Leaders Need to Change First Before Organizations Change


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This is the second article in our leadership consulting series of articles that looks at creating transformative change in your organization. The full series will be available for download as a white paper once it is completed.

In our last article, we discussed Transformative Leadership and Change Realization. Now let’s discuss the importance for leaders to understand their own need to change first before an organization can change.

Leaders Need to Evolve in Order for the Organization to Follow Suit

A common theme that has emerged throughout my years of experience as a leadership expert is that creating change within an organization starts with leadership. Leaders first need to realize the need for change, not only within their organization, but also within themselves for real transformative change to occur. Understand that current culture is tied to your own existing leadership style. That’s why the culture is what it is in the first place.

How and what you change will be dependent on evaluation of your own personal strengths and weaknesses and those of your organization in order to stay competitive and maximize growth within your industry.

How you approach change will be very different if you are an existing leader at the organization compared to a new leader who has been hired to bring about change.

A leader’s realization for the need for change starts with leadership self-assessment and self-awareness. Change realization is the first major step in the change process and is a key factor for adoption internally.

Performing a Self-Assessment as a Leader

While identifying the need for change is important, taking actionable steps to make change and evolve as a leader is what will really drive change internally and affect organizational culture. You cannot transform your organization if you first do not transform your own leadership style and methods.

Performing self-assessment as a leader is a valuable tool to identify and make changes that will stick. Self-assessment allows leaders take a look at their leadership skills and abilities and reflect upon the areas they need to improve or change. This change realization must be internalized first before it can be applied to the organization.

Start your leadership self-assessment by reflecting upon these questions:

Personal leadership qualities

  • Are you self-aware? Do you have clarity of your own personal values and principles? Do you act in alignment with your stated values? Do you understand how they impact your behaviours and the way in which you approach leadership?
  • What do you do for personal development? Do you actively engage in new learning opportunities? How do you apply what you learn to your role as a leader?

Direction and Vision

  • Do you have a clear vision? What is it?
  • Are you effective at identifying the key drivers of change? Do you anticipate potential roadblocks to adoption of proposed changes? What challenges do you foresee that will require change?
  • How do you personally back up your vision? What actions do you take? Do you hold people accountable who are not aligned with your vision?
  • How do you evaluate the impact of change?

Collaboration and working with others

  • Do you respect others’ opinions, beliefs and values?
  • Do you actively engage with others to determine the direction of the organization? Do you take a collaborative approach to leading the organization? Do you have a leadership team?
  • Are you an open and honest communicator?
  • Do you encourage others to contribute? Are you a good listener? Are you willing to objectively listen to others’ thoughts and opinions? Are you open to changing your opinion based on new information?
  • Do you seek out feedback from others? Do you act unilaterally?
  • Are you skilled at conflict management?

Management Approach

  • Do you clearly communicate your vision? How do you build internal support for your vision?
  • Are you an effective planner? Do you incorporate feedback when developing plans? Do you assess the benefits and risks associated with your planned strategies?
  • Do you efficiently manage and utilize the resources that are available?
  • Are you good at managing people? Do you communicate a clear purpose, direction and expectations of your leadership team and team members?

Executing Strategies

  • How do you frame new strategic objectives?
  • When developing strategies, do you engage with a wide range of stakeholders?
  • How do you mitigate risk?
  • Do you ensure that strategies are broken down into realistic and implementable plans that can be carried out by team members?
  • How do you manage performance? Do you hold others accountable? How do you hold yourself accountable? What actions do you take to improve performance?
  • Do you work with others to overcome barriers to adoption and challenges in implementing strategies?

Send me an email if you would like a copy of my Simple Leadership Self-assessment to help you identify where you have the opportunity to improve and grow.

Discuss these questions with a trusted colleague, coach, mentor, leadership consultant, or a key advisor in your organization. Use this information to develop an action plan that outlines your strengths, and more importantly, the areas where change is required for you to become a more effective leader. It is only when you make transformative changes as a leader that you can apply that knowledge to your organization and transform the way your organization does business.

The next article in our leadership consulting series will examine how to alter your approach as a leader. 

DOWNLOAD ARTICLE: Leaders Need to Change First Before Organizations Change


  1. Hey Bill, I love what you have to say. Thank you!

    And… I think you are preaching to the choir. I have met plenty of people in Leadership who needed some self awareness and self assessment, and yet self assessment was the last thing in the world they would do. In my experience only one in a million will take a hard and serious look at themselves unless faced with a life changing situation, like job loss. Most people (again, in my experience) will simply answer yes to the majority of the questions above, and rate themselves as above average Leaders.
    I’ve been developing Leaders for years, and I only been able to break through people’s defense mechanisms a few times, to get them to change their way of thinking before they had to… that is, before it negatively affected their career in a big way. How do you get people who would otherwise be considered ‘successful’ to take an honest look at themselves?

  2. Steve — thanks for the question, that’s a tough one. When people are not already interested in self improvement, having someone else point out issues will often push them towards defensiveness and they will tune you out. We often don’t see our own issues, even if we see them in others.
    One suggestion would be to describe the issue in a situation that doesn’t include them and discuss how they would suggest someone might handle the situation. Once you have used this non-threatening discussion to get some dialogue and agreement on an appropriate direction you can link it to a situation that involves them — being careful not to make them feel you have manipulated them into the discussion.
    Hopefully seeing the situation through “another” set of eyes, will help them see the impact of their own actions.

  3. Yeah… Since I’ve been lucky enough to have made pretty much every mistake there is to make, I can usually draw on some of my own experience to make the analogy. Through this I can usually get them to see the issue, including how and why a change of behavior would benefit them. It’s getting them to actually behave differently that’s more the issue.
    I’ve had both peers and team members lose their jobs, and only then find whatever it took within them to change.
    So the ability to change was within them… My goal is to find a way to help others find a way to make the change before this big consequence.
    Thank you for the exchange.

