The Role of Leadership in Organisational Change

Category: Leadership
Last Updated: 17 Aug 2022
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In discussing the role of leadership in organisational change, one must first understand the rudiments of leadership and theories that surround it, understand what change is and the essential qualities that a leader must possess to bring about change.

Defining Leadership

There is much literature and research in the areas of leadership and management with many writers differentiating the two. A common conclusion is that a good manager may not be a good leader. So what is the difference between them? French, R., et al, (2011) says that while managers engage in solving problems and supervising work, leaders do not just instruct people on what to do. Leaders inspire and motivate the people who follow and support them thereby creating opportunities for the long-term. An environment where leadership is mentioned a lot and developed is the military. However, the command-and-control “leadership” where an officer barks orders to his troops is not leadership because he is legally authorised to do it (Cohen, 2010).

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In support of this, Buchanan and Huczynski (1985) say that it is a “social process” where one person influences other’s behaviours without using threats of violence. By the latter definition, we can surmise that what goes on in the army is certainly far from leadership as threats are a way of life in the military! In the case of the military officer, he is said to be endowed with Formal Leadership, giving him formal authority over his men. When a staff has access to resources, information or has specialised skills, he may be viewed as an Informal Leader as he exerts influence over others who may not be their subordinates nor even be in the same department as them (French, et al, 2011).

So, while managers make things happen because the company says they are authorised to do so, leaders achieve the company’s objectives by influencing their colleagues or subordinates to co-operate (Rosen Bach & Taylor, 1993). Lussier & Achua (2007) say that mutual influence between a leader and those he leads reach their organisational goals by making changes together. According to Fielder (1967), the acid test of a leader is his ability to achieve greater performance for his organisation. Hence, studies of leadership must be related to how the leader improves management control strategies and how he regulates work place behaviour (Thomson & McHugh, 2002).

According to Cohen (2010), there are 8 laws that he termed “universal laws” which forms the heart of leadership. Though these 8 things that leaders must do are simple, the absence of one can make a difference between success and failure. Although success cannot be guaranteed, abiding by these 8 laws, one can increase the chances of success: 1.Maintaining absolute integrity

2.Being technically competent
3.Communicating expectations
4.Show exemplary commitment
5.Expect positive results
6.Looking after the interest of your people
7.Putting duty before self
8.Leading from the front

SECTION 2 : Theories on Leadership

According to Bass (1990), the three basic theories of leadership are the Trait Theory, Great Event Theory and Transformation Theory. Robbins (1996) had a different view and wrote that the three theories important to leadership development are Trait Theory, Behaviour Theory and Situational Theory. French, et al, (2011) summarised and divided the theories on leadership into 2 categories: Traditional Theories and New Theories. Traditional Theories are further grouped into Theories on leader traits and behaviours and situational leadership. New theories refer to Charismatic Leadership and Transformational Leadership. See diagram below.

Trait theories on leadership were developed from research which tried to identify attributes that great leaders were born with which differentiates them from non-leaders. How effective these leaders are depends on the influence the leader wields over his subordinate’s performance, satisfaction and overall effectiveness (Derue, et al, 2011). Galton’s (1869) view that these immutable traits are only found in leaders born with them and they cannot be developed has been challenged and criticized by many for over a hundred years. However, research has continued on linking personality traits on effectiveness of leaders and showed that successful leaders possess personality traits that impact their success.

This helps organisations in their selection, training and development of potential leaders (Derue et al., 2011). In Bass’s (1990) Great Event Theory, leaders are created when great changes or crisis happen driving certain characteristics to be forged in individuals, enhancing their performance. This theory predisposes that leadership creation is still involuntary and not proactive unlike the Transformational Leadership Theory where anyone can learn skills on how to lead. It would appear that leaders are not ‘born’ but they are shaped by their environment, including upbringing and career. (French, et al, 2011)

Criticisms of the trait theories led to the development of behaviour theories theorizing that actions and behaviour exhibited by a leader and not his personality is what identifies him as one. In late 1940s, University of Michigan conducted studies concluding that there are 2 types of leadership; Worker-oriented leadership and Task-oriented leadership. While the former is focussed on employee welfare, the latter concentrates on achievement of organisational objectives. Behavioural theory explains leadership vis-à-vis the behaviour of leaders but does not consider the situation or the environment that the leader is operating in. The criticism is that given different situations, the same leadership behaviours may not be observed.

