The turnaround specialist. The corporate savior. The inspirational CEO who sparks innovation with a single talk.

Great leaders who are able to create dramatic changes in organizations have almost legendary status in our culture. And with good reason. The ability to drive change is a key leadership skill. In fact, most leaders will be called on to initiate or oversee change from time to time. But, the vision we have of what it really takes to create and sustain organizational change isn’t always accurate. 

Three Myths About Creating Change

Many of us believe that transformational change must be initiated and led by bold, extroverted leaders. We think that to inspire change we must be able to command a room and deliver a stirring speech. One that will immediately spur those around us to act. If we don’t see ourselves in this way, we shy away from making necessary changes or challenging the status quo at all.

Carrying this myth even further, many of us believe that big organizational change is made by a single executive or leader. They are acting alone and sometimes rashly. These inspired leaders do not need the input of their teams or anyone else to identify or implement a new direction. Instead, they strike boldly off on their own and organization magically follows them. 

And of course, almost all of us hold on to the belief that the “right” change will be quick to implement. There will be none of the mess that comes with hesitant (or downright resistant) team members. Each and every step along the way will be perfectly executed. No missteps. No naysayers. And no challenges.

In the face of these faulty beliefs, most of us find it daunting to really drive meaningful change in our organizations. Instead, we hang back, hoping that someone else will step in and make the change we believe is necessary. But in doing so, we give away a significant part of our responsibility as leaders.

The Truth About Real Change Leaders

Luckily, the leaders who are able to create and sustain real organizational change are very different from these mythical characters. What’s more, virtually every leader can improve his or her ability to initiate change by focusing on a few key skills.

So what are the real leadership skills you need to develop to be able to create and sustain lasting change? 

Strategic thinking. 

Change is easier to implement when you aren’t under extreme time pressure. For this reason, leaders who are strong strategic thinkers and able to recognize the need for change early have an advantage. They are always anticipating the next shift required and moving to adapt before the need becomes critical. 

Strategic leaders also have an advantage in driving change because they are able to articulate a clear reason for the change. They have gone through the process, either on their own or with a key group of fellow employees to understand what is necessitating the change and why their proposed plan of action is the most advisable. While this clear vision won’t completely prevent any negative pushback from the rest of the organization, it can go a long way to persuading the majority of people.

Finally, because strategic thinkers are able to see connections between things that seem unrelated, they are better equipped to understand when incentives aren’t aligned with the change they are trying to make. Aligning incentives is an often overlooked element of driving change, but ensuring that employees are rewarded for embracing new behaviors is critical for the success of any initiative.

Collaborative style of leadership.

Leaders who embrace a collaborative style of leadership are often more successful at implementing change than those who try to go it alone. While it may only take one person to recognize the need for change, involving others in helping to create a plan of action has massive benefits. It allows for differing viewpoints and perspectives to be considered during the planning process and it gives a broader sense of ownership for the success of the plan. A plan recommended by a group of respected leaders is much more difficult to dismiss than one person’s idea about how something should be handled.

Collaborative leaders are also more likely to display patience and empathy with employees who are more resistant to change. No matter the plan of action, some employees will be slower to embrace change than others. This hesitancy can stem from a variety of reasons, but collaborative leaders who are able to listen to and respond to the concerns of these employees will have a greater chance of seeing their plans succeed.  

Leaders who are able to hear the varying opinions of employees throughout the change process will benefit from this feedback. Change does not happen smoothly or without challenges. Being willing to receive feedback that things are not going as well as anticipated not only bolsters employees’ sense that they have a voice in the process, it also creates better overall business results in the long-run.

Effective communication.

Much of the responsibility for managing change comes down to consistent communication. Change leaders must be able to create a positive vision of the change they are proposing, helping employees understand why the change will benefit the company. Where possible, they should also be able to articulate how employees will directly benefit from the change and be up front and honest about where employees might feel a negative impact.

To communicate effectively about change, leaders must exude healthy confidence. They must demonstrate that they believe in their ability to lead the change and the team’s ability to implement it. Such leaders don’t shy away from the inevitable challenges that will arise during the process, but they also do not waver in their belief that ultimately the organization will succeed.

Finally, good change leaders understand that communicating really means over-communicating. Even the most positive changes creates stress and uncertainty in organizations. The voice of a capable and steady leader is an essential element to keep these feelings from overwhelming progress and undermining the ultimate success of the change.

Being willing to go first.

Finally, the best change leaders understand that employees will believe what they see and hear on a daily basis over any presentation or speech. In times of change, leaders must truly lead. They must be willing to step out and go first – changing not only what they say, but what they do as well. 

If you want to be a great leader, you must accept that you will be called upon to initiate change from time to time. While change leadership can seem daunting, focusing on a few crucial skills can help boost your chances of success.