Change Leadership vs. Change Management - What Is The Difference And Why We Possibly Need Both

In an increasingly volatile work environment, businesses are more predisposed to change than ever. Not only has the necessity for change increased, but there is also a new understanding of the nature of what needs to be changed.

While in former times the focus was often on process improvement, now the attention is directed towards how an organization as a whole can learn how to learn, adapt to external circumstances more quickly and become more agile in general.


These new circumstances have stimulated new terminology. With an increasing awareness that we need to change the way we change, change leadership seems to be the new en vogue term while change management has essentially become outdated. However before we throw out the baby with the bathwater, it might be helpful to take a closer look.


Change Management


Change management is often seen as a support function. Its focus is usually process, design or structural changes. In a top-bottom approach aiming to reduce the vulnerability of organizations during times of uncertainty, change management and project management often go hand in hand. Initiatives are planned and carried out to help the members of the organization adapt to previously-decided new circumstances, procedures or standards. This approach utilizes a set of processes, tools and mechanisms to get from the current state, through a transition phase and to the desired future state as efficiently as possible. This approach might be called an imperialistic change style, a style that assumes a sense of control.


Change Leadership


Change leadership, in contrast, is usually associated with a bigger vision and with the creation of a broader agency and urgency for change throughout the entire organization. The change leadership model motivates the members of the organization to be and lead the change, using collaborative, creative and motivational change approaches. In change management, the members are seen as the subjects of change, whereas in change leadership, they become the drivers and agents of change. When change leadership is at play, the members of the organization are expected to have the mindset of an intrapreneur capable of taking matters into their own hands, helping to foster change time and again and creating the necessary solutions to potential threats.


In sum, what differentiates change leadership from change management is the level of focus, number of stakeholders and supporters as well as the scope of the initiatives. Also the mind- and skill-sets range widely. While change management depicts change as manageable and controllable, change leadership sees it as a dynamic and creative process. While one involves heavy planning to reduce chaos and uncertainty, the other requires acceptance of chaos, vulnerability and uncertainty.


Changing The Way We Think About Change


Admittedly, even the explanation above doesn’t make change management look too appealing for our current business needs. However, if we truly want to change the way we think about change, we need to bear a few crucial points in mind. These points may convince us that we can use both, change management and change leadership, side by side.


  1. Change can be dynamic and static at the same time. The nature of change is so complex that it can actually be interpreted as dynamic and as static simultaneously. Because of this, an organization needs to understand its change readiness for specific kinds of changes. Some desired future states may need a combination of both the change management and change leadership approaches.

  2. Adaptive change and innovation is a race without a finish line. If a change leadership initiative is seen as a one-off, it runs the risk of being as ineffective as a change management initiative conducted in the wrong way with the wrong people at the wrong time. Change leadership needs to become a mindset that deeply infiltrates the entire organization – change management processes can help foster this process.

  3. Most conducted change initiatives fail due to lack of long and short term planning. In change leadership, planning is indispensable. The project management skills that go along with change management initiatives can come in handy here. We may need to be take these skills a lot more seriously in the long run than we may want to admit.

  4. Most change initiatives fail because they never start. Change leadership initiatives cut much deeper into the DNA of an organization than initiatives that take a change management approach. Therefore the risk of the process never getting started is much higher.

  5. Change is still led from the top. Just because a change leadership approach aims for collaborative change, doesn’t mean we do not need the same level of commitment, if not a much higher level of commitment at the top of the organization. Change leadership embraces vulnerability and an uncertain outcome. So if your management is only half committed to the process, your outcome might be much worse than if you had used an average change management process.

  6. Different situations, call for different approaches. Not every organization, unit or department may be appropriate for a change leadership initiative. And for some endeavors it may even be a true over-kill. Making sound decisions as to how we want to change and what we want to change or if we need or want to change at all, may be the first step in getting a form of control over change, not the people involved.

  7. Change for the sake of change can be a sign of organizational neuroticism. While the call for change is one of the loudest heard in the current business landscape, we need to understand that it can sometimes be a sign of ill management. A company that undergoes large scale change opens itself up to vulnerability. Organizational change costs money, time and resources and shouldn’t be underestimated. Signs of organizational neuroticism in the light of change are amongst others: a) calls for change without acting on them, b) underestimating the cost of change, c) over estimating the benefits of change, d) misjudgement of the organization’s change readiness, e) identity loss in the face of change and e) spreading inconsistent organizational change stories and messages.


Embracing Change in a Healthy Way


Change is a reality. However this reality can be faced using both change management initiatives and change leadership endeavors – as well as other approaches. We can see change in a healthy way when we understand our own role in it and that of the entire company with its dynamic internal and external levels of interconnectedness. Starting from that awareness, we can sit down and make healthy decisions about how to deal with changing external factors. While both change management and change leadership have advantages and disadvantages, each can learn and borrow from the other.


Thinking about how we conduct our approach to change is the first act of true change leadership.

 Read Other Posts About Organizational Change



About the author:

Erika Jacobi is the President of LC GLOBAL Consulting Inc., a boutique change and innovation consulting firm with offices in New York City and Munich, Germany. LC GLOBAL® leads organizations through important change and innovation processes to pave the way for unique transformation and sustainable growth. For more information visit or follow us on

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Topics: Change Management, Organizational Change, Change Leadership

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