Shortcomings of the behaviour theories led to Situational Contingency Theories of Fiedler (1967), House (1974), Hersey and Blanchard (1988) and Kerr and Jermier (1978). Horner (1997), a situational theorist, says that an effective leader should be able to adapt his leadership style according to the work situation he is in. The leadership styles identified by House’s (1974) Path-Goal theory are Directive, Supportive, Participative and Achievement-oriented styles. Contemporary leadership theorists like House (1974) and Conger and Kanungo (1998) researched on Charismatic Leadership.

They wrote that certain attitudes and attributes can be bundled together to determine charisma in a leader. What they do and how they do it to influence the desired actions from their followers is how charismatic leaders are successful as leaders (French, et al, 2011). Charisma is a key component of transformational leadership and as such, many of its characteristics are also found in successful transformational leaders. So while charismatic leaders may not be transformational leaders, transformational leaders need to be charismatic to achieve their mission of change (DuBrin, 2010).

DuBrin (2010) wrote that transformational leaders display attributes that distinguish them from others. Some attributes include charisma, high emotional intelligence, visioning skills, communication skills, give feedback, recognize subordinate’s achievements, practice empowerment, innovative and high moral reasoning. Bass (1990) distinguished between Transactional and Transformational leadership saying that the former has to do with daily communications and exchanges between a leader and his subordinates. This is usually task-based and routine. Transformational leadership, on the other hand, enables subordinates to broaden their goals and elevate performance beyond expectations with the use of charisma, inspiration, intellectual stimulation, and individualised consideration.

SECTION 3 : Organisational Change

The mother of all clichés, “The only constant in life is change”, sums up rather neatly that all organisations, large or small, simple or complex, will face changes within itself and in its environment. Writers have consensus that at this day and age, change is a much larger issue than decades past as the rate of change, especially for technological change, is increasing at an exponential rate (Balogun and Hope Hailey, 2004; Burnes, 2004; Senior, 2002). Being omni-present in organisations at all levels, the importance of the leader’s ability to assess its present stage, evaluate it against its desired state, define its performance gaps and plan organisational changes to reach the desired end cannot be emphasized more (Burnes, 2004).

Burnes (2004) goes on to say that organisational strategy and change are inseparable. According to Moran and Brightman (2001), because of the continually changing needs of stakeholders internally and externally, a good leader will also be continuously planning the organisation’s direction, its capabilities and structure to meet those changes. Because organisational change is of paramount importance, the skills that a leader must have to effect changes successfully are highly sought after (Senior, 2002). In fact, managers today may find that their primary task in an environment of globalisation, technological innovation, constantly changing demographics, deregulation and knowledge explosion, is to provide leadership for organisational change (Graetz, 2000)

Organisational change can be planned or unplanned. Unplanned changes occur spontaneously without any conscious effort on the part of the manager to effect change (French, et al, 2011). It is usually due to changes in the conditions of the environment and is reactive in nature. Planned change happens when the manager takes proactive measures to address a performance gap to get to desired outcomes that meet organisational goals and objectives. Although it is generally accepted that in a highly competitive environment, change is a necessity to survive, Balogun and Hope Hailey (2004) found that about 70 per cent of all plans for organisational change fail. According to Dunphy and Stace (1993), there are 4 characteristics in the scale of the change. They are Fine Tuning, Incremental Adjustment, Modular Transformation and Corporate Transformation.

In Fine Tuning, the leader makes very small changes to processes, human capital, structure and strategy so they work coherently to reach the organisational goal. It is usually done within the divisional or departmental level and is referred to as convergent change (Nelson, 2003) Similar to fine tuning, Incremental Adjustment involves making slightly more changes to managerial processes, corporate strategies and structures but not to the extent of radical change (Senior, 2002). The difference is that the changes are bigger here. In Modular Transformation, the scale of change has move from being intra-departmental to departmental-wide or division-wide alignments.

