Leadership and change: is one making the other fail?

There is one challenge that many of my clients have in common and ask for my help with, and that is how to lead change successfully. We know the pace of change has increased exponentially in the last few decades and that old models of change in which there were periods of stability between change are no longer relevant.

So what does that mean for leaders?

The need to lead in ambiguity and navigate rapid change was identified as one of the critical leadership capacities for the Future of Work in the Price Waterhouse Coopers Annual Global CEO Survey.1  

They acknowledged that the operating environment becomes more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) and the pace, scale and complexity of change increases, effective strategic change leadership is going to be business critical.

<<Related post: Are you ready to lead in the future of work?>>

“Leadership can be the decisive factor between successful and unsuccessful change efforts.”

Professor David Cooperrider, Distinguished Professor at the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University agrees. He suggests that leadership approach to change is fundamentally connected not only to change success but also worker wellbeing.2

The challenge is that traditional models and approaches to organisational change give leaders little to work with to meet the demands of the Future of Work. They they were developed at times of less complexity; they assume stable environments and that change is a linear process.  

What do we need to do differently in our approach to leadership and change?

Systems thinking (the process of understanding how things influence one another within a whole) gives us the means of understanding more closely the complexity that people live and breathe every day.

It helps identify pathways and factors that influence individual and collective engagement with change and it results in better-informed, more effective change interventions. Dynamics, feedback loops and unintended consequences are also considered in this holistic approach.

One simple way to take a systems approach to change is to understand that change engagement is influenced by individual-level factors such as a person’s mindsets, attitudes and behaviours. These are ‘inside-out’ factors as they cannot be separated from the individual. Change is also influenced by aspects of the organisation context such as leadership, culture, and access to social support, skills and knowledge. These are ‘outside-in’ factors as they are external to the individual.

Change engagement and success is influenced by both inside-out and outside-in factors and the two feed off of each other, which can create an amplifying effect between them. I developed the Inside-out Outside-in (IO-OI) model as part of my doctoral research and you can read more about it here.

Rather than concentrating on the stages and process of change, the IO-OI model focuses on what we need to change to achieve the desired outcomesi.e. what specific inside-out factors and what specific outside-in ones will move us towards the change we want to create?

For example, in my doctoral research, we were interested in creating higher levels of employee wellbeing. This involved creating change in worker mindsets, attitudes and behaviours (inside-out factors) through training around hope, self-efficacy, resilience and optimism, and also shifting the culture of the organisation through positive leadership development and a review of systems and practices (outside-in factors).

By starting with the end goal in mind (wellbeing) and mapping back the changes we needed to take place with individuals (more positive mindsets, attitudes and behaviors – inside-out) and the organisational context (leadership, systems and processes – outside in), we were able to create a system of wellbeing that was self-sustaining and self-reinforcing as inside-out and outside in factors worked together.


What’s a change that you’re involved with currently?
How could Inside-out, Outside-in thinking help you identify a pathway forward?

Dr Paige Williams

Dr Paige Williams

International Speaker, Author, Mentor


Determined to help leaders move beyond just the need for resilience, Paige provides practical, evidence-based strategies for leaders to become antifragile, lead themselves and their teams to thrive and succeed in the Decade of Disruption.

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