Becoming a Change Leader

Benjamin Franklin once said, “When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.” That was true 200+ years ago; it is even truer now. For instance, only 12% of the companies on the Fortune 500 list in 1955 made the list in 2015. At one time, a BlackBerry was considered the must have device for business and professional use (I remember having a Blackberry Storm). Today a 2-year-old iPhone is considered nearly obsolete. We live in a time when change is constant and is happening faster and faster. Ideas that were once new are now considered old hat.

While our various forms of government, local, state, and federal, will not disappear like public companies falling off the Fortune 500, they can quickly lose touch with their constituents. One way this happens is by following well-intended policies and procedures designed for a past era. We have all seen policies in place that were created to solve a problem that doesn’t exist anymore. Best case, these might only seem like minor hindrances to getting your job done. Worse case, they impact the general public and make a department look unwilling to adapt to the changing world.

For many in government, improving how things are done can seem like a daunting task. The barriers to change can seem insurmountable, but they do not have to be. John Kotter, in his book Leading Change, lays out 8 steps designed to make lasting changes and improvements within an organization. When used these steps in a continuous circular model, change no longer becomes a daunting endeavor, but a series of tasks that anyone can use to slowly implements improvements over time.

The Kotter leading change model consists of:

  • Create Sense of Urgency
  • Build Guiding Coalition
  • Form a Strategic Vision
  • Enlist a Volunteer Army
  • Enable Action by Removing Barriers
  • Generating Short-Term Wins
  • Consolidate Wins and Produce More Change
  • Anchor New Approaches in the Culture

Let’s briefly look at these steps.

Create a Sense of Urgency – How often have you gone out of your way to do something that you feel is unimportant? The same is true when leading change. If your co-workers and the people around you do not see a need, they will not get on board. No amount of strategy, vision, or empowerment will work if the urgency is not there.

Build Guiding Coalition – In basketball, even the best players cannot win without the rest of the team. Changing a department or organization is the same. Without a group of people to help lead and steer the change, nothing will happen. In today’s world, no one is an island unto themselves.

Form a Strategic Vision – Without a single vision to guide the team; everyone follows a different path. Imagine planning a family vacation where everyone wants to go to a different city. First, a destination must be selected; then the trip can be planned. Visions do not always need to be grand or overarching. It could start out as a 10% improvement this month. Remember, a hidden vision is the same as no vision.

Enlist a Volunteer Army – Find those people that want to help make a change. Find ways to work together toward the strategic vision. Be willing to branch out to other groups or departments. Spend some time together finding ways make improvements.

Empower Employees by Removing Barriers – Unless you are working in a startup, you most likely are working in an environment with barriers (e.g. policies and procedures) that hinder change. Before trying to break through a barrier, try to understand why the barriers exist. Once you understand the “why” then you can find a better alternative. Assume every policy and procedure was created by people with limited information with the best intentions. Always make it about the barrier, not the person that created them.

Generate Short-Term Wins – Start with a short term goal and celebrate when you accomplish them. In several teams I have led, we set 2-week goals. (We found two weeks to be the sweet spot for short term wins) Any longer than that team members lose their sense of urgency. It may be hard at first to find those short term wins, but it can be done.

Consolidate Gains and Produce More Change – Build on the previous changes. Improve them. Tweak them. You will never get it right the first time. If your goal was a 10% improvement this month, can you increase another 10% next month? What about 15%?

Anchor New Approaches in the Culture – For most everyone, we do not need to think about walking or breathing. These simple tasks are second nature. The change we implement needs to become second nature. Implement your improvement and refuse to go back to the old way of doing things. Update your manuals with the change. Hang up posters showing the change. Live the change every day. Only through repetition will the change stick.

In following posts, I will go into each of these steps in detail. These steps are meant to be a continuous circle of improvements and change. Remember that change is a marathon, not a sprint. There will be days when you do not feel like it is worth it, but is it.

What is the one thing you can change in your department/group this week?


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richard regan

Benjamin Franklin noted change leader said this in his 1750 autobiography about American Indians.

“If it be the design of Providence to extirpate these Savages in order to make room for cultivators of the Earth, it seems not improbable that rum may be the appointed means.”

What is one thing I will try to change about my department/group this week? Can we talk about change in a way that American Indians/Alaska Natives are not continually framed in the past and viewed in the present as inhuman and alcoholics.

I guess the more things change the more things stay the same about American Indians/Alaska Natives.

William Tewelow


The article is excellent. It is about leading change but it seems you somehow missed that point. How it could be misconstrued it into a twisted commentary on a biased history of the U.S. is difficult to comprehend.

William Tewelow

Great article. You are evangelizing an effort that is taking place is cloisters within the government. One such leader is David Bray, Ph.D., FCC CIO. He is a Change Leader and has created a group of leaders from the private and public sector to work together for change. I’d like to invite you out to our next group meeting. If you are interested please let me know.
Best regards,