The 12 Commandments of Leading Change

The 12 Commandments of Leading Change

Working in contemporary organizations has been likened to permanent white water rafting: we have very few periods of calm water. After leading an organization through a deep change, we may want to just kick back for a while, relax and congratulate ourselves. While it is certainly important to acknowledge our successes, we cannot afford to let our successes lead to complacency. We have to keep on monitoring and adapting to our environment and producing even more change if we are going to thrive. But how do we do this?

The 12 Commandments of Leading Change


1. Leadership is not about you. But it begins with you.

If you are to be an effective leader in any context, you must first be the kind of person people want to follow. In the context of the Legacy Leadership model, you need to be worthy of imitation. This means that the leadership process must begin with intense self-examination. The self-examination must include motives, values and a deep understanding of your personal case.

2. Be the change that you want to see.

Too many power wielders (they aren’t real leaders!) identify a need for change and then tell others that they (the others) need to change, yet the power wielders are unwilling to make the necessary changes themselves. This creates a huge credibility gap and lacks the authenticity needed to successfully engaging others in the transformation process.

3. Character Counts.

People have to buy-in to the leader before they will buy in to the leader’s vision. If you are to lead with integrity you must constantly confront your own lack of integrity. You must be intentional about cultivating your character.

4. No change will ever happen until there is first a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo.

That is why it is so important to create a sense of urgency. While creating a sense of urgency and dissatisfaction with the status quo is important to get the change process started, it’s also important throughout the change process. Before getting to the promised land people often get disillusioned and want to go back to where we came from. Therefore, it is important for leaders to frequently remind others why they started the journey in the first place: we had deep dissatisfaction with where we were.

5. Leaders take people from here (the status quo) to there (the compelling vision of the desired future state).

Engage people’s heads and hearts in the transformation process, and paint a desirable, compelling picture of where the group is headed.

6. Let the issue ripen.

Sometimes leaders see the need for change before the people do. Therefore, sometimes you have to let the issue ripen. Of course, sometimes you also help ripen the issue by allowing current systems to fail or issues to explode so that people will finally realize “we cannot go on like this.”

7. Deep change takes time.

You must manage expectations about how long it realistically is going to take to achieve the vision. That’s why short-term wins are so important. They keep the bosses on board, they undermine the cynics, they pressure the self-serving resisters. And they prove that the pain is worth it because you’re making progress toward the vision.

8. Change is often painful, but be diligent to make sure it is not harmful.

Any decision that impacts another human being is, by definition, an ethical decision. And when difficult decisions have to be made (and they will) you must take care to make sure that you are treating every individual that is affected with dignity and respect. This includes full disclosure and advanced warnings of the changes as you become aware of them, as well as generous compensation if severance is required.

9. Leaders are always disappointing somebody. The key is to disappoint people at a rate which they can stand.

The change that you’re implementing is no doubt directly aimed at what was somebody’s good idea 10 years ago. They will be disappointed that their idea’s time has passed. But, you cannot let the past, or “the way we’ve always done it around here,” to hold you back from making the changes that need to be made now in order to secure your organization’s future.

10. Treat resistance as feedback.

Work hard to understand the fears, concerns and issues that people have and be willing to look in the mirror to make sure that you’re doing everything you can to communicate as fully as possible. However, you cannot afford to be held hostage by a vocal minority of self-serving resisters. 

11. Remember: if there is a cost for changing, there is also a cost for not changing.

And, if there is a risk for changing, there is probably an even greater risk of not changing. When you make the case for change, be sure to include the case of not changing.

12. “Keep a strain on it.”

This means that when you start having some short-term wins you cannot allow these successes to lure you back into complacency. You have to finish the game…you have to keep on keeping on.

I am interested to hear your response to these ideas. Are there any additional “commandments” that should be added?

J. Lee Whittington is a Professor of Management in the Satish & Yasmin Gupta College of Business at the University of Dallas. He focuses his teaching, research, and consulting in the areas of Leadership, Organizational Behavior and Spiritual Leadership.

His research has been published in The Leadership Quarterly, Journal of Management, Academy of Management Review, Journal of Organizational Behavior, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Journal of Managerial Issues, Journal of Business Research, Journal of Business Strategy, and the Journal of Behavioral and Applied Management.

His book, Biblical Perspectives on Leadership and Organizations was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in August 2015. He is also a co-author with Tim Galpin and Greg Bell of the book, Leading the Sustainable Organization. His newest book, Enhancing Employee Engagement: An Evidence-Based Approach was co-authored with DBA students Simone Meskelis and Enoch Asare, Gupta professor Sri Beldona.

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