Leadership and change


A different approach to understanding leadership is transformational leadership, which focuses on the leader’s role at a strategic level, so there is a concentration on the one leader at the top of the organisaton. There is a wide range of literature in this vein, most of it written in the 1980s. Since that time the academic literature may have moved on but the image of the transformational leader still remains widely attractive. While this is a different approach it links back to our original three questions about leadership. Transformational leadership shows elements of the trait approach, as leaders are seen to ‘have’ charisma, which sets them apart as extraordinary and exceptional, and they are also seen to use a set of ‘ideal’ behaviours, with the assumption in many writings that this is the ‘best’ approach.

The leader is usually characterised as a hero, although Steyrer (1998) proposes that there are other charismatic types such as the father figure, the saviour and the king. Such leaders appear to know exactly what they are doing and how to ‘save’ the organisation from its present predicament (and consequently such leadership is found more often when organisations are in trouble). Leaders involve followers by generating a high level of commitment, partly due to such leaders focusing on the needs of followers and expressing their vision in such a way that it satisfies these needs. They communicate high expectations to followers and also the firm belief that followers will be able to achieve these goals. In this way the leader promotes self-confidence in the followers and they are motivated to achieve more than they ordinarily expect to achieve. In terms of behaviours, perhaps the most important is the vision of the future that the leader offers and that he or she communicates this and dramatises this to the followers. Such leaders are able to help the followers make sense of what is going on and why as well as what needs to be done in the future. It is from this perspective that the distinction between management and leadership is often made. Bennis and Nanus (1985), for example, sug­gest leadership is path finding while management is path following; and that leadership is about doing the right thing whereas management is about doing things right. Kotter (1990) identified leaders as establishing a direction (whereas managers plan and budget); leaders align people with the vision (whereas managers organise things); leaders moti­vate and inspire (whereas managers control and solve problems); and leaders encourage change (whereas managers encourage order and predictability). Other writers analysing leadership from this perspective include Tichy and Devanna (1986) and Bass (1985), and there is a wide research base to support the findings. The approach does have a great strength in taking followers’ needs into account and seeking to promote their self­confidence and potential, and the idea of the knight in shining armour is very attractive and potentially exciting – Tichy and Devanna, for example, present the process of such leadership as a three-act drama. However, in spite of the emphasis on process there is also an emphasis on leadership characteristics which harks back to the trait approach to leadership, which has been characterised as elitist. There is also the ethical concern of one person wielding such power over others.

Maybe we should ask whether organisations really require such leaders. A very dif­ferent conception of leadership is now offered as an alternative, partly a reaction to the previous approach, and partly a response to a changing environment. This is termed empowering or post-heroic leadership, and could be described as the currently favoured ideal way to lead.

Fulop et al. (1999) identify factors in a rapidly changing turbulent environment which by the 1990s dilute the appropriateness of concentrating on the one leader at the top of the organisation. These factors include: globalisation making centralisation more difficult; technology enabling better sharing of information; and change being seen as a responsibility of all levels of the organisation – not just the top. They also note a dis­satisfaction with corporate failures, identify few transformational leaders as positive role models, suggest that such a model of male authoritarian leadership is less relevant, and in particular that the macho leader with all the answers does not necessarily fit well with the encouragement of creativity and innovation. In addition they suggest that increasing teamwork and an increasing emphasis on knowledge workers mean that employees will be less responsive now to a transformational leader. The emphasis has therefore moved away from understanding the traits and style of the one leader at the top of the organisation who knows how to solve all the organisation’s problems, to how empowering or post-heroic leaders can facilitate many members of the organisation in taking on leadership roles. In this context Applebaum et al. (2003) comment that female leadership styles are more effective in today’s team-based consensually driven organisa­tions. Many commentators speak of leaders with integrity and humility, the ability to select good people and to remove barriers so they can fulfil their potential and perform (see, for example, Collins 2003; Alimo-Metcalfe and Alban-Metcalfe 2002).

The leader becomes a developer who can help others identify problems as opportun­ities for learning, and who can harness the collective intelligence of the organisation, and Fulop et al. (1999) note that this means in practice that they encourage the develop­ment of a learning organisation. Senge (1990), who is a protagonist of the learning organisation (see Chapter 12 for further details), sees the leader’s new roles in encour­aging a learning organisation as designer, teacher and steward, rather than a traditional charismatic decision maker. He suggests that leaders should design the organisation in terms of vision, purpose, core values and the structures by which these ideas can be translated into business decisions. However, he also suggests that the leader should involve people at all levels in this design task. It is the role of the leader not to identify the right strategy, but to encourage strategic thinking in the organisation, and to design effective learning processes to make this happen. The leader’s role as a teacher is not to teach people the correct view of reality, but to help employees gain more insight into the current reality. The leader therefore coaches, guides and facilitates. As a steward the leader acts as a servant in taking responsibility for the impact of his or her leadership on others, and in the sense that he or she overrides his or her own self-interest by personal commitment to the organisation’s larger mission. To play this role effectively, Senge suggests, the leader will need many new skills, in particular vision-making skills – a never-ending sharing of ideas and asking for feedback. Skills that will encourage employees to express and test their views of the world are also key. These involve actively seeking others’ views, experimenting, encouraging enquiry and distinguishing ‘the way things are done’ from ‘the way we think things are done’.

