Leadership in Relation to Change Management

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Cyert (1990: 29) defines leadership as 'the ability to get participants in an organisation to focus their attention on the problems that the leader considers significant'. The functions of leadership considered by Cyert (1990: 29) therefore align to organisational, interpersonal and decisional actions. In light of increased attention being directed towards the heightened levels of dynamism found in the global business environment, an emerging interest is being directed towards the need to explore how leadership relates to organisational actions and, importantly, change management (Teece, 2009; Beerel, 2009). Change is an on-going part of any firm's strategy and is a strategy which has proven to be significantly related to a firm's ability to perform and sustain competitive advantage (Kavanagh & Ashkanasy, 2006). The postmodern era thus demands that organisations are able to deal with change as a constant dynamic within the firm (Hayes, 2007; Teece, 2009). As such, attention is directed within this essay towards the influence of different types of leadership on promoting a change vision within the firm (Anderson & Anderson, 2010).

Change and leadership

Gill (2002) argues that change 'requires effective leadership to be successfully introduced and sustained' (p.307). Combining an understanding and translation of vision, values and strategy coupled with inspiration is argued by Gill (2002) to promote a more sustainable change approach within the firm. This essay introduces four leadership theories: authoritarian, democratic, transformational, and transactional, and discusses their approach in relation to change management. Stemming from this it is argued that there is a need to adopt a situational based approach to leadership to assume the flexibility and adaptability required to support change within the firm (Steers, Sanchez-Runde & Nardon, 2012).

Change and the role of autocratic leadership

Early studies of leadership including that of the theoretical development of Great Man Theory approached leadership from a trait perspective and argued that there were characteristics within a leader, which made them successful. This theoretical position thus supported the contention that leaders were born and not made (Hoffman, Woehr, Maldagen-Youngjohn & Lyons, 2011). One of the earliest approaches to leadership, Great Man theory paved the way for a study of the leader as a separate entity to those within the firm. Aligned to this, autocratic styles of leadership promoted a separation between the leader and his employees. Autocratic leaders are therefore leaders who impose a style, which is characterised by individual control over decisions within the firm. This type of leadership style results in little opportunity for input from employees, with the leader instead dictating decisions across the firm (Van Vugt, Jepson, Hart & De Cremer, 2004). Aligning this to the context of change management, this is a leadership style which has been shown empirically to hinder the progress of change within the firm (Bennis, 2000). As seen in Kotter's eight stage model of change, change can be approached in a prescriptive, diagnostic manner. Kotter (1996) argues that in order for change to be sustained within the firm there is a need to ensure high levels of employee involvement. This employee involvement is needed to overcome the deeply rooted structural inertia related to change processes as presented in the work of Hannan and Freeman (1984). Hannan and Freeman (1984) argue that change challenges the equilibrium within the firm, and thus there is a need to lead change in a way which lowers resistance through employee involvement. Autocratic leadership therefore offers no room for this involvement and is thus linked to higher levels of employee resistance and a lack of stability as part of the change programme (O'Toole, 1995). Denton (1996) argues that autocratic change goes against the simple rules of change by failing to appreciate the need to gain input from employees to sustain and in turn operationalize change. Despite the negative associations between an autocratic style of leadership and change there are times when autocratic styles of change may be suitable. For example, reflecting upon the different types of change presented by Gersick (1991) autocratic styles of change may be appropriate for those firms having to make a dramatic, time pressurised change under a punctuated equilibrium approach. The quick decision making processes aligned to this form of leadership would speed up the change process and would enable one individual to take control of the change to ensure a consistent approach. It is however widely noted that whilst elements of autocratic leadership may be appropriate in terms of pressurised change, the overall style of autocratic leadership in its entirety fails to allow for change to foster and develop in an effective way across the firm (Burke, 2013).

Change and the role of democratic leadership

Moving towards a greater capacity to allow for employee involvement, democratic forms of leadership promote an open, collaborative form of leadership, which seek to facilitate conversations within the firm through the promotion of sharing ideas across all levels within the firm. Considered to be a leadership style, which supports flexibility within the firm, this type of leadership is positively aligned to change practices within the firm (Foels, Driskell, Mullen & Salas, 2000). Foels, Driskell, Mullen & Salas (2000) for example argue that democratic leadership has the potential to enhance the satisfaction of employees during change. It does so by supporting employee involvement, which Kotter (1996) argues facilitates a more sustainable approach to change by lowering damaging forms of employee resistance. Under democratic leadership styles, employees feel fostered and feel valued to share their opinions. This can in turn result in a greater development of change options with employees being able to directly influence the direction of change. This type of leadership is most successful when aligned to gradualist, evolutionary forms of change within the firm. Intentional, planned change can be supported by democratic conditions, which allow the time to involve all. This however is associated with challenges largely related to the time it can take to make a decision under this leadership style. Unlike autocratic forms of leadership where one person makes the decision, democratic leaders draw on as many perspectives as possible, which can slow down the rate of change. Sustainable under planned change, the democratic leadership style would be less suited to conditions of punctuated equilibrium change.

