How to lead effectively through change

Leadership books, workshops and university degrees are worthless if you don’t consciously practice your leadership skills on a daily basis.

The exponential expansion of information technology, social media and hyper-connectivity is impacting governments and industries the world over.

Along with disruptive forces such as artificial intelligence, blockchain technology and the new media landscape, trust in government is at an all-time low.

If there was ever a time that called for leadership through change, this is it.

Leadership development is a career-long journey and we are all capable of learning. The following tips will help you lead your department or organisation now and into the future.

1. Know yourself

Leadership means taking an objective approach, and in times of change that’s hard to do.

Understanding yourself in relation to others and the agency will help you lead objectively through turbulent times.

In their book Immunity to Change, adult development researchers Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey suggest most adults are ruled by their fears and struggle to be objective about themselves and their identity (ego).

Their identity, and the way they think and feel about themselves, is affected by external forces, such as the opinions of others or blaming external factors like the weather for how they feel.

All leaders experience these fear-driven limitations in thinking and decision making, and the best leaders understand and accept them.

To limit the damaging effects, ask those around you for honest feedback and allow them to feel safe talking about how it affects them. They will feel heard, and you will have gained valuable information about how you can improve.

2. Be interdependent

To lead through continuous change, you need an interdependent relationship with your role, your people and your department. As leadership expert Stephen Covey put it:

“Dependent people need others to get what they want. Independent people can get what they want through their own effort. Interdependent people combine their own efforts with the efforts of others to achieve their greatest success.”

To achieve interdependence, create time for quiet reflection each day. Only in silence will the fears, worries and fantasies of the ego pass to allow a more objective perspective.

3. Set and communicate a purposeful vision

Rather than setting narrow finite and linear goals, know what you stand for – your purpose and vision – and communicate that.

Create a purposeful vision that is bigger than you, and revere it. As you move towards it, others will follow.

In his book Good to Great, Bill Collins found the leaders of “the great companies” were energetic and had humility with a fierce resolve. When you walk your talk, people will trust your intention, follow you, emulate you and self-organise to achieve the vision.

4. Make space for panic and negativity – it will pass

It’s natural for people to feel worried and negative about change, and to resist it as a result.

Neuroscience has shown that most people have more negative thoughts than positive ones. If people are stressed, anxious or frustrated, give them the space to talk about it. Suppressed emotions will express themselves in other less helpful ways. Let people express their negative thoughts and emotions, and positivity will follow.

Kegan and Lahey see our resistance to change as a biological resistance. We initially reject change in the workplace in the same way our bodies may reject a new organ, even if our life depends on it.

Great leaders are aware of this and have an objective and strategic approach for responding to it. When a leader can see, understand and manage their own thoughts, they can do the same for the department’s collective thinking.

5. Foster adaptability

Government agencies often seek out external consultants to devise solutions to problems – but that’s not always the answer.

In the book The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, Ronald Heifetz and his Harvard University colleagues argue that leaders can create adaptable organisations by practising adaptive leadership during times of change.

Rather than spending money on overly technical solutions, engage your team to problem solve and adapt to the challenge. You might be surprised at what they come up with.

Foster adaptability by guiding your team, and don’t let your fear get in the way of their collaboration and creativity. As the Buddhist saying goes, the only constant in life is change. Successful leaders accept change is normal and resistance to change is normal, too. That’s where great leadership comes in.

Ultimately, leadership is not a title or a destination – it is a practice.

Leadership books, workshops and university degrees are worth nothing unless you consciously practice your leadership skills on a daily basis.

By mastering your fear and understanding yourself, you can lead your people through change, enabling it to thrive well into the future.

Peter Shields is a leadership expert and author of Leadership Alchemy.

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