Want Change? Build Leaders, Not Process

It’s two months after a major organizational change effort that affected your job. Which change leader described below might have increased your personal commitment to the change – your personal buy in and willingness to make it work-at this critical stage?

1. Leader A followed carefully planned change management steps. She presented an urgent business case for change and expressed her vision for the future. A guiding coalition was created to lead change. Teams were directed to create the new processes/practices within guidelines. Communications shared the always-good news of progress. The organizational celebrated when the change was completed on time, thus deemed a success.

2. Leader B has a passionate commitment to a shared future vision.  She views change as an effort to achieve this shared vision. She trusts empowered associates to make the vision come alive through the right decisions about their work.  Her high levels of personal credibility are a result of authentic interest in associate well-being and investment in their success. Conflict is acknowledged as an opportunity to learn instead of blame. She doesn’t follow anything but her leadership values and principles. Change isn’t celebrated because it’s “over,” but because it’s a regular result of individual and team innovation.

Commitment to Change Depends Upon the Leader, Not the Process

If you believe that your personal commitment to change- your buy in to make it work- is more likely to be enhanced under Leader B, you share the same conclusion reached in a wide ranging study involving 393 employees involved in change efforts across 30 organizations. The researchers, David Herold, Donald, Fedor, Steven Caldwell and Yi Lui, concluded that transformational leadership qualities, Leader B qualities, had a higher impact on the individual choice to buy in to change than “change management” practices adopted by transactional leaders like Leader A.  It also concludes:

  • Transactional leaders that followed change management steps got achieved better commitment results than transactional leaders who did not. So, some leaders really need change management steps to produce any success with change.
  • Transformational leaders who adopted change management behavior achieved improved commitment because of their credibility and authenticity. These leaders got results because of their personal equity more than their process.

Transaction Vs. Transformation

Leader A approaches change as a transaction. It is something to be done unto others.There is a business case for change presented to associates. This leader believes if associates are told, they will understand. There is a vision, but it is a vision of completing the change. There is empowerment, teams of people who develop a solution until it is approved by the leader. There are tasks and timeless. When these are done, the change is done. Everyone will do what he or she is supposed to do.

Leader B approaches change as they approach leadership. It is something done with others. There is a business case for change, created with associates. They understand it because they produced it. There is a vision, but it is a vision of the future. Associates envision a dynamic organization constantly in change because it is alive and growing.  Empowerment is expressed in teams of people who feel personal accountability for decisions because they will do what they create. There are tasks and timelines. When these are done, the change begins. Associates work differently; unanticipated problems arise or extra support is needed. It’s at this point when the importance of personal commitment to change makes the difference between success and failure. Committed associates are more likely make the choice to try to make it work instead of finding reasons why it won’t.

Invest In Lasting Change

I wonder if many concepts of “change” are old artifacts. Many assume that we still live in static states that get unfrozen, moved to something new and refrozen.  Under this concept, change is another transaction to be managed. It’s delivered by a series of leadership steps and models. Organizations invest in “change management” capabilities because of a belief that if more people know the steps, more can produce change.

Perhaps a better investment to produce organizational change capabilities is to invest in producing transformational leaders. It’s leaders, not steps, that can inspire affective commitment to change. Develop leaders who view change as something created because of people, not in spite of them. Leaders who do not wait for an initiative to lead through shared vision, empowerment and personal credibility. Leaders who understand that change happens when associates decide to stay invested instead of check out.

If you want greater organizational change capability, focus on transformational leaders.


Herald, D.M., Fedor, D.B., Caldwell, S., Lui, Yi. ( 2008). Effects of Transformational and Change Leadership on Employee Commitment to Change: A Multilevel Study. Journal of Applied Psychology, vol. 93, no.2 pp. 346-357.

6 thoughts on “Want Change? Build Leaders, Not Process

  1. Terrific post Susan…one thought though – do organizations really seek transformational leaders as much as your post suggests they should? I think many choose for the transactionally-focused individual because the concept of change is inherently uncomfortable. Though I trend towards the findings of the study, I have worked within more organizations that approach change with great reluctance despite all their verbiage to the contrary.

  2. Thanks, Mimi. It’s my impression that most organization’s don’t develop transformational leaders. They may hire them, keep them, and be glad to have them. But, for most organizations, the concept of transformational leadership is too antithetical to a “command and control” activity junkie model to actively try to grow more.

    I think this is one reason why the study was interesting to me. It was a large sample over many organizations that showed that for all the money and effort organizations put into change practices, it’s a leader, not a practice, that can make change stick.

    Glad you stopped by.

  3. Hi Susan (and Mimi) – I thoroughly accept the points made in your blog. As I read it I found myself nodding and acknowledging these key points vigorously and then I read Mimi’s comment and…well, you are both absolutely spot-on! I own a business that exists for the sole purpose of assisting to develop and influence transformational leaders and genuinely impact culture. This is best accomplished by working with their team not in spite of them, which is often the situation. In my experience there is considerable fear around the concept of transformational change, often based on uncertainty and the perceived and real need for leaders to influence this change. What is not understood is usually ignored or at best, passively accepted, not actively pursued, which is the ideal.

  4. Thanks for the observations. I think you’ve nailed it. People are afraid to be transformational leaders. Heck, it scares me. It takes so much to go deep, discover values and live them. It requires a lot of effort to co create a vision and have the discipline to stick with it. So, I get it. It’s much easier to follow seven steps to change. And, this research shows that a model is better than nothing. But how many big ideas start with ” We want better than nothing!”

  5. Pingback: Is your business is broken? | Kelly Business Advisors, LLC

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