A Different Kind of Leader – 9 Attributes that Set Change Leaders Apart

A Different Kind of Leader – 9 Attributes that Set Change Leaders Apart

Leadership is a saturated subject. Anyone who has been around the block more than twice is probably pretty hard-boiled about the so-called “leadership industry”. For 50 or 500 000 dollars, someone will sell you the silver bullet for better leadership. But few of these bullets deliver, and we all know that.

Yet few would suggest that the leadership industry should be disbanded. Why? Because we know that society only prospers to the degree that its leaders are functional, dependable, sound human beings. 

There will always be leaders and followers. Leaders want to be better leaders, and followers want to follow better leaders. Hierarchy is a necessary societal construct that is hardwired into us. The alternative is the subject of speculative sci-fi only.

At this point in history, we are caught up in a state of flux, and not the kind that will reach a stable, more static equilibrium state any time soon. Our complex system has reached an edge-of-chaos moment – hovering somewhere between order and disorder – and there are few plateaus here. Every system on Earth is on a trajectory of change. 

We don’t just need leaders to arise. We need the RIGHT ones to arise. The suite of general leadership tools that has long been cherished is no longer sufficient for those who wish to make strides and take others along with them in this post-2020 world. Now, the qualities and characteristics that need to be fostered with extra care are those possessed by CHANGE leaders.

For almost two years, Change Cultivators has been immersed in discovering the nuances of change leadership, which set it apart from more general traditional leadership. In actively listening to dynamic change leaders from across the world, we have identified nine attributes that we believe distinguish change leaders from the leadership herd. In this article, we will explore each one a little more.

The Nine Attributes of Excellent Change Leaders


  1. They foster an understanding of change as a mindset, not a destination

Living in a time of global flux means accepting that change is no longer a project that is undertaken and completed. As Galen Emanuele puts it, leaders need to work on their personal relationships with change, and then help their teams do the same. Change needs to be embraced as opportunity – not just in pep talks and LinkedIn posts, but at the most honest, visceral level.

       2. They are enablers of change readiness and agility

Once a change mindset has taken root, the next step is to develop the capacity to respond to change signals proactively and decisively. In business this means creatively assessing structure and culture with a view to empowering teams and enabling the unhindered flow of information and decisions within an organization. As Ben Baran puts it, there is no universal “magic bullet” that will create organizational agility – it is too nuanced and context-specific, though there are principles to guide leaders in nurturing it. Each leader must wrestle with what agility would look like in their specific context.

       3. They are nurturers of innovation

Having a change mindset and the agility to respond nimbly to change signals is great, but for a business to thrive, these responses need to be creative. Developing a culture of innovation goes beyond adopting the newest technology. Nicola Hepburn eloquently puts it, “A culture of innovation is an environment that supports creative thinking and advances efforts to extract economic and social value from knowledge, and thus generates new or improved products, services or processes”. Leo Chan has devoted his career to nurturing a culture of innovation. Listen to what he said on the Change Cultivators podcast here.

       4. They are liberators from fear of failure

When a leader fears failure, they cause their teams to do the same. This precludes innovation and creativity. Overcoming this fear is therefore vital as a leader seeks to nurture a vibrant, enabling work culture. This is no simple matter as it cuts to the deepest parts of our human condition, but writers such as Hannah Miller encourage leaders to strategize and address fear of failure head-on, both within themselves and in their teams. A recent Change Cultivators guest, Shola Kaye, makes a strong argument for the importance of empathy in the workplace, and for the powerful effects it has on all aspects of change leadership, including overcoming a fear of failure.

       5. They are visionaries

A visionary is somebody who thinks about or plans the future with imagination and intelligence. The intelligence part is important. A visionary is not an unrealistic daydreamer with no game plan, but an astute synthesizer of information and a fearless author of potential future states. Furthermore, a visionary leader ensures their vision becomes reality by establishing goals, developing plans for achieving those goals, and enabling each member of their team to act on these.

       6. They are listeners

For leaders, the importance of listening has long been acknowledged, but who should leaders be listening to? Change leaders listen deeply to as diverse an array of people as possible, and then distill what they are hearing into fuel for decision making. Recently, Mehul Kapadia (Global Head of Marketing for Vodafone Business) spoke to Change Cultivators about the importance of diversity on teams. You can hear those conversations here.

       7. They are discerners of trends

Futurist Graeme Codrington recently spoke to Change Cultivators host Patrick Fitzmaurice about the need for leaders to become future-ready by the astute reading of trends. However, it is important to note that not every current trend suggests a long-term trajectory. A framework for discerning the probable from the possible needs to be applied as change leaders peruse the data available to them. 

       8. They are challengers of the status quo

Glen Llopis wrote an article for Forbes in 2017 in which he identified 5 main reasons that leaders avoid challenging the status quo. The article was based on an HBR survey of 1,000 employees across industries, a startlingly low percentage of which noted an active challenging of the status quo by leaders within their organizations. The article was and remains insightful. However, 2017 was in the “before times” when challenging the norm was optional, prior to COVID arriving as a massive incentive and driver of change for everyone, everywhere. It is safe to say that if we don’t challenge the status quo now, we and the organizations we lead will cease to be relevant. Mike Sharman spoke to Change Cultivators about the need for brands to grow by vandalizing their status quos in a process he refers to as Brandalism. It makes for a great listen.

       9. They are mavericks, revolutionaries, and breaths of fresh air 

Judith Germain, a recent guest on Change Cultivators, defines mavericks as those who are “pathologically curious” and “willfully independent” (listen to her conversations with us here). Armed with these qualities, change leaders not only challenge the status quo, but chart entirely new courses for organizations. As revolutionaries, transformational leaders wage an assault on the many barriers to change that exist, and usher in a freshness around them as they show people new vistas and act as midwives in the birthing process of entirely new things.

Change leaders are exciting people, and the work that they do is radically transformational. The Change Cultivators podcast showcases an amazing spectrum of leaders who exhibit various of these attributes in unique and dynamic combinations. Join us on the journey toward a deeper understanding of the je ne sais quoi of truly exceptional change leaders, and add your voice to the conversation we have started.

Join our Community

Join us at Change Cultivators on Linkedin for daily updates – be part of our community and feel free to like, share and comment. Also, leave us your reviews. It helps us get these valuable lessons noticed and spread to a broader audience. 

Access all our podcasts here.

As the producer of the Change Cultivators podcast, I invite you to listen to our co-hosts, Rozzyn Boy and Patrick Fitzmaurice, chat to many amazing change leaders from across the globe on any of your favorite podcast platforms – including Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

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