Change Leadership in the Modern Workforce

Can you imagine a world without change? Not the comparatively simplistic, common, normal, everyday transitions one would expect to make, but the game-changing, disruptive, fear-inducing transformations that have become just about everybody’s new normal.

It’s almost like change management has become its own specialized and highly prioritized subsection of performance management. To that assertion, this article will explore the relationship between leadership and change in general and emphasize the importance of structural agility when responding to the forces of unexpected change.

Leadership During Change

Four work colleagues looking at glass wall with sticky notes

Speaking in general terms, when change hits, your readiness to perform shifts. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is without question “a thing.” Let’s break that down a little bit.

Assume you have a team that is operating on all cylinders. They know their tasks, perform them with limited supervision and consistently deliver results that are at or above expectations. Then change hits–the disruptive kind. What happens to their collective and individual abilities to perform (i.e., task-specific knowledge, experience and skill)? Simply put, it moves! All three may be rendered nontransferable to the new requirements ushered in by the disruption.

What happens to willingness (i.e., confidence, commitment and motivation) to perform? Typically, that shifts as well. Many people fear the unknown or become openly resistant to change they did not have the opportunity to help shape. When Performance Readiness® (task-specific ability and willingness) shifts, leadership needs to shift with it! Even if the leader can’t answer every question or calm every fear, they need to be present, transparent and authentic when disruption disrupts.

What Is Organizational Change Management?

Effective change management is a function of execution in three highly interdependent phases.


First, how would you categorize the change you and your team need to work your way through? 

  1. Adaptive – Adaptive change can be categorized as adjustments that need to be made based on things like integrating a newly hired employee into your team, figuring out how to reinforce the training your team members will be attending, losing a highly productive team member, implementing an incremental digital upgrade, and so on.

Comparatively speaking, the impact of adaptive change can be calculated, planned for and strategically considered before it ever happens. It can also be repeated (and enhanced) for ongoing reoccurrence.

  • Transformational – Transformational change is all about leadership. If management is what you do when you have at least some ideas on “what good looks like,” leadership is what you do when you really have no idea! Examples of this kind of disruptive change are things like mergers, acquisitions, digital upgrades that alter your business model,  etc.

The impact of transformational change may well mean layers of management need to rethink guiding elements of the organization like the mission, strategy and structure. To the best of their ability, leaders need to be able to define the change, understand it (and help others to do the same), garner support for establishing a path forward and align with team members on the next steps associated with that path.


Progress is iterative with transformational change. There are quite often two steps in a forward direction, then one or more steps back. Through leadership, teams need to be prepared for this indirect journey. There needs to be a well-publicized road map that details the integrated goals of the journey, the manner in which progress will be measured and how calibrations will be implemented as a result.

This is especially the case for digital transformation. Research here would suggest the most effective route features senior leadership mandating “the what and the by when,” then empowering leaders from functional areas of the business to align on “the how.”


When Alan Mulally was CEO at Ford Motor Company, he led one of the most significant transformations of a global organization ever. In his words, the cornerstone of that transformation was weekly meetings that connected everyone at Ford–over 100,00 employees–to the progress being made on “The Plan!”

Establishing and sticking to that cadence is critical for everyone involved in the transformation. In his nine-year tenure at Ford, Alan Mulally never missed a weekly update. Consider that kind of dedicated discipline for a minute. Nine years. Four-hundred and sixty-eight consecutive updates! That is what follow-up looks like for a transformation–and it absolutely needs to be modeled from the apex of the organization.

Keep Your Organization Nimble During Disruption

Since most organizations in most industries are in, or on the precipice of, a transformational change, it is wise to stay nimble. By definition nimble means “quick in movement or in action; agile.”

Organizations that aspire to be resilient in the face of disruptive change simply must enable agility and adaptability at their foundation. More than anything else this translates to decision-making authority at the lowest possible level of the organization in combination with a streamlined team that has the ability to reprioritize and change course based on emergent facts and data.

This sounds much easier than it is. It means truly understanding which roles in your organization drive the most value, and how those roles need to be staffed, protected and supported. It also means training and retraining tenured employees who have valuable experience with your company and its culture, but find themselves in a role that is less than vital (or even expendable) given the impact of unforeseen change. Finally, it entails taking a critical look at the layers of management within your existing structure and considering a configuration that intentionally drives decision-making and accountability as low as it can go.

Learn More About Leadership in the Modern Workplace

The Center for Leadership Studies (CLS) is the global home of the Situational Leadership® Model. Through programs like Situational Leadership® Essentials for managers, and Situational Performance Ownership™ for individual contributors, CLS is helping leaders at all levels hit productivity targets, enhance employee engagement and retain key talent.  

And while the Situational Leadership® Model has forever been a language of change, we would offer that learning that language–and speaking it–has never been more important! When change hits, readiness shifts! And Situational Leaders shift right along with it.  At CLS, we build leaders and drive behavior change!