Change Management vs. Change Leadership: What’s the Difference?

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Change Management vs. Change Leadership: What’s the Difference?
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Change Management vs. Change Leadership: What’s the Difference?

Change is happening at an increasing pace, volume, and complexity․ It spreads across industries and systems, ready to hit us at any moment. And although change can be painful, chaotic, and unpredictable, real leaders put every effort into making it happen.

Why would this be?

The answer is quite straightforward: change is the best antidote to stagnation and the first precondition for growth.

To manage and lead change within and beyond organizations, decision-makers are urged to take a systematic view of their industry, community, and supply chains. More than ever before, they need tools to help them lift the weight of uncertainty. Acting like a leader becomes imperative. That’s why, as compared to change management, change leadership is growing in importance, offering smarter and more sustainable solutions to unknown challenges.

Let’s take the guesswork out of the process and clearly define the difference between leading and managing change.

What is change management

What is change management?

Change management is the use of knowledge, tools, and mechanisms to address change systematically. It prepares and supports people in making and handling change. Change management aims to keep change under control by minimizing possible negative consequences and ensuring a smooth transition. It’s usually characterized by a hierarchical style of leadership.
Implementing new technology, upgrading existing processes, introducing new product lines, or shifting organizational structures will all require effective change management.

What is change leadership?

Change leadership is the ability to create a sense of urgency and influence people to take action. It focuses on big visions and larger-scale changes that push a company towards transformation. It prepares people to respond with openness, agility, and resilience in periods of growth, disruption, and chaos. Change leadership is concerned about the values, mindset, driving forces, style, and people’s behavior. Those who opt for change leadership are more interested in cultivating emotional and social intelligence as well as prioritizing attributes that can fuel large-scale transformation.

Key differences between change leadership and change management

Change management has a beginning and an end, while change leadership goes beyond intermittent projects. While change management wants to be done with this next project, change leadership plants the seeds for change, initiates it, and uses it to achieve big objectives. Change leadership doesn’t fear change; instead, it welcomes it. So the moment your focus shifts to change leadership, you start proactively leading change by removing threats and resistance.

Conversely, change management is usually reactive, and that’s why those leaders who choose change management often wait too long to act. As a result, the change may happen in a crisis (sucking up more time and resources). This means that change management is trying to answer the question – how we can achieve this change, whereas change leadership defines what change we want to witness.

Thus, change leadership is about building an organism with a strong immune system that’s adaptable to change and is geared towards continuous improvement. At the same time, change leadership is more associated with bigger hazards because you take risks and push your potential to its limits in order to open doors to wider opportunities. No wonder there is no breakthrough without change leadership.

More distinctions between change management and change leadership emerge when we delve deep into how change leaders initiate and implement change.

ocus areas of change leadership

Five focus areas of change leadership

The difference between change management versus change leadership is further highlighted when we look at the focus areas of change leadership.

1. Defining the vision and the strategy.

Change leadership inspires people through purpose. It’s clear on vision, mission, and values. Change leaders watch closely where the industry is evolving and create a strategic narrative. They’re not lost in handling today’s problems; they free up time to think about problems that come down the road. Change leadership ideates what’s coming next and where your priorities lie.

2. Challenging the status quo.

Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, knows that you can’t thrive if you aren’t ready to experiment.

“Amazon will be experimenting at the right scale for a company of our size if we occasionally have multibillion-dollar failures,” Bezos highlighted in his annual shareholder letter.

Change leadership is a movement where you challenge the status quo. You should, therefore, leave more space for trying new models and testing strategies which will sometimes mean short-term failures and mistakes. Be prepared for those failures. In a work culture with zero tolerance for mistakes, change leadership is doomed.

Change leaders aim for innovation, which means that there will be no best practices to guide them. Change leaders are comfortable with uncertainty; they’re curious, open-minded, and determined. They watch for major trends and prepare their companies well before their teams start sliding into trouble.

Cultivating the mindset and the spirit for change

3.  Cultivating the mindset and the spirit for change.

Especially in the case of long-term initiatives, you’ll have to overcome challenges by having your team by your side. “People should be treated like they’re valuable human beings and not part of an economic equation,” says Maureen Metcalf, CEO of the Innovative Leadership Institute.

And if you wonder what the difference between managing change and leading change is, consider this: change leaders inspire people to do what they didn’t believe they were capable of doing. They concentrate on employee mindsets and understand what makes them show commitment. In other words, managers will teach the skills, while leaders will teach the mindset.

Managing teams effectively is still a priority, but when you’re leading change, you help your employees foresee and navigate future challenges. Don’t wait for your team to request the next training program; keep your finger on the pulse of major trends in the job market, identify blind spots in your employees’ skill set, and guide them to certification programs that will be best catered to their individual needs. Those who succeed at this will win the talent competition tomorrow.

Your team members are not mere musicians in the orchestra who look up to the conductor to figure out what they should play next. Change leadership is humble and allows each and every musician to step up and actually be the conductor. To put it in another way, your team feels empowered to think big and think ahead. They provide input and are encouraged to come up with fresh initiatives. And when the chaos and uncertainty hit, you have trustworthy relationships built to work collaboratively.

4. Building a robust network.

This one starts by admitting that you don’t have all the answers. Once you confront this reality, marvelous things may happen. For instance, you may start seeing the importance of building a viable network of like-minded people because that’s how you’ll be able to work cross-border, cross-industry, and cross-sector.

Today, when we have a shortage of stability and sustainability, change leadership helps you to have more voices, more distinct viewpoints by persuading people to bring their unique skills and resources to the table. People are pulled together, and they feel innately connected. This authentic network allows you to take bigger leaps and reap rewards in the long run.

5. Leveraging data to embrace change

Workplaces are becoming more data-driven and more experimental. Leaders have to see things earlier and course-correct more often. Are you able to adapt, and how are you going to help your team to respond?

It wouldn’t be an overstatement to note that today every business is a digital business, or at least there is a digital element in it. With more data, advanced technology, AI, and digital tools at our disposal, we’re getting more sophisticated in understanding and leveraging data which opens new perspectives and exciting opportunities. The future belongs to those who are able to collect valuable data and are willing to pilot ideas.

Let’s sum up

Peter Drucker, a management consultant and educator, draws our attention to the emerging realities to help us understand the difference between change management and change leadership. “In a period of rapid structural change the only organizations that survive are the ‘change leaders,’ ” Drucker writes.

While change leadership is more concentrated on bigger initiatives, this is not to undermine the importance of change management. In fact, to survive, you’ll have to master both. Without change leadership, companies don’t witness major leaps, and employees may not clearly understand and support the vision of the change, while without effective change management, people may struggle with implementing the change and bringing it into life.

Whether challenges prove to be a boon or bane will depend on how prepared you are when the next big change knocks on your door.

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