are the best managers of all.

John Katzenbach from the consulting firm McKinsey says great change leaders don’t actually come from the top. He says the real change leaders who affect how the majority of people perform come from the ranks of middle and frontline managers. “RCLs (Real Change Leaders) connect top management aspirations and strategic intent with fresh market insights and responsive workforce actions. They hunger for marketplace reality; denial is not in their vocabulary. Nor do they take anyone else’s word for that reality. They regularly talk with customers and find out at first-hand what competitors are up to. And they use this intelligence to energize the people who work around them.”

Forbes contributor Erika Andersen says great change leaders build the right teams. She suggests managers should think about cultivating three types of helpers in their lives: wizards, well-wishers, and wild cards.

Wizards are seasoned experts with unique knowledge they can share (think mentors or outside consultants). Well-wishers are their support team, whether it’s a loving spouse or loyal colleagues at work. And wild cards, she says, are “people who you’re not sure if they’re going to eat you or help you.”

She says the best change leaders are self-aware. “What’s most important and foundational is an accurate self-assessment,’’ Andersen says. “Even OK leaders can get to be quite good if they’re self-aware.” ‘

She says change leaders also have to know how to balance their strength with vulnerability. They need to be strong but permeable, open to suggestion so they can bring people with them. “Unfortunately, a lot of new leaders think they have to suddenly have all the answers, always be right, and never let them see you sweat, but that’s BS – it doesn’t work, at least in the long run. Strength and inclusiveness are what really bring out other people.”

Arnold Anderson at the Houston Chronicle says the great change leaders are persuasive, thorough and confident. They have great communication skills to get their ideas across and they have to be unwavering in the execution of the change.

One of the world’s great management thinkers John Kotter says change leadership is completely different from change management. People shouldn’t get them mixed up. Change management is about trying to push things along, but it’s also trying to minimise disruptions by keeping things under control and trying to make sure change is done efficiently in the sense of they don’t go over budget.

“And change leadership is just fundamentally different—it’s an engine,’’ Kotter says. “It’s more about urgency. It’s more about masses of people who want to make something happen. It’s more about big visions. It’s more about empowering lots and lots of people. Change leadership has the potential to get things a little bit out of control.”

And unfortunately, he says, we tend to produce more change managers than change leaders. “Change leadership is going to be the big challenge in the future, and the fact that almost nobody is very good at it is—well, it’s obviously a big deal,’’ he says.