However, change in this category has not reached organisation-wide, which is discussed next. Major changes to key executives, restructuring of a division and downsizing a department are examples (Dunphy & Stace, 1993). Finally, Corporate Transformation which encompasses radical changes in mission, vision and core values, major strategic direction shifts, organisational restructuring and changes in top management and key appointments, is the largest of the 4 types of change (Dunphy & Stace, 1993). The key difference between corporate and modular transformations is that the former is organisation-wide, which means that every person in the organisation is affected.

SECTION 4 : The Process of Change
Beckhard & Gleicher (1969) wrote on a formula for change. This formula is sometimes referred to as Gleicher’s Formula. The formula shows the forces that drive change and the aims to predict when change will be successful.

This formula explains that leaders in an organisation need to be firstly, unhappy with how things are going and must know where they want to head towards. If D is absent, then the organisation may be complacent and may not want to move from their position. D without V will mean that the organisation has no direction for change. Even if D and V are present, without taking the first positive step, change will just be an idea; hence, action must be taken.

Therefore the product of D, V and F cannot be zero which means that any of the 3 values cannot be zero. If any of the 3 is absent, the drive to change will not overcome resistance. The other factor to consider is the magnitude of D, V and F against the magnitude of R. The product of D, V and F must be greater than R for there to be change. The greater the product, the greater the probability that change will happen. However, this formula does not guarantee that the change will be successful. For change to be successful, change leaders or change agents must have attributes to lead change.

There are many reasons why people resist change and it usually has to do with the fear of the unknown. As a result, they will find ways to slow change down or sabotage it so it does not happen (Lines, 2004). Instead of trying to overcome resistance, leaders should take it as a form of feedback and understand why the employee perceives threats to win them over and achieve change objectives (French, et al, 2011).

SECTION 5 : Phases of Change

The work of Kurt Lewin on phases of planned change is oft quoted and still very relevant today. He says that the 3 phases are “Unfreezing”, “Changing” and “Refreezing” and the leader should be sensitive in each of these phases (Lewin, 1952). “Unfreezing” or preparation phase prepares the ground for change. Leaders will have convinced themselves of a need for change using the Formula for Change. What they have to do now is to enable his followers to feel the same need and reduce resistance to change.

French, et al, (2011) referred to this phase as similar to “generating energy for transformation” in Miles’ (1997) framework for planned organizational change leadership. Lewin’s unfreezing phase also includes what Miles refers to as “Developing a vision of the future”. The leader needs to communicate this vision effectively to his followers and ensure buy-in for his changes to succeed. The 8-stage process of change by Kotter (1996) lists the first 4 stages as : •Establishing a Sense of Urgency

•Creating a Guiding Coalition
•Developing a Vision and Strategy
•Communicating the Change Vision

Kotter refers to these 4 stages as “defrosting” which essentially means unfreezing. He says that managers sometimes skip these 4 stages and go headlong into restructuring or downsizing and eventually face insurmountable roadblocks or change that is not sustainable, that is, change that will not stick. The next phase of change, “Changing”, according to Lewin (1952), refers to the nitty-gritty nuts and bolts of change like re-structuring, re-organisation, reshaping culture, training and development to build competencies required to fulfil the new vision. According to Miles (1997), this is referred to as “aligning the internal context”. Kotter (1996), on the other hand, splits this phase into 3 more stages in his 8-stage process of creating major change: •Empowering Broad-based Action

•Generating Short-term Wins
•Consolidating Gains and Producing more Change

Lewin’s (1952) final phase, “Refreezing”, is where leaders evaluate results and either makes modifications to improve results from the change or reinforce outcomes for achieving change objectives. The purpose of refreezing is so that change can be permanent and will “stick”. Miles refers to this as “Creating a transformation process architecture” which involves having feedback and communication mechanisms, support, education mechanisms and coordination mechanisms. This stage coincides with Kotter’s final stage in his 8-stage process called “Anchoring New Approaches in the Culture”.

