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Change Management vs. Change Leadership: What’s the Difference?

Image via Phloxii/

Organizational change is widespread in the federal government and requires both change leaders and change managers to be successful.  Unfortunately, the terms change management and change leadership are often used synonymously. The lack of distinction can muddle your strategy and increase the likelihood your change initiative will fail.  

So what should you do?

1. Define them: Start with the definitions. 

According to GAO, change management is defined as:

Activities involved in (1) defining and instilling new values, attitudes, norms, and behaviors within an organization that support new ways of doing work and overcome resistance to change; (2) building consensus among customers and stakeholders on specific changes designed to better meet their needs; and (3) planning, testing, and implementing all aspects of the transition from one organizational structure or business process to another. 

On the other hand, a comprehensive definition of change leadership is more elusive. Here, combining definitions from management expert John Kotter and, is a more succinct take on what it means: Change leadership (1) concerns the driving forces, visions and processes that fuel large scale transformation or (2) is a “style of leadership in which the leader identifies the needed change, creates the vision to guide through inspiration, and executes the change with the commitment of the members of the group.” 

2. Distinguish them: They are not the same.

Many definitions you’ll find when you Google “change management” and “change leadership” will make you think they’re the same thing.  As noted above, they are not.  Beware of this flaw in many definitions.  Change management is task oriented and focused on managing the process, tools, and techniques.  Change leadership is the vision for change.

3. Delegate: The same people are not necessarily good at both

Just as managers and leaders need different skills, so do change managers and change leaders.  While there is small percent of the population that can do both, most of us excel at one or the other.  Know your skills and more importantly, spend time understanding the skills of your employees.  Allocating the right roles to the right people on your change team is critical to change success. 

Be proactive, include change managers and change leaders as prescriptive components in the change strategy for your organization. 

Thank you to my students--Bianca, Rachel, Patrick, Graham, and Halley for asking the question.

Image via Phloxii/

Dr. Victoria M. Grady is an Assistant Professorial Lecturer at The George Washington University in Washington D.C., Principal Consultant at PivotPoint Business Solutions and co-author of The Pivot Point: Success in Organizational Change.

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