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What's Your Change Leadership Style?

Monday, March 16, 2015  
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By Sarah Stewart 

Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future. - John F. Kennedy

Change is constant. It cascades in waves, bringing new challenges, situations, and realities. Many leaders try to predict or manage change, looking for her crest on the horizon and trying to leverage her strength and direction. Some are successful, but most are not. According to the Center for Creative Leadership, studies consistently show that 50 to 70 percent of planned change efforts fail. How can leaders chart a successful course with such daunting odds?  

CCL has built a reputation helping leaders and organizations become change agents in their communities. Founded in 1970, CCL is a top-ranked global provider of executive education which develops leaders through an exclusive focus on executive education and leadership. The organization serves more than 20,000 individuals and 2,000 organizations in the public, private, non-profit, and education sectors each year.

This year, SAIS has invited CCL’s Al Calarco to facilitate its 2nd annual Heads Leadership Retreat in Nashville, TN, on April 19-20. Calarco, who has 20 years of experience with CCL as a facilitator, speaker, and executive coach, will focus on change leadership and helping individuals develop a plan to drive successful change in their schools.

“Leaders need to be able to adapt to change and manage transitions, which are two distinct responsibilities,” Calarco said. “Change is an event; it is something that happens quickly and can be beyond our control and/or unexpected. Transition is the psychological process people go through when a change occurs, and that takes time and can be managed well or poorly. Strong leaders are able to identify and leverage the change, and then help others transition.”

Change Management vs. Change Leadership

According to Calarco, it is important that leaders understand the difference between change management and change leadership. Change management is an outside-in approach; the focus is on managing the operational or structural side of change. However, change leadership is a people-oriented, or inside-out approach. Calarco says this type of leadership is the most effective, especially in schools where so much of change is dependent on gaining the support of diverse and numerous stakeholders. According to CCL, the successful leaders are those who can enlist support in the change, while inspiring commitment and determination in the face of uncertainties, fears, and distractions.

CCL encourages leaders to consider the process of organizational change as it occurs on three levels - first with self, then with others, and last with the organization. With the self, leaders must identify their roles and take an honest inventory of their feelings about change, as well as their preferences for managing it in themselves and others. They must ask themselves questions such as, "What is my default leadership style when faced with significant change? How do my change style preferences affect those around me?"

Next, leaders must consider how to help others respond to change. Some common questions, according to CCL, are, “How do I build relationships and persuade supporters, detractors, and fence-sitters to get onboard with the changes I am tasked with? How do I understand and respond to the different perspectives, feelings and responses people have to change, while achieving alignment with organizational aims?”

Lastly, leaders must grapple with how to lead change in an organization. This involves understanding the various stakeholders and decision makers, as well as allies and detractors. Leaders must learn to influence others and build consensus around the change they are championing.

Know Thyself

One valuable tool the CCL relies on to help leaders manage change is the Change Style Indicator. All attendees at this year’s SAIS Heads Leadership Retreat will receive a personalized Change Style Indicator. Created in 2000 by W. Christopher Musselwhite, the Change Style Indicator is a leadership assessment tool that identifies an individual’s preferred style in approaching and addressing change. The tool also allows them to explore how their style compares and contrasts with other styles. With this knowledge, they can learn to identify the styles of those around them, and adapt their approach accordingly.

According to CCL, people tend to navigate change from three standpoints – conservers, originators, and pragmatists. A person’s preference for change is viewed as a function of his/her cognitive style. There is no right style, only a question of which is the most appropriate for each situation. Moreover, a leadership team should have all of these styles represented.

Conservers prefer a gradual but continuous approach to change. They prefer the known to the unknown. They seek out current resources within the established business model and are open to change so long as it does not disrupt the stability of the organization. This style is valuable as it helps to maintain stability in an organization which is critical in times of change. That stability instills confidence in stakeholders and provides a safe place for future growth. A downfall of the conserver is an unwillingness to try new things or take risks.

The opposite style of the conserver is the originator. This change style likes to question current systems and tends to pursue new possibilities and directions. They prefer rapid and radical growth. Originators are often the visionaries and leaders in an organization constantly pushing for what is next, or what could be. They are fearless in their pursuit of innovation. Downfalls can be impulsiveness or lack of planning. Research from the CCL found that 25 percent of people are conservers and 25 percent are originators.

Lastly, pragmatists are the most common change style, comprising half of the population. Pragmatists focus on accomplishing the task at hand. As their title implies, they judge an idea’s merit on its functionality and clear business sense. They are often seen as agreeable and flexible team players. Pragmatists are a critical part of any team. They are the glue that holds the other members together and can make the vision work. 

What’s Next?

Change leadership is a difficult skill, but one which every leader must master in order to be successful. Tools like the Change Style Indicator allow leaders to understand themselves and others. This insight can allow them to leverage both their own and their team’s strengths for the greater good. From this stance, leaders can avoid the interpersonal conflicts that may erupt from differing styles and encourage greater collaborations, creativity, and innovation.

Want to know more? Read our previous interview with Al Calarco about strategic leadership. Also read our latest book review of Adaptability: Responding Effectively to Change. For more about the Heads Leadership Retreat visit

Calendar more
SAIS@NAIS Reception
February 27 | Long Beach, CA
Please stop by SAIS booth #882 in the exhibit hall too!

Leadership Retreat
April 15-16 | New Orleans, LA
Join us for a real conversation about women in independent school leadership.

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