Four Challenges to Leading Change


On paper, change leadership sounds inspiring:

  • Leading from the head and the heart.
  • Empowering individuals and teams to lead from their strengths.
  • Running a company so efficiently that it can change with finesse and ease on a dime.

But business doesn’t live on paper. Business lives in real life, affected by real people, actual markets, and jarring unknowns. Leading change has four significant challenges to overcome: speed of change, managing vs. leading, complacency, and false urgency. I’ll examine each challenge in more depth, but this overview will give insight on a high level as to how each of these challenges threatens success. Anything worthwhile has been tested and refined with fire, and change leadership is no exception.

1. Speed of Change

The world runs at a fast rate of change. Globalization connects the world digitally. As a result, communicating and doing business with previously untapped parts of the world is now a reality.

Technology rapidly develops, improves, and gets faster. What used to be considered a fast pace is now the slowest. For example, a computer so big it filled an entire room is now a microchip the size of a fingertip.

Competition is the fuel fanning the fire, driving globalization and technological development.

The world is continuously changing. What used to be episodic change—one event at a time, “infrequent, discontinuous, and intentional” with takeaways shaping the next generation—is now continuous change. Thus, change is ongoing, rapidly developing, and constant.

Businesses that operate as they did 30-40 years are becoming obsolete. Attacking change back then would be structured, put together, and run by a committee or consulting team tasked with “defeating the change” to get back to normal. This model is outdated, and changing to keep up is vital to survival.

Change and the rate at which it comes will challenge your company, its leadership structure, and the ability to execute strategy. However, getting ahead, anticipating change, and quickly adjusting to change means leadership quality has overcome the first challenge.

2. Managing vs. Leading

The second challenge is change leadership vs. change management and why this distinction is increasingly important. It’s not surprising, for the past 100 years, most of our educational systems here and in Europe have been educating very bright men and women to become managers, which is why most of the business world operates with change management as the guiding force. However, change leadership offers so much more.

According to Harvard Professor and leadership expert Dr. John Kotter, “Change management is a set of tools, processes, and mechanisms designed to ensure that when changes are made in an organization, stakeholders buy-in, the process stays under control, and the project keeps on budget.” Generally, change management makes more minor changes overseen by a change management group with specialized consultants.

He notes that the changes are “planned and deliberate,” but because of the rapid pace of change with globalization, competitive pressure is making “change management by itself, inadequate.”

Change leadership is entirely different. According to Dr. Kotter, “It articulates a vision of the future, mobilizes resources needed, and puts an engine on the whole change process to make it go faster and smarter.”

Change leadership allows for larger-scale changes which are urgent yet driven by sound unproven ideas. Change leadership is initiated and overseen by leaders who inspire stakeholders and empower them to fight for it. Very little change leadership is done today, but it is the necessary solution in a rapidly changing world.

3. Complacency

The third challenge to leading change is complacency. It is a feeling of contentment or self-satisfaction coupled with danger or trouble looming around the corner.

When people feel and believe they are doing just fine, it is usually a sign they are complacent.

For many organizations that have achieved success, complacency is an all-too-common occurrence. However, complacency is hard to recognize because individuals and companies don’t view themselves as complacent.

Instead, they see themselves as behaving rationally, thoughtfully, and prudent—all qualities of a compliant employee, but also qualities of a complacent one.

Complacency breeds the status quo, often afraid of the personal consequences of change. As a result, complacent companies or employees are not alert, actively looking for new opportunities, or avoiding hazards.

Instead, they are internally focused and move at a steady, predictable speed of 30 mph, while outside the organization, the competition moves at 60 mph. Complacency creates “stop” attitudes, such as…

  • “We’re doing fine.”
  • “We’ve been successful for some time now.”
  • “Change, what’s the point of that?”
  • “I’m okay just the way that I am.”
  • “It’s not my issue. It belongs to that department.”
  • “I realize we’re down 10%, but our competition is down 20%.”

…and provides a significant challenge to a change leadership vision.

4. False Urgency

The fourth and final challenge to leading change is behaving with false urgency. False urgency creates a great deal of activity but produces a minimum amount of productivity.

Identifying and eliminating falsely urgent actions is vital to the change leadership model. False urgency, like complacency, tricks the user and upper management into thinking great things are being accomplished. False urgency creates a flurry of activity and energy, but not a lot of productivity.

False urgency is built on a platform of anxiety and fear based on a perceived higher-up pressure and lives in a state of varying degrees of anger, frustration, anxiety, exhaustion, and feeling overwhelmed.

As a result, their actions are frenetic, mindless, running around and creating actions, activities, and “products” to protect themselves or attack others. Not only do employees behave with false urgency. Managers, CEOs, and leadership teams can all act with this type of false urgency, but it always ends with the same result: a burnt-out, inflexible, and change-adverse climate.

False urgency does not help your organization make swift changes and adjustments. Instead, it slows it down and puts breaks on actual productivity and success.

Change leadership is a new way of thinking, running a company, and initiating change. Implementing new leadership techniques can be disruptive to an organization that has always done things a certain way but is of paramount importance if the company wants to thrive and succeed in a rapidly changing world.

These four challenges can hinder any company, but recognizing them and learning how to navigate them can differ between success and failure.

To learn how to recognize these four challenges within your company, and how to mitigate them, and create an entirely new way of leading and your business, please reach out today.