You Want to Lead Change? First Be It.

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Cleve W. Stevens, Ph.D.

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “You cannot step twice into the same river.” He was referring to the fact that the river is always changing, second by second, as it flows by on its way to the sea. This metaphor for life has stood the test of time, and for good reason—it’s true. Life is in constant flux. Whether we like it or not (and most people don’t), life is change.

And thus so is business.

The leaders who really get this basic fact—the ones who creatively embrace change as an ally—are the ones who have always succeeded over time. This consistent ability to boldly release what has been for what could be is one of the central reasons Apple has become the envy of the business and technology worlds. Embracing the new and different seems to be a part of the Apple DNA.

However, when we stop and take note of the business leaders at the helm of most organizations today, what we actually see in most is a deeply embedded resistance to the unavoidable reality of change. Even with today’s effusiveness about “leading change” and “change management,” even with all the chatter about “innovation,” the truth is we are not much better than any other era of business leaders when it comes to wrapping our arms around change.

Put more bluntly, when it comes to change we still stink. Why?

It seems there are two primary reasons we fail so miserably at this whole change thing. The first has to do with our capacity for denial. In spite of what we know about change, we seem to pretend and so behave as if it is not central to existence. This propensity for denial is fed by a semiconscious addiction to comfort (the safety vice grip of the status quo). Denial is also fed by a largely unconscious fear that we might be unable to pull off the change that is required—and, remember, this ever-so-human fear is largely unconscious, and thus we usually don’t allow ourselves to even glimpse the presence of the self-doubt; that is, we lie to ourselves about it! So given our attachment to safety and comfort and/or our hidden self-doubts, we deny the centrality of change and go our merry way.

The second, perhaps bigger, reason we struggle with change is that we are unwilling to be the change that we would like to see in the business world, to paraphrase Mr. Gandhi. Assuming we have found a way past the whole denial tendency, this is the single reason the change we seek to lead does not take root. It is far, far easier, and more seductive, to attempt to orchestrate change from a distance. “I am, after all, the leader,” we say. “I’m supposed to lead them”—the people, policies, strategy, and so forth. If change is supposed to happen, we assume, we’re to lead it, not go through it ourselves. And this is where the leadership ego trips us up.

Indeed, one of the most common misconceptions of the ordinary leadership mind is the belief that as the leader he or she should already have everything more or less figured out or at least appear so—a stratagem, by the way, that usually instills fear rather than confidence in the savvy follower.

What Works and Why
What we know today about the most powerful leaders of change is that they have recognized that Gandhi’s dictum about being the change is not idealism. It’s pragmatism. It doesn’t just apply to political change; it applies to all change, which of course includes business change. In short, being the change works. It’s effective. In fact, it’s the best, perhaps only, way to generate lasting change. Here’s why.

These leaders of change don’t seek to be the change so as to model the change, to be “the example” so to speak. They are the change because, consciously or not, they realize that "organ-izations" are "organ-ic"; that is, they are a larger whole, a living organ, so to speak, where all the parts are interrelated, inextricably intertwined. Everything that one member (or group) does has repercussions for all the other members (or groups). There’s a reason, after all, we call business entities corporations: they are best understood as bodies, based on the Latin word, corporare, combine in one body.

Treat the head differently from the rest of the body. Act as though, it doesn’t need nutrition (feeding of mind and soul) just as the body does and problems begin to emerge. Seeing the head as somehow separate from the rest of the body is, in a manner of speaking, to separate the head from the body—not a good idea for a body (or a corporation) that wants to stay alive, let alone thrive. Attempting to lead change without being the change is not just hypocritical, it’s dumb, and it doesn’t work, not in the long haul.

So what does this all mean in practical terms, assuming again that you’re well past the denial stage? Above all it means that you must make a serious decision to begin to grow, really grow yourself. For instance, on the lighter, though still valuable, side of the growth scale, this can mean something as simple as learning a new aspect of the business, one you may have skipped on your way up the organizational ladder.

On the weightier, more meaningful side of the scale, it means challenging yourself at a core level—seeking to expand who you are and how you are as a leader, as well as how and who you are as an individual in general. Undoubtedly, this is the most potent way to become the change that you would lead. It is, therefore, the most effective way of leading lasting change in the organization.

It’s always intriguing to see what happens when a CEO musters the courage and vision to truly “take himself on,” to dive into the middle of growing himself right in the midst of leading his people. What often is surprising to the leader is that, usually, his or her people are actually impressed, even inspired, and as a result more willing than ever to follow, create, imagine, and cause at the next level. Respect for the leader is typically enhanced, not diminished, and wise leaders of change figure this out sooner rather than later.

It surely takes courage and vision at this level. So consider this last incentive for embracing, in fact, being and becoming the change. Scientists tell us that the only alternative to growth and development (directed change), anywhere in the known universe, is death and decay--neutrality and stability are a myth, a fantasy that exists only in the human imagination. It may be a bit unsettling to realize this fact, but this is in truth a hard indisputable fact.

So on which side of the leadership growth spectrum do you fall? On which side would you like to be? Are you growing or decaying? It’s one or the other. There is no alternative. To truly lead lasting change you must be it. It’s the better part of wisdom.

About the Author(s)

Cleve W. Stevens, Ph.D., founder and president of Owl Sight Intentions, Inc. (, is a transformational leadership consultant to business and non-profit leaders and the Fortune 500. For more information, contact: [email protected]