From Leaders to Leadership: Managing Change

By Ahn, Mark J.; Adamson, John S. A. et al. | Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

From Leaders to Leadership: Managing Change


Ahn, Mark J., Adamson, John S. A., Dornbusch, Daniel, Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies


The accelerating pace of change in globalization, communications, disruptive technologies, capital flows and alliances have created fundamental shifts in business operations. Where many popular leadership models may provide formulae to help solve some business problems, they are insufficient to deal with the pace and polyvalent character of constant, rapid change. Managing change--its impact on organizational structure, group culture, and personal management styles--is one of the most fundamental and enduring aspects of leadership. Paradoxically, while the relative value of the once-celebrated individual leader as superman or woman is being questioned, great leadership has never been more urgent or more difficult.

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The established order has invented various lightening rods. And it succeeded. Yes, it certainly did succeed; it succeeded in making the next thunderstorm all the more serious. Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

The increased visibility of business leaders in the modern economy has created a new form of social theater. In it, highly publicized corporate leaders--a new cast of management celebrities--drive organizational change, boldly and purposefully, either to fame or (no less conspicuously) to failure. The business press has been complicit in this process of dramatization, providing stereotyped roles and scenarios. Faced with daunting complexities and uncertainties, the 'heroic leader' appears as the central actor in the company's success, the dynamic genius guiding less far-sighted colleagues towards a destination which, at the outset, they can only imperfectly discern. Yet this highly characterized style of leadership, in which leaders appear as supermen or superwomen, has been called into question in recent years, as the reputations of many such "heroic" CEOs have exploded almost as rapidly as the inflated market valuations of the dot-com era. The exposure of instances of dubious ethical standards and corporate malfeasance, however, prompted a general questioning of the prevailing assumptions regarding leadership, and a reexamination of where responsibility for leadership decisions in corporations actually resides.

Paradoxically, while the relative value of the once-celebrated individual leader is being questioned, effective corporate leadership has never been more urgently in demand or, arguably, more difficult to achieve. Leonard Schaeffer, the CEO who transformed the once bureaucratic, money-losing Blue Cross California into a thriving WellPoint Health Networks, describes the elusiveness of effective leadership: its need for a concurrent multiplicity of forms, and the way in which it pivots on the need for responsiveness to external and internal change.

   Leadership is more than heavy-handed
   action at the top. Its defining
   characteristics change according to the
   needs and vagaries of the individual, the
   organization, the industry, and the world
   at large ... by thinking clearly about the
   roles I've needed to assume at different
   times, I've been better able to tailor the
   way I make decisions, communicate with
   people, and manage my time so that I can
   address the most pressing needs of the
   organization at the moment (Schaeffer,
   2002).

However, change management itself poses a series of related dangers. Keeping to an already set course often seems to be the easier and seemingly less risky decision. But the avoidance of change is the opposite of leadership. Dante's vision of hell as "the miserable way taken by the sorry souls of those who lived without disgrace or without praise" provides a warning to the executive who blindly maintains a course of spuriously secure mediocrity. Change management takes courage precisely because it can be a high-risk undertaking both for organizations and the careers of the decision-makers involved. In consequence, many initiatives nominally supposed to manage change are either ineffective in their original formulation or rendered so by the process of implementation--often as a result of internal resistance to new initiatives. …

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