This changing perspective on leadership is well demonstrated by a survey on leader­ship skills reported by Rajan and van Eupen (1997). The research is based on interviews with 49 top business leaders, 50 HR directors and a postal questionnaire of 375 com­panies in the service sector. They asked what were the most important leadership skills during the period 1995-7 and compared the results with those of a similar survey con­ducted in the late 1980s. They found that the key skill was seen to be inspiring trust and motivation followed by visioning skills and ability, willingness and self-discipline to listen in 1995-7 compared with strategic thinking followed by entrepreneurial skills and originality in the late 1980s. The change in skills base reflects very well the change in the idealised leadership role and the increasing importance of facilitative people-related skills. They also note the prediction that the future will require an equal balance of tradi­tionally masculine and feminine personality traits.

Higgs (2003) argues that leaders need a combination of skills and personality: envisioning, engaging, enabling, enquiring and developing skills are needed, together with authenticity, integrity, will, self-belief and self-awareness.

From a slightly different perspective Heifetz and Laurie (1997) propose six guiding principles of post-heroic leadership, and they conclude that leadership is about learning and that the idea of having a vision and aligning people to this is bankrupt. The idea of one leader at the top creating major changes in order to solve a one-off challenge is no longer appropriate, as organisations now face a constant stream of adaptive challenges, and leadership is required of many in the organisation, not just one person at the top. They argue that employees should be allowed to identify and solve problems themselves and learn to take responsibility. The role of the leader is to develop collective self­confidence. As Grint (1997) puts it, ‘the apparent devolvement (or desertion – depending on your perspective) of responsibility has become the new standard in contemporary models of leadership’ (p. 13). For further discussion on the devolution of responsibility see Case 14.1 on this book’s companion website www.pearsoned.co.uk/torrington.

These visions of leadership are very attractive but they do require a dramatic change in thinking for both leaders and followers. For leaders there is the risk of giving away power, learning to trust employees, developing new skills, developing a different per­spective of their role and overriding self-interest. For followers there is the challenge of taking responsibility – which some may welcome, but others shun. Yet, if sustained competitive advantage is based on human capital and collective intelligence, it is difficult to relegate this perspective to ‘just an ideal’.

While empowering leaders have been shown to fit with the current climate we may sometimes need heroic leaders. Kets de Vries (2003) makes the point that heroic leader­ship will never die as change makes people anxious and we need heroic leaders to calm them down, but since no one can live up to the expectations of heroic leaders, they will eventually become a disappointment. We conclude with the thought that there is no one best way – different leaders and different leader behaviours are needed at different times. For an example of a mixed approach to leadership see Case 14.2 on the companion website, www.pearsoned.co.uk/torrington, about Tim Smit of the Eden Project.


We are all now familiar with the mantra that change is a constant in our world and that its pace is increasing. Inevitably therefore leaders will find themselves leading, promoting, encouraging and stimulating change as a key part of their role. In this last part of the chapter we will briefly review the nature of organisational change, explain a traditional perspective on managing and leading change and contrast this with a learn­ing perspective suggested by Binney and Williams (2005). We will then link these two perspectives back to perspectives on the nature of leadership.

There is a good deal of literature identifying the drivers for change (see, for example, Greenhalgh 2001), such as competitor behaviour, customer expectations, or a change of technology, with distinctions being made as to whether the drivers are external or internal. Other distinctions are made as to whether the change is proactive or reactive. A distinction is also made between change that is revolutionary and that which is evolutionary or incremental. It is sometimes suggested that transformational change is equivalent to revolutionary change, but we suggest that evolutionary change can equally be transformational. However, underlying all of this is the fundamental reason for change, which is organisational survival and competitiveness in the complex and global world which we have created.

The nature of change has also been hotly debated and the emphasis has increasingly been on transformational change. Change may involve movements in organisational shape, size, structure, rewards, values, beliefs, systems, procedures, roles, responsibilit­ies, culture, tasks and behaviour. Whilst transformational change may involve all of these it is generally agreed that transformational change is more than this and involves fundamentally new ways of understanding what the organisation is for and is doing. Beckhard (1992), for example, suggested that transformational change may involve the organisation’s shape, structure or nature, but more than this requires a re-examination of the organisation’s mission and a vision of a different future state of the organisation. As Binney and Williams (2005) suggest transformational change is about the change in mental models of what the organisation is about, sometimes referred to as change in the organisational paradigm.

