When it comes to change, emerging leaders have a clear advantage. They show a readiness to change in order to develop the skills needed to succeed. There is a hunger for growth that’s driven by ambition, and a curiosity towards the unknown. This can get lost over time as we settle into our comfort zones.

Leadership should be a never-ending journey of development and discovery. Within today’s constantly changing environment, every leader must be willing to explore new ideas, adapt to unpredictable challenges and uncover smarter ways of working.

Every leader must be ready for change.

So what are the characteristics of a successful change leader?

When it comes to leading change, understanding people is crucial.

Top executives surveyed by Development Dimensions International (DDI; 2007) identified the ability to motivate staff (35%), work well across cultures (34%) and facilitate change (32%) as critical leadership characteristics.

Within the same report, only 11% of executives selected technical expertise as a leadership quality of the future.

Like change, people are complex and often unpredictable. Leading people effectively is often much harder than managing even the most sophisticated of processes. Add a volatile and uncertain work climate to the mix and the challenges facing a change leader become clear.

However, the skills to effectively lead people through change don’t always get the development attention they require. Whether a seasoned CEO or top talent working up the ranks, there is often a need to develop this capability further.

This includes the development of the following eight change leadership behaviours…


Building a strong understanding of human behaviour is arguably the greatest challenge associated with the step up to leadership. It’s no longer enough to think like an industry expert; to drive results through others we need to think like a psychologist too.

This requires us to build an awareness of others’ motivational drivers, which is often linked to personality.

When we increase self-awareness and our understanding of others, we are better able to adapt our leadership style accordingly. This in turn helps us to build much stronger working relationships – enhancing empathy, minimising conflict, maximising trust and increasing our ability to influence.

Within the context of change, the ability to recognise our default behaviours and adapt to those of others becomes increasingly important, as it’s under such high-pressure situations that the extremes of our personality most often dominate.


A VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) environment brings constant threats and – importantly – constant opportunities.  To respond accordingly to change, we must be agile.

To make swift decisions effectively, we need to overcome our brain’s natural reliance on behavioural scripts. Behavioural scripts are at play when we go into ‘autopilot’. They provide mental short cuts and reduce the effort required to select an appropriate behaviour for a given event.

These can be incredibly helpful when undertaking routine tasks. However, when leading change, seemingly similar situations might require dramatically different responses based on the environmental context or the emotional reactions of employees.

To take the right action, we must constantly challenge assumptions and seek to identify facts based on the current situation. We must ask the right questions, observe current behaviour and practice effective listening.

In doing so, rather than settling for what’s worked before, we’re much more likely to identify the right solution to meet today’s need.


Leading change also requires us to gather different perspectives from relevant people across the business – challenging our thinking to break existing habits.

Recent leadership research (Carter et al., 2015) highlights the importance of our interpersonal relationships in delivering effective team and organisational performance. Known as a social network approach to leadership, it explores the concept of shared leadership to achieve the best possible results.

Leadership is no longer a solo activity directed from the top. The most effective change leaders are connected to what’s going on at every level of the business. To become a social leader, we must gather experience and insight from individuals across different levels of the organisation – from the front line to the C suite – in order to make better decisions.


When faced with the daily pressures of a changing environment, it’s easy to get sucked into the detail of every single crisis. And during times of change, there’s likely to be a fair few – not all of them substantial enough to merit the full attention of top leaders.

When the majority of our time is spent on crisis management, this comes at the cost of future-focused thinking and problem solving at a strategic level.  This may fix today’s dilemma, but it won’t prepare the organisation for similar challenges that will likely occur in the future.

We must make time for quality leadership thinking – focusing on high important, low urgent tasks and delegating other tasks accordingly. Even in the midst of change. When leading change, this will ensure we remain focused on the overarching change objectives, and how to successfully implement and embed these within the organisation.


While it might be tempting to draw on tried and tested methods when faced with uncertainty, at most this will help the organisation survive. We must make it thrive. We must innovate during change.

Technical expertise can be the barrier to innovation during periods of change. Models, analysis and theories may provide a warm comfort blanket, but they are likely to lead us towards the familiar solution and away from the novel.

To effectively lead change, we need to be intuitive. William Duggan (2007) terms this ‘strategic intuition’ – reconnecting existing nuggets of insight in new ways in order to produce innovative ideas.

It also requires a degree of risk-taking. This is not random risk-taking without purpose. Risks should be highly strategic and serve the company’s mission. This is essential during periods of change.


Of course, when we take risks we also need to be prepared to fail. We must develop resilience to overcome the barriers faced when leading change.

This requires a mind-set shift (Dweck, 2012). To increase our resilience, we must develop a positive default response when faced with stressors, pressures and challenges in order to maintain a sense of control.

We must be self-confident and believe in our ideas, and have the inner strength to stand our ground as required.

Doing so shows our commitment to change and has a positive impact on our performance and wellbeing, as well as the performance and wellbeing of the people we lead. This commitment is essential to embedding change.

We can build resilience using techniques such as positive thinking, visualisation and effective goal setting.


As well as building self-confidence, we must project hope to build a sense of certainty within an otherwise uncertain world.

This isn’t about being over-the-top optimistic. In the midst of a difficult change this will appear inauthentic and untrustworthy. However, it is important that we build belief across employees, engaging them in the future vision and inspiring action.

Positive psychology has shown that hopeful leaders can influence the optimism and resilience of their employees, increasing perceptions of leadership effectiveness and trustworthiness (Bono & Anderson, 2005; Norman et al., 2005). This in turn creates a more positive corporate culture.

Expressing confidence in the collective ability of a team or organisation to successfully achieve change has also been shown to positively influence employee belief in the likelihood of future success (Fransen et al., 2015).

We must develop inspirational techniques, such as effective presentation and communication skills, in order to engage and motivate employees to embrace change and overcome any obstacles they might face along the way.


While a positive outlook is important, it is not enough to win over employees in the face of adversity. We must also communicate a clear direction of travel that employees connect with and want to follow.

This clarity must flow from the top. Ensuring alignment at this level of the organisation is a critical first step.

Once the core messaging is agreed among leaders, we must cascade a shared vision and align it to the issues that matter most to our team, clearly stating the specific role each individual plays in its success. This builds a collective understanding of the common goals that must be achieved to deliver change, winning group buy-in and directing action.

This list of behaviours is by no means exhaustive. Please share your experiences and stories of change leadership, and continue to add to the list of behaviours within the comments section below.



  • Bono, J.E. & Anderson, M.H. (2005). The Advice and Influence Networks of Transformational Leaders. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90 (6), 1306 – 1314.
  • Carter, D.R., DeChurch, L.A., Braun, M.T. & Contractor, N.S. (2015). Social Network Approaches To Leadership: An Integrative Conceptual Review. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100 (3), 597 – 622.
  • Development Dimensions International. (2007). Growing Global Talent. Retrieved:
  • Duggan, W. (2007). Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark In Human Achievement. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Dweck, C. (2012). Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential. London: Robinson.
  • Fransen, K., Haslam, S.A., Steffens, N.K., Vanbeselaere, N., Cuyper, B.D., & Boen, F. (2015).  Believing in “Us”: Exploring Leaders’ Capacity to Enhance Team Confidence and Performance by Building a Sense of Shared Social Identity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 21 (1), 89 – 100.
  • Norman, S., Luthans, B., &Luthans, K. (2005).  The Proposed Contagion Effect of Hopeful Leaders on the Resilience of Employees and Organisations. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 12 (2), 55 – 64.

About the Author:

Jayne Ruff Business Psychologist and Partner at ChangingPoint. For more information on ChangingPoint, please contact