SECTION 6 : Leadership and Organisational Change

Setting direction, giving inspiration and ensuring that lasting change is implemented organisation-wide is a key role that all leaders play. Good leadership and management of change is a critical ingredient in organisational change because it is essentially a people issue and human
nature is such that its first instinct is to resist change (Coburn, 2006). Lack of effort, too great a change over too short a time and emphasis on top management rather than engaging lower levels are key reasons for failure to execute change programmes (Manikandan, 2010).

It is critical to understand that organizations consist of complex human interactions such that all intended change needs to be handled with sensitivity. Change initiatives fail not because of the lack of intelligent leaders or noble causes but due to the lack of emotional buy-in from stakeholders. So leaders of change need to have skills and competencies to ensure successful change initiatives. Buchanan & Boddy (1992) grouped 15 core competencies and skills into 5 clusters:

Diagram 1 : Buchanan & Bodd’s Clustering of Skills and Competencies Buchanan & Boddy (1992) grouped the skills and competencies into clusters of activities. However, upon analysis, they can be grouped into 2 broad categories; Competencies & Attributes of good leaders and Communication & EQ Skills of good leaders. This is illustrated in the diagram below.

Diagram 2 : Grouping Skills into Competencies and Skills
Competencies & Attributes

A successful leader must be sensitive to his environment, including but not limited to being aware of market conditions, intra-company politics, conflicting goals of different departments, how the sum of parts in an organisation works together to achieve its goals (helicopter viewpoint) and who the power brokers are within the organisation. Having this competency will enable the change leader to appraise the status quo and determine the gap that needs to be closed in order to reach the new vision. Hence, the leader’s comprehension and clarity of his vision will be enhanced. “Flexibility” and “Tolerance of ambiguity” might well be two sides of the same coin. Not all changes will go according to plan nor all reactions to change, especially resistance, are predictable.

Hence, a good leader will have a fair amount of tolerance of the unknown and in exhibiting this, be flexible enough to modify his change plans to reach his objectives and to minimise resistance to change. Finally, the leader must have enthusiasm as he is the change agent. He is the champion of that change and if he cannot show that he believes in it and is behind it 100%, he will not be able to get buy-in for it. Communication & EQ Skills

The skills listed in this box are all related to skills in effective communications but tempered with a good measure of emotional quotient (EQ). As discussed above, the challenges in change management are mainly found in the management of people. Hence, EQ in communication is key to success. Effective communication where the message is conveyed accurately from the sender to the receiver is a basic requirement of any leader. However for a change leader, communicating while exercising EQ will make the message more acceptable to the recipient and hence enhance successful change.

This is especially true when a leader wants to ‘sell’ the idea of change or when he ‘negotiates’ for a win-win solution to effect changes. He has to use all his ‘influence’ and exhibit charismatic leadership to win the support of his colleagues and subordinates. How he does this may be through the use of ‘motivation’. Using his EQ, the leader will be able to empathise with his subordinates and understand their fears and concerns know what motivates them and use this in his effort to garner support or reduce resistance.

The leader needs to use his ‘networking’ skills to access resources within and outside the company in order to implement his change plan. One must not forget that in transformational change, everyone and every department in an organisation will be affected. Hence the leader cannot work in isolation. Finally, using ‘teambuilding’ skills, the leader can build a cohesive force to successfully implement all the changes that the organisation wants to put in place and make those changes stick or in the words of Lewin (1983), “Refreeze”.

SECTION 7 : Conclusion

For over a century, behavioural scientists, psychologists and even sociologists have studied leadership, trying to define, explain and even predict situations when leadership qualities and attributes will be displayed. They have tried to explain if leadership is inborn or a result of the external environment. Whether it is inherent in personality or whether it can be learnt and developed. Contemporary theorists conclude that although certain traits that are inborn are those found in great leaders, other attributes of good leadership can indeed be developed.

Organisational change, inescapable as it were, is a challenge for leaders. Leaders need to prepare the ground and communicate the changes needed to move the organisation forward (Unfreeze), make the changes with sensitivity and exercise EQ (Change) and get buy-in and support for the changes to make them stick (Refreeze). To execute change plans, leaders need to have the communication skills, EQ, competencies and attributes required for transformational change.

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The Role of Leadership in Organisational Change. (2016, Aug 05). Retrieved from

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