All change, no matter how small, presents a challenge to leaders and followers alike. For leaders there is the challenge of making the required changes happen in reality, and for followers there is the challenge of coping with changes over which they often have no control and for which they have potentially no desire. Such changes invariably involve them in engaging in new activities, behaviours and thinking, and the even more difficult task of letting go and unlearning old activities, behaviours and thinking. In trying to understand how employees cope with change, in an effort to then manipulate this, managers have used models from other parts of the social sciences. An example is the Kubler-Ross change curve (1997) which tracks the stages an individual generally experi­ences when coping with loss, a model that was developed in the context of bereavement.

In addition to this there has been a long-running school of thought which proposes that leaders can plan and manage change given the right processes and tools to use. There is a variety of models in the literature but most focus on such stages as:

  • identify the need for change
  • define our current state
  • vision the future desired state
  • identify the gap
  • diagnose capacity for change including barriers and how they can be overcome
  • plan actions and behaviours needed to close the gap
  • implement required actions
  • manage the transition
  • constantly reinforce changes, sustain momentum and measure progress

More details on such processes are readily available in the literature; see, for example, Hayes (2007) and Walton (1999).

However this approach to change relies on a rational view of the organisation, and as Binney and Williams (2005) suggest a model of the organisation as a machine. They outline the limitations of such an approach, including: unintended consequences of change, its messiness, the gap in perceptions between leaders and followers, the fact that visions often do not inspire. They also point out the assumption that change is some­thing which is done to organisations, rather like the assumption that leadership is done to followers rather than with them (Goffee and Jones 2006). Eriksson (2004) highlights the legitimate role of emotion in the implementation of change and draws our attention to the work of Kanter (1983) who identifies change as exhilarating when done by us and disturbing when done to us. There is an assumption that employee resistance to change is a characteristic of the individual psyche that, ultimately, has to be overcome, rather than that resistance stems from legitimate reasons and is partly a result of the way that change is conceived and led in the organisation.

Research by Les Worrall and Cary Cooper (2006) provides us with a managerial/ employee perspective on change, rather than that of the leader(s) at the top of the organ­isation. They suggest that change is reaching epidemic proportions. In their survey they found that 90 per cent of managers were affected by change (97 per cent in the public sector), compared with 83 per cent five years earlier. In addition over half the managers were affected by three or more forms of change (increased from 45 per cent). Managers felt that changes were a result of cost reductions and created work intensification and increased pressure to perform. This had negatively affected their morale (61 per cent), sense of job security (56 per cent) motivation (51 per cent), sense of employee well­being (48 per cent) and loyalty (47 per cent). Managers felt they were subject to greater top-down control, and greater scrutiny, and felt overloaded with insufficient time and resources to do their job at the standard they felt appropriate. Absence levels were significantly higher in those organisations with cost-cutting programmes, and larger proportions of managers reported insomnia, persistent headaches, appetite problems, muscular tension, constant tiredness and other symptoms, and the researchers suggest that such levels of change are literally making managers ill. Such problems interestingly did not apply to the same extent to directors, and in addition they felt much more positively about the changes taking place, reporting lower levels of stressors.

In a different study, Eriksson (2004) found that change programmes resulted in employees exhibiting signs of depression and experiencing feelings of failure.

The above create real concerns about the leadership of change, and Binney and Williams (2005) propose a way to reconceptualise change, based on the metaphor of the organ­isation as a living system rather than a machine. They suggest that this perspective helps us see organisations as adaptive (as behaviour and thinking shift of their own accord in response to the pressure of events); as self-organising (to achieve an equilibrium); as interdependent with their environment (interacting in complex ways); and as dynamic.

They propose that this perspective suggests change is natural, if painful, and that the challenge is to release the potential for change rather than drive it. In addition they identify the need for some stability as well as change. They suggest that this perspective encourages the view that managers cannot control change, and that the problem with a vision for the future is that it denigrates the present and the past of the organisation. A good example of this is the town of Crewe. Much effort and money is being put in to regenerate and develop the town, but whilst there are newcomers who feel this is an excellent change programme, there are many people who have been brought up in the town who feel that the changes are unnecessary and are spoiling things. The living organ­ism approach also suggests that trying to copy excellence elsewhere is a fruitless task, as is a change consultant or chief executive telling people to change; changes, they suggest, emerge and the key is seeing the new pattern, drawing attention to it and reinforcing it. The acceptance that the future is unknowable and unpredictable is important, as is the need for leaders to recognise that they are also part of the problem, and acknowledge that people are not rational and that feelings and emotion are legitimate. They character­ise this approach to change as a learning approach rather than a leading approach, but recognise that both perspectives add value in a change situation; in order to reflect this they propose the concept of ‘leaning into the future’. Figure 14.1 summarises their thinking.

If you look back to the characteristics of empowering leadership you will be able to see the commonality between this and the learning approach to change suggested by Binney and Williams (2005).

Source: Torrington Derek, Hall Laura, Taylor Stephen (2008), Human Resource Management, Ft Pr; 7th edition.

2 thoughts on “Leadership and change

  1. Daryl Whitehair says:

    Great post. I used to be checking continuously this weblog and I am inspired! Very useful information specially the final phase 🙂 I deal with such info much. I used to be looking for this particular information for a very long time. Thank you and good luck.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *