Cultivating a Field of New Things: 5 Attributes of an Excellent Change Leader

A change leader is like a farmer, sowing seeds and waiting for harvest. We consider 5 attributes of the change cultivator who stands to reap a successful crop of meaningful transformation, even in these times of deep disruption.


You Are a Cultivator

The word “cultivation” is rich and deep, like loamy soil scooped up from a fertile field. To cultivate is to prepare ground, make space for growth. It is to trust in the life force hidden away in seeds, and to see the not-yet-realized. A cultivator studies, clears, enriches, sows, watches, and measures. And a cultivator delights in what is growing, exhaling in satisfaction when the harvest is reaped.

Ah yes, the beauty of the harvest – envisaged when it was still just a handful of seed thrown into the carefully prepared earth – now a crop that will feed and bless, and yield another bag of potential-laden seed.

A maize cultivator’s reward is, well, maize. A tulip cultivator’s prize is a field of tulips. And a change cultivator’s dividend is a harvest of meaningful, broadly beneficial change. A cultivator is a visionary, a perseverer, and a pioneer.

Change cultivators are change leaders.

And what is the agronomy that a change cultivator needs to master? What are the specific requirements of this crop? What must be done to prepare the ground, protect the new seedlings as they emerge, and enhance growth and yield? Like other farmers, change cultivators are lifelong learners. But here are five things that are essential to consider before the first clod of soil is even turned…


1. A Change Leader is an Active Listener, Even to What is Not Said

An active listener is one who has learned the art of being present and engaged with those she is speaking with. 

As Rick Fulwiler says, “The overarching principle of [active] listening is to seek first to understand, then to be understood”. Fulwiler makes the elegant point that active listening is about paying attention to “words, dance, and music”, by which he means a speaker’s words, body language, and tone, respectively. Thus, an active listener learns to hear even the things that are not being said out loud. 

Active listeners have learnt not to prejudge those that they work with, to listen for the whole message rather than just the facts, to delay formulating a response until they have heard the whole message, and to avoid multitasking whilst someone is talking, or whilst written communication is being read. A change leader will only inspire those around them if they are more focused on the people doing the work than on their tasks. Human-centered leadership is the currency of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, now at hand, and change leaders cannot hope to reap a good harvest if they ignore this.


2. A Change Leader Prizes Excellent Communication

Excellent communication begins with active listening, but much more should flow from that. Workplace communication statistics for 2021 reveal that 86% of employees and executives blame workplace failures on ineffective communication, and 97% believe that communication affects their efficacy. On the positive side, excellent communication can benefit businesses in amazing ways, e.g.:

  • Well-connected teams have a 20-25% higher productivity than poorly connected ones,
  • Excellent workplace communication is associated with a 4.5 fold increase in employee retention, and
  • 80% of those surveyed believed that effective communication is crucial for building trust which is directly correlated with morale.


3. A Change Leader Breaks Down Silos

A great change cultivator realizes that the seeds of change cannot be stored in silos and remain viable. The silo effect occurs when different groups within an organization operate in isolation from one another. Ultimately, this stifles communication, stunts growth, and hinders change. As David Parks points out, the situation wrought by COVID has exacerbated the silo effect, and a more concerted effort is now required to overcome it.

The Harvard Business Review offers the following silo-breaking strategies:

  • Develop cultural brokers – employees who excel at connecting across divides,
  • Encourage people to ask open-ended, unbiased questions that explore others’ thinking,
  • Get people to actively take other points of view, and
  • Broaden employees’ vision to include more distant networks.


4. A Change Leader Acknowledges and Addresses Personal Insecurities

Constructive self-reflection is not easy or comfortable. It is beneficial for all, but is essential for change leaders. An insecure leader can be a liability for an organization. RTO Training identifies several destructive traits of insecure leaders. They tend to:

  • talk more than they listen,
  • find comfort in the status quo and become resistant to change,
  • worry about being wrong and become less proactive,
  • cast blame when things go awry rather than claim responsibility,
  • avoid getting feedback because they are threatened by the possibility that others will have better ideas than them, or that they will be criticized,
  • struggle to celebrate the successes of others,
  • be threatened by new employees as they fear being outshone,
  • mistrust their employees, and
  • misuse authority as a defense mechanism.

If you identify any of these in yourself, then you are 100% human. However, it is worth addressing them proactively and courageously in the interests of the harvest you are hoping for. It is not an absence of insecurity that marks a good leader, but a willingness to deal decisively with any insecurity that is there.


5. Change Leaders Embrace a Healthy Degree of Chaos

John Kotter of Forbes differentiates between change management and change leadership. Change management, he says, is largely an effort to avoid and control chaos, whilst change leadership is the embracing of chaos under the auspices of a skilled driver who knows how to navigate it. Taegh Sokhey agrees, saying that as a leader, “your value proposition is your ability to handle chaos”. Rightly, he observes that agile work environments which allow for creativity will, by definition, involve a considerable measure of chaos. The key is to establish a structure that allows time and space for some chaos, so that it doesn’t take over, but is given room to do its creative work.

These five attributes offer great scope for abundant change as the seeds you sow germinate, take root, break ground, and burst to life. We wish you good rains, and enough hands to gather the booming harvests that you will yet see.


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