Highlighting misplaced assumptions: the myth of leadership-driven change

In the past 15-20 years there has been an increasing trend towards viewing leaders as the change agents and transformers of organisations; this view even has its own brand name ‘Transformational Leadership’. Although many of the suggested ‘transformational’ leadership behaviours are well researched, the inevitable catalogues of ‘best practice’ have resulted in the embedding of incorrect assumptions about managing change. Leandro Herrero (2006) is one author who challenges three such misconceptions.

A vision for change need not come solely from leaders

First, Hererro challenges the misconception that:

Only change at the top can ensure change within the organisation”.  Not true

Change at the top is desirable, but it is not always necessary in the first instance. Leaders can be influenced by others and people across the organisation need to realise that their own ideas can make a difference.

A second incorrect assumption is:

“Vision for change needs to come from the top and cascade down”.

Not necessarily and cascades of information and ideas can be slow and ineffective.

Vision may or may not come from the top. More importantly, if people want to implement change, then working through the hierarchy may also NOT be the best method and may even impede progress. There are better ways to devise, test and implement change in a way that will stick and this possibility challenges the final misconception:

Big change requires big actions”.

Big changes in complex organisations can make things worse rather than better.

A big, organisation-wide programme is not necessarily the best method to engage people and make things different.

If we always expect leaders to be the source of change it will put the brakes on progress. Leaders do however have the key role of encouraging people, looking for opportunities and providing an environment where people are not threatened by change, but are encouraged to make a difference. Small sets of behavioural changes, taken on and shared by informal groups of people can generate improvements in a non-linear way, as Hererro terms it, a ‘viral’ spread. If we engage in new ways of thinking and acting we can influence the people around us and engage in the development of the university in a new way.

Read more about these ideas:

Herrero, L. (2006) Viral Change, meetingminds, UK.

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