  4. I think the key is to help them understand the consequences of their continued behaviours relative to their desired career outcomes. We can’t make people change — we can only help them align their personal objectives with the organizations objectives. If their behaviours don’t align with the organizations objectives & culture — they won’t be successful. When their behaviours are aligned — then can they be successful. If they see this linkage — then they may make the decision to change. The consequences and expectations need to be clear. They need to decide — we can only provide support.

  5. Bill, I’m curious how often you’ve found leaders who can change in their current jobs.

    You say “Leaders Need to Evolve in Order for the Organization to Follow Suit.” Well, I agree that if leaders evolve their organizations have a better chance of evolving too.

    But I think it’s far more likely that an organization will change leaders (if results are disappointing) than for the leader to change him/herself.

    Perhaps after losing a leadership position, after some self-reflection, it’s more more common for leaders to change. For their next job.

    Frankly, I’ve seen little evidence that leaders, or people in general, change very much. They are who they are, and tend to stay that way. A better strategy, in my view, is to make sure that organizations avoid trying to pound square pegs into round holes. Instead, match people to jobs that align with their natural strengths.

  6. Bob, you raise a number of good points.
    The square peg into round hole philosophy is one that needs to apply to every position, not just leaders — and I agree completely. Hiring the right people, based on character vs competence is critical to the success of any organization.
    As for leaders willingness to change. You are also correct that some leaders/people never change. It’s not in their character — and they usually look externally to focus their blame for the poor results. Resultant, the only solution may be to change the leader. Frankly, in my business I am not interested in spending time working with those type of leaders.
    However, there are many leaders who are interested in self improvement and growth — these are the leaders I am talking about. These leaders have looked at their organization and recognize they are not achieving the outcomes they would like — and are genuinely interested in discovering the root cause. These leaders are life-long learners; reading books, working with coaches, or asking for insights/feedback from trusted colleagues (internally and externally) for support in skills sets they don’t have.
    It’s why good companies get better while bad companies stay bad — until they change their leadership.
    My own leadership growth was stuck early in my career until I discovered that the outcomes around me were mostly driven by my own behaviours. That discovery came from a genuine desire to achieve better results. My personal journey is not finished and I continue to learn from experience and others every day. I still have much to learn — and self assessment and self reflection have been essential to that journey.
    As I mentioned in an earlier comment — we can’t make people change, only they can decide to change. If they are not interested, then no assessment will help — self or otherwise.

  7. If organizations are both serious enough and disciplined enough to morph the enterprise – its people, processes, values, and DNA, over time – to a high level of customer-centricity, this also tends to have a fairly transformative effect on senior management and leadership modus. As Bob notes, and I agree, change in the organizational culture and style is more likely to occur before the leader adopts desired behaviors (or the organization brings in a leader who is more compatible with this direction): http://customerthink.com/what-customer-centric-companies-must-do-to-become-customer-obsessed/

  8. In my experience organizations are not some separate entity — they are made up of the people, processes, values and DNA. Organizational culture is a direct reflection of the values and behaviours of the senior leadership. One only has to look at Enron to see that the proclaimed values of the organization are without effect if the actual leadership lives different values.

  9. Senior leaders can, indeed, shape cultures – the CEOs of companies like Amazon, IBM, GE, Southwest Airlines, and FedEx are great examples. That said, leadership is transitory, while cultures have staying power. For every Napoleonic leader from companies like Enron and Global Crossing, there are multitudes of organizations where leaders and cultures have gone the other way, making profits and being responsible to all stakeholders. This is what customer-centricity and conscious capitalism are all about: http://customerthink.com/an_update_on_the_financial_value_of_being_human/

  10. Generally I have to agree that senior leaders can shape cultures, and… in my experience the culture will only stay if the CEO and other senior leadership are all committed it, and work to keep the rewards systems aligned with the values of that culture. It does not take long to wipe out years spent building a culture when the CEO changes, and/or the rewards systems are changed and no longer line up with the old values.

    Every time I go into a certain big box home store I see signage about how important customer service is, contests they are running, and prizes to be won. It looks like customer service is one of their values, and it’s touted in advertising, however in reality it is not truly valued. In every store I have visited my experience is the same… the customer service is, and has always been abysmal. It seems obvious that someone on some level values customer service, and yet the company’s actual reward system cannot be aligned with the goal of providing great (or even good) customer service.
    The point being it doesn’t matter what any CEO states is important, or what culture they want to build… if the company rewards KPI other than those which support said culture, any culture other than that which is rewarded will colapse upon itself.

    At least that’s my opinion.

  11. Steve, totally agree with your assessment. The leadership states one thing and looks for performance against a different set of expectations (KPI’s). Case in point being Enron.
    It is up to the leadership to ensure that the KPI’s are in alignment with the values/culture — otherwise they aren’t being honest with themselves about the true values for the organization.Which brings me back to the point about leaders needing to change first. They need to recognize the disconnect and make the necessary changes to align their values/culture with their service promise and subsequent expectations/KPI’s so there is alignment and clarity of understanding across the organization. Of course, they alo need to hold people accountable to those aligned expectations. Thanks for your comments.

  12. Michael, agree. The technique for creating an ongoing legacy through leadership change is to ensure the new leadership shares the existing values of the organization — and therefore able to maintain and build the existing high-performing culture. However, in my experience, even with a great organization/culture, if you bring in new leadership who doesn’t share the existing values — new/different values will creep in and impact culture. Thanks for your comment.


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