8 reasons why leaders don’t lead change – Part 1

by Sep 16, 2018

  • Leaders don’t always step up to the plate and lead change the way they are meant to. 
  • There’s often some very valid reasons for that. 
  • In this two part blog series, I look at the first four reasons: safety, need to be liked, conflict avoidance and not playing to your strengths. 


 What’s holding you back?

You’re meant to be leading the transformation initiative, perhaps it’s your idea, maybe you’re a program sponsor. Either way, you’ve got a niggling feeling that you’re not stepping up and fully discharging your duties as change leader. And you’re not quite sure why…

I have some thoughts on that. Eight in fact. So, this is a two-part blog series. In this article I share the first four reasons that I have seen play out often with leaders of change who appear to be holding back. Have a read through and see if any of them particularly resonate.

You don’t feel safe.

It takes extraordinary courage, commitment and possibly stupidity to be the public face of change and transformation when it is not safe.

In recent years the concept of psychological safety has become talk of the town. Edmondson and Lai (2014) define a psychologically safe workplace environment is one where:

employees do not fear retribution for taking interpersonal risks, such as speaking up, challenging the status quo, and engaging in congruent communication and collaboration for the greater good of the organization.

What I find interesting is that much of our focus on psychological safety is on employees – we need to recognise that leaders exist within a system where there may be retribution for taking interpersonal risks, such as speaking up, challenging status quo etc. Ridicule by media – social or traditional is common.

And of course, the challenge for leaders in not feeling safe is you will most likely be in threat response neurologically. We know from brain function studies, that when you are in threat mode it is much more difficult to be high performing. You just don’t think strategically. You will do more stupid thing and make poorer choices. Which leads to more ridicule – a vicious cycle.

The poisoned chalice

A lack of safety can also be identified when you note you have been handed what appears to be a poisoned chalice – something that initially looks like a great opportunity, but ultimately will bring about your downfall. It all sounds very Shakespearean, but it is quite common. When you realise the opportunity of a lifetime, is ultimately something that has been doomed to fail and you sense you have been put in as a fall guy or gal, not surprisingly you experience a sense of both disappointment and betrayal.

 Need to be liked

Back in the 60’s psychologist researcher Professor David McClelland did seminal work on Need Theory. He put forward there were three core motivations in leadership – need for affiliation (or social bonding, people to like us), need for achievement, and need for control.

Traditionally good leaders tended to score high on need for achievement and control, and low on need for affiliation. In more recent research the findings have shifted some-what on transformational leaders – within this population it seems that having a high need for affiliation engenders more followership and its kind of a good thing. But if over played, it becomes problematic.

An overplayed strength 

Need for affiliation is one of those things I see in leaders as an overplayed strength. An over played strength is one where in deploying your strength too much you get an opposite and contradictory effect.

So, leaders who have a high need to be liked exhibit more pro-social behaviour (caring, engagement, support) – but in their quest to be liked, step back from activities which may be unpopular, or may have people not like them (e.g. announcing a change or explaining how the decision was made). It compromises their ability to make tough decisions

You’re conflict avoidant.

Being the front public vocal face of change means that you are the front public vocal face of conflict. People expressing concern and dissent, outrage, betrayal. Let’s return to the importance of managing our emotions by way of the neuroscience lens. If you are not in control of your emotional response when faced with conflict you may move into freeze or flight and not show up (of the freeze, fight or flight). All those responses are very effective at saving your life (depending on the threat), none of them are useful at leading change

I’m not good at…

The fourth reason why I see leaders holding themselves back from leading change is their knowledge of what they are not good at.

I’m not good at:

  • Speaking In the moment
  • Speaking on my feet
  • Speaking In front of people

This may stem from a desire to control, a natural inclination to introversion, or coming from an occupational background that encourages and rewards precision, risk mitigation, control (e.g. finance, economics or science). And of course, our reward systems in organisation penalizes what we are not good at (more threat response). So, if in leading change you need to do something you know you are not good at, you will often avoid the responsibilities (flight or freeze again).

 The first four.

So, a lack of safety, a need to be liked, a desire to avoid conflict, a recognition of areas you’re not good at. All very valid reasons for holding back on leading change.

If these four have resonated and you want to do something about it, then drop me a line.

The next post will cover the next four reasons: team conflict, lack of change management knowledge, control freakery, and fear of failure.

Stay tuned.


A change management Jiminy Cricket, sitting on your shoulder coaching you on the way forward. I know you’re capable of greatness. So drop me a line.


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