If You Want to Lead Get Ready for This!


Think about a time when change was foisted upon you. How did you feel, and how did you find yourself reacting to the one who brought the change? Got it in your head? I asked my students last week to share in one-on-one conversations their answers to those questions. Then I asked them — what I’d invite you to give 30 seconds thought to: Talk about a time when you were pushing someone(s) else to change; what did that feel like? What did you encounter in response from the other(s).

I asked them next in groups of 5-7 to come up with the 2 commonalities from answering these questions in one-on-one exchanges. I took notes as they called out the commonalities they came up with. Here are my notes:

When change was imposed  on you   When you brought change     
Resistance and avoidance Guilt at pushing someone
Rebellion Once through the initial resistance, you can
gain acceptance
Confusion There is great uncertainty about
failure or success
Criticism of those bringing change Resistance to the change
Resentment (hatred, someone called
Betrayal, heavy emotions when you’re pushing
change towards those you’re close to
Relief (when you were able to adapt
to the change)
Isolation from those you’re pushing
Frustration Skepticism towards you
Uncertainty, unsureness, confused

I completely and totally expected that they would talk about RESISTANCE, nevertheless I was still blown away by the extent and universality of their responses.  I announced professorially:  “Forget reading all the great books about ‘leading change.’  You have all produced the essentials in these lists.”  There are three inescapable conclusions. For the first I simply quote my friends Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner:

1.  “Not one person [of the thousands they studied] claimed to have achieved a personal best by keeping things the same.  All leaders,” they continue, “challenge the process.”*  Leading involves bringing others to change! Kouzes and Posner study “personal best,” stories, and I guarantee in leadership failures, change and resistance-to-rebellion are almost always the lion’s share of the story of disappointment.  And as my students made so patently clear:

2. Challenge and change generate resistance, much of which is directed at the messenger. So:

3. Know it and prepare for it! As you lead change, what do you pay attention to?  Given that confusion, anxiety and resistance are inevitable, what works for — to get the work done and to keep you sane and safe in the process?

Love your thoughts, and I’ll share a few of my own next week!

Lead with your best,


* Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge,  4th ed., 2003, p. 18.

  • I’ve found that any small failure associated with a change is jumped on by the majority. It may represent a small issue compared to the previous arrangement however since it is associated with something new the group impacted by the change ‘jumps on it’. They then associate failure to the project due to a couple of minor issues.
    How can you mitigate this typical response? Acknowledge there wil likely be difficulties in implementing the change and engage the group up front to help identify these bumps in the road. Next enlist their aid in resolving the issue and address them promptly. Give the person who identified the issue credit for reviewing the new process, software, organizational or work flow and identifying even more changes that can be implemented. Flexibility in the initial implementation allows for these process challenges to be smoothed out quickly. This can help to change the dynamic from the change being one person’s idea to it being a group idea with all taking ownership.

  • My husband did strategic planning and design for retail companies. His words to those who would help companies change for the better: wait until you are asked. And then only work for companies who are good and want to be better, or those who are desperate and know they need to change. Make sure you work with the decision-makers. Charge for your work. It’s more likely to be appreciated and followed. Earn what you are paid.

  • Dan, your email are always great but this one couldn’t be more timely as I’ve made a big change…I’m leaving WA3 and joining the team at M1 Rail.

    Change and challenge! You’re right! I will be living it every day and ready to embrace all it has to offer. Thanks always for the enlightening thoughts each week. My new email will be heather.carmona@m1rail.org.


  • Leading involves bring others to change, but I would say sometimes. There are times when it is best to leave things alone, or when the alternatives are not as good as what is already in place. Knowing when there is time to make a decision, and so not making a change too soon is important and avoids errors in judgment.

    One problem I have had is with persons who know all too well that they must plan for resistance to change. They do this so well that resistence is futile, no matter how good the case against change in a particular circumstance. Nothing is revealed until all is in place. This I have seen in government and politics. It is the opposite of democracy, but to me it seems that a majority of leaders do not want input from others, and do not want to hear criticism, they want to be in a role similar to a general of an army, never questioned. These persons become talented at not giving answers and not explaining. In the extreme they have ways of attacking the individual who can clearly explain what is wrong with the plan. The individual is attacked as the problem and not his ideas or criticisms.

    We know we need to be good people, but we live in a world where not everyone is like Dan Mulhern.

  • Dan,

    Your students’ responses are very intriguing. What a wonderful discussion it must have been.

    Here’s another thing for them to consider: In our research we found that in about half the personal best leadership cases individuals initiated the change, but in the other half the changes were initiated by someone else. Stuff happens in life. Sometimes you choose to make a change and sometimes change chooses you. People who become leaders don’t always seek the challenges they face. Challenges also seek leaders. What’s important are the choices you make when faced with change.

    Thanks for the stimulating post.

    Love ’em and lead ’em,

    • Jim,
      I appreciate your weighing in.
      I always loved the line from your book The Leadership Challenge: “Chances are that the crucible of that person’s crowning achievement was some distressing crisis, wrenching change, tragic misfortune, or risky venture. Only challenge produces the opportunity for greatness.” When I am teaching/speaking, I note that only the last of those 4 types of challenges is one that is selected.
      So, I quote you to support you 🙂 — it’s all about what we do when change and challenge come our way.

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