The number one key contributor to successful change is the change leader. His or her competency level increases adoption rates and positively influences others to change. When looking back at various change initiatives, one can quickly recall change leaders who were very strong in this role and others who struggled to display the change leadership skill set.

Some change leader categories are as follows:

The Reluctant Change Leader

This change leader may not fully understand or buy into what the sponsorship role entails, may lack the time and personal resources to commit to the role, may find themselves unwilling or unable to create support with others, may struggle to articulate the change vision and goals in their communications and may want to abdicate responsibility to others such as the project manager and change practitioner.

If coaching the change leader does not improve matters, the change practitioner will often try other strategies such as carefully selecting change agents with the right skills, knowledge, credibility, and trust within the organization. If the change leader trusts a particular change agent, they may be able to work together to deliver a demonstrated commitment.

The Perfectionist Change Leader

This change leader may seem like a dream come true since they hold the change very close to their vest and demonstrate 110% commitment. What could possibly be wrong with this approach? Well, endless meetings and revisions for a start. The focus on perfection rather than progress may mean that they struggle to delegate tasks to anyone outside their immediate and close inner circle. They may obsess over minor details and often view the change targets as incapable of moving beyond their self-imposed limits without an enormous amount of leadership support. Similar to a parent who teaches their children a learned helplessness frame of mind by over-parenting, this change leader tends to build a group of followers who struggle to control their outcome, and make less and less of an attempt to do so. Followers become somewhat frozen during change since they do not recognize that they have any personal control, self-efficacy or innate ability to move through change without others accompanying them to assist in the transition. Followers may give up trying, only engaging in tasks that require little effort. Sadly, after enough time the question arises as to whether impacted groups are feigning inability or actually lack the tools to accomplish the tasks being asked of them. Although the change effort may appear to be extremely successful from the outside, every subsequent change initiative will require equal, if not more, amounts of change management effort to continue to remain successful.

Between These Two Extremes of Change Leadership

Between these two extremes is the evolution of a change leader. Some exceptional people may have the innate ability to lead change transformations as the leader who revolutionizes an organization through change. I think that other change leaders may cross through several stages on the journey to this mastery level.

Rolling Change Leader

This change leader rolls (or roles, if you prefer) with the punches and tolerates ambiguity. They are able to communicate and defend the change to others. They show up and are definitely not reluctant to lead the change which makes for a great starting point since they tend to be quite coachable and willing to commit to the role itself.

Crawling Change Leader

Capable of initiating and leading small changes within their own locus of control, these change leaders may be able to lead intra-departmental changes quite well through demonstrating active and visible sponsorship for the change. With some support and coaching, they may grow more and more comfortable in progressing toward tackling broader inter-departmental changes requiring a larger degree of influence.

Walking Change Leader

The walking change leader is able to apply a larger change vision to a specific change initiative. Their role will likely involve influencing others across many departments to increase adoption and manage complex relationships. At this point, the change leader has the basics to fully lean into their change leadership role (communication, collaboration and commitment). They are resilient and persistent, and willing to step outside their comfort zone. They devote more of their own time to the change effort and are focused on the big picture.

Running Change Leader

A big shift happens at this point. The leader moves from simply executing change leadership as a “mover” level supporting the case for change to becoming a change creator or “shaker.” They are able to generate new change in a constructive way for others to arrive at the intended future state outcomes. Putting a lot on the line to support the change is just part of their personal courage. Understanding their audience and articulating their ideas in ways that resonate with what their audience is concerned with become how the running change leader creates positive and lasting change. They are super passionate and see an opportunity to create positive change in their organization, but they also possess realistic optimism. They remain objective and present their case with an air of diplomacy. They challenge others in a respectful and professional way, which in turn, kicks off a series of events which ultimately finds a way to make positive change happen quickly. Others willingly volunteer to help and the running change leader has no hesitation to delegate to others from many diverse areas of the organization and many different hierarchical positions. If it takes a village, then this leader rallies the village to shake things up!

Flying Change Leader

Since this change leader revolutionizes an organization through change, he or she achieves remarkable feats that inspire and nudge others to stick to their convictions when the going gets tough. The flying change leader personifies dedication and patience. They question everything and find new ways of thinking about old problems. They are able to rapidly modernize without sacrificing their values while maintaining their focus on people and process. A willingness to stand alone on issues they believe in makes them one of the most beloved and memorable of change leaders. They build confidence in others that determination and positive thinking can triumph over even the most severe limitations. Vision, perseverance and commitment to their values help the flying change leader continue to soar to new heights.

What’s the Catch?

The resources that you might invest in implementing a broad roll-crawl-walk-run effort could potentially be more wisely implemented in a narrow run-or-fly effort. It is unwise to assume that a change leader can rapidly grow and evolve to the desired state through leading a single change initiative. There is imminent danger of the competition transforming faster than you to better serve (and thus take) customers in the marketplace. If a flying change leader is required then perhaps one should be immediately sought out rather than trying to very slowly and gradually move someone toward the desired flying change leader role.

What’s the Takeaway?

Think carefully about which change leader can best help you to get people on board with the change. What about your change leadership? How are you planning to take it to the next level? Are you thinking of building change self-efficacy or continued dependence on further change support? What outcomes are you seeking and how quickly do you need to achieve those outcomes of the change? Which change leader best suits the needs of your change initiative?

Credit: Aldean Jakeman – PMP | CCMP | ACC | Project Manager | Change Manager