We Are All Change Leaders

Creating and responding to change is no longer the responsibility of the C-Suite while everyone else in an organization goes about their regular day-to-day. Change is everyone’s job. The organizations that will succeed in this environment, regardless of sector or type, will be those who build change into their culture, and develop the capacity of everyone, top to bottom, to function as a change leader. The individuals who will succeed will be the ones who gain comfort with change, and develop the capacity to lead others through it.

I used to be skeptical of the cliches about change; that the pace of change is accelerating and that we are living in a particularly intense period of change. One of the sayings I most often rolled my eyes at was hearing that “the jobs most of our children will do haven’t even been created yet.” This was a trendy one in education circles. “C’mon”, I used to think. “What does that even mean!?”

A couple of years teaching at Carnegie Mellon University, a few more in San Francisco at a Bay Area start-up, and one global pandemic later and I am singing a different tune. Not only am I convinced that we are living in a period of intense and high-stakes change, but I am convinced that rising to this change leadership challenge is the call-to-action for our generation.

Whether we know it or not, we are all change leaders. It’s like we’re all working in a change leadership ice cream shop serving up 50 different flavors of change. We’ve got Create, Shift, Focus, Reengineer, Merge, Update, Teach, Align, and Implement—and that’s just in the first case next to the Mint Chocolate Chip!

In this environment we have to think differently about how change works in teams, organizations, and communities. Traditional methods of managing and responding to change are too hierarchical, too geared towards technical challenges, and too slow. In most organizations, there are too many active change initiatives under way to run every one through the C-Suite, much less the CEO.

We have to think differently about leadership. Leaders have to get more comfortable (and effective at) empowering and delegating. They have to develop their own skills to lead change effectively, which we believe are vision, process, relationships, and problem solving. More importantly, they need to hire with an eye out for these skills, and effectively develop them in others, at all levels. Comfort with change has to be built into organizational culture, and viewed as something to embrace rather than avoid. 

We have to think differently about systems of education, training, and professional development. We need our education systems to develop the mindsets and skills (like creativity, agency, and empathy) that help people in change scenarios of all kinds.

And we also have to think differently about ourselves. We have to view ourselves as the change leaders that we are—no matter how senior or junior our role, or how big or small our responsibilities. We literally have to be the change. I feel corny writing that. I want to backspace it. But it’s real. And the stakes have never been higher for yourself, your family, your team, your community and humanity itself.