The changing vision of leadership

Whilst autocratic and democratic styles of leadership were considered to be viable leadership options in the 1980s/1990s, today's business environment demands a more aspirational, visionary approach to leadership driven by dynamism and the rising power of employees. The transformational leadership style is a style, which epitomizes passion and inspires positive changes across the organisation. Both process and people driven, transformational leaders relate to the need to understand employees within the firm. Moving towards a more personalised form of leadership, this leadership style has been positively related to effective and sustainable approaches to change within the firm (Avolio & Yammarino, 2013). Eisenbach, Watson & Pillai (1999) for example argue that transformational leadership is the most appropriate approach to change due to the passion and inspiration it promotes. This in turn supports the prescriptive model of Kotter (1996), which highlights the importance of creating and maintaining a momentum for change (Carter, Armenakis, Field & Mossholder, 2013). In an empirical study by Carter, Armenakis, Field & Mossholder (2013) transformational leadership was shown to improve the quality of change and the relationship quality between leaders end employees. This was further supported by Paulsen, Callan, Ayoko & Saunders (2013) who argue that transformational leadership supports innovation during times of major change. Supported by findings from employees, Paulsen et al (2013) showed that employees were most influenced by transformational leaders and this in turn inspired a greater engagement with the change environment.

Change and the role of transformational leadership

Adopting a personal approach to change, transformational leadership has been praised for its ability to lower resistance to change. As widely noted across the change management literature, resistance to change can be a hinder to the effectiveness and sustainability of change (Hayes, 2007). Resistance can thus be debilitating for those firms who have to change to survive. Oreg & Berson (2011) thus show that under the umbrella of transformational leadership, employees are less likely to resist large-scale organisational change. Change values were positively related to the passion inspired by the transformational leader. This leadership style is therefore effective at eliciting change, which is inspirational. This approach may be appropriate during a large-scale change where there is a need to instil employee confidence and trust. Supported by the change management literature, transformational leadership supports many of the stages of the change process to ensure that any change is deeply rooted in the new culture of the firm. In particular, this type of leadership has been aligned to a continual, evolutionary process of change, which again is deemed to be best suited to this style. Whilst transformational leadership is aligned to a number of core advantages, it is again in a similar vein to democratic leadership related to slower forms of decision-making compared to more autocratic styles of leadership. It is therefore important to create a culture within the firm where change is planned and incremental in nature. This is supported by the link between incremental change and the overall sustainability of change (Gersick, 1991).

Change and the role of transactional leadership

The final leadership style considered within this essay is that of transactional leadership. The transactional approach to leadership refers to a leadership style, which directs followers in the self-interests of the leader. Whilst transformational leadership has democratic foundations, transactional approaches motivate employees to perform by aligning rewards to the wider strategic goals of the firm. In the context of a change management programme, an employee would be rewarded for facilitating new changes within the firm but would be punished if they failed to operationalize the changes implemented. The exchanges between the leader and his followers are therefore exchanges based upon the achievement of wider organisational goals. Supported by the clear articulation of change goals, this is a leadership style, which is considered to achieve order in light of change (Bono, Hooper & Yoon, 2012). As shown in the work of Zhu, Riggio, Avolio & Sosik (2011) when directly compared to transformational leadership, transactional leadership approaches were not as successful when leading change. However, both have the potential to enhance the employee's motivation to change. The success of the transactional style of leadership is however dependent upon the type of people within the firm. This type of leadership works best when the clear aspects of change can be defined and translated into achievable goals. Aligned to goal setting theory, this is an approach which works well with those employees who are motivated by challenging environments. With a speedier change process than transformational leadership, transactional styles balance the motivation for change with the need to operationalize it in an efficient manner. This is therefore an approach, which is often coupled with transformational styles with academics arguing that a dual focus on both is the most sustainable solution (Zhu, Riggio, Avolio & Sosik, 2011).


In conclusion, this essay has detailed four individual approaches to leadership and has discussed the pros and cons of each style. Arguing that perhaps what is needed is a move towards more situational forms of leadership, this essay states that situational leadership offers an approach to change which aligns to the flexibility and adaptability required in the external business environment (Thompson & Glaso, 2015). Reflecting upon an emerging trend within the leadership literature, situational leadership refers to a combination of different styles dependent upon the situation. This therefore supports discussions within this essay where the pace of change dictates the suitability of different styles. In light of heightened dynamism, adaptability is key and thus adaptability is also key to the leadership style adopted. Perhaps therefore the most suitable leadership style to elicit change is one where emphasis is placed on having an appreciation of the most suitable style for the situation at hand. This is thus an approach, which requires leaders to have the skills to switch between different styles when appropriate.


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Leadership In Relation to Change Management. (2017, Jun 26). Retrieved December 4, 2023 , from

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