Elements of all leadership styles are important to managing the change process

When I think of change, I define it as different, evolving, transforming, new, and sometimes improvement.  When I describe how I feel about change, I use words such as difficult, challenging, shifting, eye-opening, adjusting, refocusing, and again, sometimes improvement.  The broader concept of change is complex and difficult to define to a single context; for that simple reasoning of a complicated and multilayered concept, elements of all leadership styles are needed to manage change.  Anderson and Anderson (2010a) describe three types of organizational change – developmental, transitional, and transformational change and provide an illustration of each:

Three Types of Organizational Change - Anderson & Anderson - 2010

It might seem natural for us to develop our leadership styles based on our strengths, abilities, and with the hindsight of prior experience.  We are often taught to lead with our natural abilities and skills we have honed through our training and experiences.  These become our strengths when solving our own problems and we often carry that over into work or challenging situations.  We embrace these strengths as a part of our identity and as leaders, we take pride in being able to bring these strengths into any group or organization.  For sure, when we were interviewed for any job, we highlighted these strengths in our responses.  So it makes sense that when you ask any leader about their style of leadership, they will undoubtedly reference their strengths as well as knowledge and understandings gained from experience.

Yet, the types of organizational change described above, require that leaders be skilled not only at managing various change processes but in gaining new knowledge and skills along the way.  Fullan (2014) describes Goleman’s six leadership styles and argues that each is needed depending on the circumstances surrounding the change process taking place:

  1. Coercive leaders demand compliance.
  2. Authoritative leaders mobilize people toward a vision.
  3. Affiliative leaders create harmony and build emotional bonds.
  4. Democratic leaders forges consensus through participation.
  5. Pacesetting leaders set high standards for performance.
  6. Coaching leaders develops people for the future.

There are certainly times that pacesetting is required in a particular situation and sometimes when leaders need to switch gears and be affiliative in order for stakeholders to feel heard and validated during the change process.  So while it may be tempting to select which leadership style works for you or best represents your strengths and views about effective leadership, the reality is that change is too complex and volatile for us to just have one or two leadership styles that we can implement.  Leaders must be open to the change process and do what is needed, when it is needed, in order for change to be developmental, transitional, or transformative.

We sometimes describe think that being a leader means doing the right thing, making the tough decisions, or even bearing the brunt of criticism or facing the consequences when the change process is challenging or something goes wrong.  But leadership is more than that culminating moment that can make or break the change process, it is more than what others see from the leader.  It is in how the change process is handled, all the actions and decisions that are made leading up to that pivotal tough decision.

I recently worked at on organization where our team had dwindled down to a very small number as we were undergoing what seemed like constant transformational change.  During this time, we easily checked all the boxes describing transformational change (Anderson & Anderson, 2010b)

  • The process of transformation usually begins long before a clear future state can be identified
  • The sheer magnitude of transformational change demands a major shift in the leaders’ and employees’ mindsets and behavior and the organization’s culture
  • The ultimate success of the transformational change process depends on how well the change leaders make real-time adjustments to their outcomes and process as new circumstances occur

For the next couple of years, we focused on deepening our impact (quality through evaluation) while still attempting to maintain our numbers (quantity through enrollment).  Over that time, we tried many approaches, some that failed, and some that succeeded and evolved into strong aspects of our organizational culture.  When we achieved stability as an organization, it did not feel so much like we had reached our goals but rather that we had finally gotten to sea level and we had learned to float.  As we expanded and added new staff to our team, the stability we thought we had created seemed to be threatened by new people with new ideas.  Honestly, we had operated so long in crisis mode that we just wanted things to be the same for a while; we equated no change with stability and these new people with their new ideas had different ways of communicating and collaborating that we weren’t used to or particularly excited about.  Why am I telling you this story?  My point is that, the leadership styles and strategies required to dig us out of the trench that we were in and get us to relative safety couldn’t be used again to manage the next phase of our change process.  Now we needed to learn how to enjoy the changes taking place and new opportunities to change, rather than dread them.  We needed to feel comfortable and inclusive of these new ideas and new perspectives.

All that would take a different leadership approach not only to accomplish this with the existing staff but to also effectively integrate the new staff into the team.   For me, this experience proved that all elements of leadership styles are needed to manage change effectively.  There is always a next phase of the change process and transition between phases.  There are always individuals and teams involved that have varying strengths, abilities, knowledge, perspectives, and experiences.  There are always external pressures that impact the change process for everyone involved – funding, deadlines, consequences, approval, etc.

There is always more to be learned and understood by the leader and all of this takes place constantly.  Even the “second year” of implementation in a change process requires a shift in leadership style than the first year; the only thing that is constant is change.  And being a leader and agent of change is complex, challenging, and constantly shifting.  Richards (2015) describes this type of leadership:

“Leaders who can successfully lead in times of change are those who are comfortable with ambiguity–the unknown. The only certainty about change is that it is uncertain. Leaders who prefer to work in environments where the status quo prevails, and they know exactly what to expect from one day to the next, will struggle during times of change as they attempt, generally unsuccessfully, to control their environments. On the contrary, leaders who can remain flexible and open to new inputs while attempting to navigate in unfamiliar territory will be better able to move ahead.”

A final note to self:  leaders are not immune to the change process and don’t merely implement or facilitate it for others; they must be willing to embrace the ambiguity and expect that the change process will continue to change.


Anderson, D., & Ackerman-Anderson, L. S. (2010).   Beyond change management. [electronic resource] : how to achieve breakthrough results through conscious change leadership. San Francisso : Pfeiffer, 2010.  Retrieved from:  http://egandb.uas.alaska.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat02580a&AN=ala.1919888&site=eds-live

Anderson, D. & Ackerman-Anderson, L. A. (2010).  How command and control as a change leadership style causes transformational change efforts to fail.  Being First, Inc.  Retrieved from:  http://www.beingfirst.com/resources/pdf/SR_HowCommandAndControl_v3_101006.pdf

Fullan, M. (2014). Leading in a Culture of Change. Somerset, NJ, USA: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. Retrieved from:  http://egandb.uas.alaska.edu:2081/lib/uasoutheast/reader.action?ppg=46&docID=10842273&tm=1446361438665

Richards, L.  (2015).  Organizational Change & Leadership Styles.  Demand Media, Hearst Newspapers, LLC.  Retrieved from:  http://smallbusiness.chron.com/organizational-change-leadership-styles-3048.html

2 thoughts on “Elements of all leadership styles are important to managing the change process

  1. I love what you said about how we are taught to lead. I have often been told to use what I already have to be a leader. This book is a great read because it’s teaching me that just using what I have is not enough and that I need to continue to learn about leadership in order to continue to better myself as a leader. Great point!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You wrote, “We sometimes think that being a leader means doing the right thing, making the tough decisions, or even bearing the brunt of criticism or facing the consequences when the change process is challenging or something goes wrong.” This is very true. My school has a new principal, assistant principal, behavioral specialist, attendance secretary, and administrative assistant. It has been tough for everyone. To top it off, our old principal and administrative assistant did not order supplies last spring and now we don’t have the budget to spend money on the things we need, including curriculum that I am supposed to be teaching and still do not have. What you wrote really resonated with me because our principal is really getting a lot of criticism. I better understand what she is going through after this week and reading your blog. Thank you for helping me put some things into perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

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