Blog 17.3.2023

Leading change – ”Could you spell out what is change leadership?”


Change leadership or change management?

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But when we come across a concept that is not so familiar the many names become a burden.

Change leadership and change management with all the different variations are a duo that I have explained quite many times during my almost ten years as a change consultant. And still, I am unable to make a compact elevator speech about it.

I will tell you now, how I usually explain what it is all about. For the sake of simplicity, I will talk about change leadership.

Horrible layoff negotiations, psychobabble – or something else?

I’ve noticed that some concepts are strongly biased. Change leadership or change management is for sure one of those.

When one person hears the word change management or change leadership, it brings to their mind the worst layoff experience. For someone else, it is just psychobabble. A third person might think of it as the necessary evil in projects – creating a communication plan. The fourth person links it to scope changes in projects. The fifth one is thinking about the IT world with servers and all. And for the sixth person, it doesn’t mean a thing.

If I need to explain change leadership, I first try to figure out which one of those six persons I am talking with.

Leading the human side of change

Normally I start by providing the background, that we are now concentrating on changes in the corporate context, even if many of the change leadership classics have come into being after studying major changes occurring in people’s lives.

I then continue by telling that organizations develop, renew, and change things all the time and that this work is typically done through projects, programs, initiatives, or by agile development teams and trains. Targeted benefits, concrete deliverables, schedules, resources, and budgets are defined. Every project usually means a change for someone or a group of people. The forces driving the need for change can be external or internal.

Let’s take an example: a project that is set up for renewing the sales operating model. The objective is to create an end-to-end sales process, define the roles and responsibilities and implement or renew the system supporting the sales. The project team works towards the definition and execution in the agreed schedule and budget and with the allocated resources. This is the mechanistic or technical side of change. The more straightforward and predictable side of change.

The other side – the human side of change – in turn, is more complex and less predictable. How so? Because we are talking about people who all have different experiences from earlier changes, different ways of dealing with change, differences in maintaining their capability to act during change, different workloads, and on top of everything – their own feelings. The human side of change is all about how we can make people change the way they think and act so that we achieve the benefits targeted by the change.

Change leadership includes all the actions, know-how and tools that are needed to make the human side of change succeed so that the benefits targeted by the change will be achieved.

Definition of change leadership

Change only happens when a large enough group of individuals starts to do things in a new way, every day. To be precise, change leadership includes everything that helps people to

  • Become aware of what will change and why
  • Understand what will change in practice
  • Accept what changes
  • Feel in control of the change
  • Make change meaningful
  • Support colleagues or subordinates in change
  • Learn the new things required by the change
  • Adopt new routines
  • Unlearn old habits
  • Maintain ability to act during change and
  • Stick to the new ways of working.

I usually don’t want to define change leadership through the used methods, because each change calls for a unique set of methods. However, methods help us understand more concretely what we are talking about. There are different ways for making all the listed things happen, e.g. interactive and one-way communication in different forms, supporting the leaders and managers in their leadership, discussions in groups or twosome, change agents, training, sparring, coaching, internal marketing, incentives and by making it impossible to continue old habits.

A more theoretical approach to end with

I decided to talk about change leadership just for the sake of simplicity, and I have used it as a hypernym to describe all the ways to support the human side of change.

John Kotter is one of the most known and most quoted researchers of change leadership. He specifies the difference between change management and change leadership. According to Kotter, change management means the tools and structures used to make change happen and to keep any change under control. Change leadership means all the powers, visions, and processes that move the change forward faster, smarter, and more efficiently.

Prosci, with a nearly 30-year background in change management research, uses change management as the main term, which includes the processes, tools, actions, and know-how needed to lead the human side of change and achieve the targeted benefits and help people move from the current state to the future state.

We are seeing a proliferation of different ways to define the subject. To emphasize the human and organizational side there are additional attributes like people change management and organizational change management. Also, the term change enablement is used. Whether the additions bring clarity or confusion, is open to debate.

We decided to talk about change execution to avoid the theoretical wrangle on change management and change leadership, what they are and what they aren’t, and which one is the hypernym, if either.

Whatever the concept, the most important realization is that in addition to a mechanistic side, there is always the human side, and at the end of the day, it is us people who choose to be ‘in’ or ‘out’. We achieve the targeted benefits only when enough people are in. And that they are ‘in’ for the next change and the next. And that is yet another story.

Looking for support with leading people-driven change?


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Auli Packalén

Director of Brand and Offering

Auli works as Director, Brand and Offering, at Gofore. She has previously worked 10+ years in change management consultancy CCEA, acquired by Gofore in 2021.

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