It’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change. – Charles Darwin


3M’s ability to reinvent their business. Google’s ability to take risks and innovate to stay ahead of the curve. The stunning turn-around of Ford Motor Company.

The most successful companies are agile and embrace change as part of their culture to stay ahead of the competition. Yet many of us fall woefully short when it comes to successfully leading through change.

It’s not that people hate change. We just have multiple responses to it. Some people get excited about it. Others get scared or angry. And some people even look forward to it.

In fact, if you look at the course of human beings’ lives, people choose to change, gleefully so, all the time. They get married. They have babies. They move.

We choose to change all the time. Where we start to get wiggy is when we don’t have a say in or any control over that change.

Fear of Change

People tend to fear change when they don’t know where it’s going to take them or are forced into a change they are not excited about.

These types of changes can occur in all facets of our lives. But we often have the most difficulty adapting to those at work. Numerous studies show that job stress is far and away the major source of stress for American adults and that it has escalated progressively over the past few decades. These increased levels of job stress have been attributed to the perception of having little control but lots of demands in a rapidly changing environment.

As leaders, we can’t be okay with this.

It’s our responsibility to make sure people don’t fear change, but instead see the possibilities change can bring for a better future. It’s our responsibility to help our employees wrap their head around what change means and to grasp it firmly. Then, it’s up to us to empower our work forces to regain a sense of control and a voice in those changes.

There are two big bodies of behaviors that help us do that. One is leading with courage and the other is leading with compassion.

Leading with Courage

As leadership attributes go, courage is a big one. Where does courage come from? You’re not born with it. You develop it through experience. It comes from facing and overcoming fear. And the reward for that effort is huge.

When you’re leading with courage around change it means that you’re giving feedback and having tough conversations. You’re being honest about what the future is while providing high direction.

You must be courageous enough to empower people and to trust that they’re going to do a good job. And it’s about holding people accountable to change. You must set clear goals. Envision a better way, a better solution, a better product – and approach it with determination and an open mind, knowing that it will be messy and that a mid-course correction may be necessary.

Remember that you need to bring people along the change process for them to truly adapt to change.

Leading with Compassion

Resistance to change cannot be bulldozed, it cannot be persuaded, and it certainly cannot be ignored.

Instead, it should be dealt with sympathetically and positively. Only when you get to the bottom of why resistance is happening, can you truly empathize and help to move individuals along the path to change, in a way that engages them and makes them comfortable. This is at the heart of compassionate leadership.

It’s about your ability to empathize with people and care about them and understand what they’re going through.  Have meaningful conversations.  Really listen to what they’re saying.

Remember, as a leader you often have an advantage.

You may have more information or have been a part of the decision-making process that brought the change about. You might even have more say and control in what that change looks and feels like. And so, you must keep in mind that other people might being seeing things from a very different perspective than your own.

Don’t take it personally if they do. And don’t neglect to give people the information they need to understand why the change is happening. Because without it, people will fill in the blanks with the wrong or worst case scenario information.

Change is Here to Stay

Back in the day, CEOs and their senior leadership teams would talk about change as if it was all planned.

Simply unfreeze the organization. Make a bunch of changes. Then refreeze it back in place.

That is not how change works. The world is moving way too fast for that. Our ability as leaders must be to adapt in rapidly changing, complex environments.

Organizations are not doing a great job building leadership capacity to be able to adapt to those environments. And as we’re teaching people how to lead through change, we’re still treating it change as if it’s a concrete thing that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And that’s just not the case.

Like death and taxes, change is a sure thing.

It’s not going anywhere. In that spirit, the work it takes to adapt to and lead through change is ongoing. It has to be, because the environments that organizations operate in are constantly changing.

So, the next time you’re dealing with the day-to-day challenges that change can bring at your own organization:

Be nimble.  Stay focused.  Find patience.

And lead with your values.

When you do, change can bring growth, innovation, and incredible impact.


Tom Epperson

Tom Epperson

Dr. Tom Epperson is the President of InnerWill, and an instructor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Executive MBA program. Tom is a certified business coach and has a Doctorate in Leadership from The George Washington University. Tom works with clients on cultural transformation, leadership development, executive coaching, and igniting individual and organizational potential. Previously, Tom served as the HR Director for Luck Companies, and played a significant role as one of the architects of Luck Companies’ cultural transformation.

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