Four Distinct Challenges to Leading Change


There are four distinct 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. This overview will give insight into 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 big enough to fill 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”—is now continuous. Thus, change is ongoing, rapidly developing, and constant.

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 This model is outdated.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

Change and the rate of speed that it comes will challenge your company. It will challenge the 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 that for the past 100 years, most of our educational systems have educated very bright men and women to become managers. That is why most businesses operate 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. It 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 prudently. All qualities of a compliant employee, but also qualities of a complacent one.

Complacency breeds the status quo. People are 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 of our four challenges is behaving with false urgency. False urgency creates a lot of activity but produces a minimum amount of productivity.

Identifying and eliminating falsely urgent actions is vital. False urgency, like complacency, tricks everyone into thinking great things are being accomplished. It creates a flurry of activity and energy but not much productivity.

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

As a result, their actions are frenetic and mindless. Running around and creating actions, and activities to protect themselves or attack others. Not only do employees behave with false urgency. Managers, CEOs, and leadership teams can also 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 better way of thinking, running a company, and initiating change. Implementing new leadership techniques can disrupt an organization used to doing things a certain way. But it is paramount if the company wants to compete and succeed in a rapidly changing world.

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

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