13 Characteristics of Leaders Of Change

Anyone you know as a leader is also someone who gets things done. They don’t talk about it. They do it. That is why I decided to write this post about the 10 characteristics of leaders of change. This post is also part four in a series of posts related to 10 critical coaching questions that leaders ask.

One of the most influential leaders I’ve ever worked with is someone that I would describe as an “achiever.” He was one of those people that found a way to get 10 times more done in a day than most everyone around him. One thing that everyone knew to be true was the he would ALWAYS fulfill his commitments, no matter what the cost he incurred.

'Leadership without integrity is failure in disguise.' -- @bradbridges #coaching #leadership Click To Tweet

You may know someone like this. You may have seen someone who you thought was like this. You may wish you were like this. I understand. It doesn’t describe me either. In fact, achiever is not even in the top five of my StrengthsFinder 2.0 report (That used to be more embarrassing to admit than it is now. I’m comfortable now knowing that I’ll never be an expert at everything.)

We all want to accomplish more in less time. That makes sense. Doing so gives us time with our families, friends, and doing the other things we love to do like travel. But not all of us are willing to put in the time and effort necessary to make the changes required. Read below for the 10 characteristics of leaders of change.

characteristics of leaders of change

13 Characteristics of Leaders Of Change

1) They Define The Intended Result

If you don’t know what you are aiming for you will miss it every time. Be clear, be clear, be clear. This matters so much I wrote a separate post about communicating clearly. This applies to getting results as well.

You have to define the end goal. Doing so allows you to work towards it and celebrate when you get there.

2) They Don’t Just Assess, They Make Progress

Assessment without action is boring and a big waste of time. Make sure that you take the time that you need to assess and do it well.

But don’t stop with assessment and forget to look ahead at what you could do differently.

3) They Admit The Need To Let Go Of Something

Doing the same things over and over and expecting different results is not only the definition of insanity but often mediocrity. Do you want to be that person that could never get ahead because they couldn’t get their mind off the present and doing the things they had always done? I doubt it.

When you start doing something new, you need to let go of something else. Otherwise your plate will get too full with too many things to do, you will burn out, or you will end up not changing anything at all.

Identify one activity that you need to let go of today. Figure out one project that you could delegate to someone else. Find someone motivated to help with a project even if they don’t get additional compensation. Find a way to motivate someone to help you out.

No matter what you do, you need to find the thing(s) that you will let go of, delegate, share, or stop doing in order to give yourself bandwidth for change and growth into the future. A helpful resource to better manage transitions and to better manage yourself and others through them is a book by William Bridges (no relation) called Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change.

4) They Put Their Planned Change(s) In Writing

If you aren’t willing to put it in writing, I wonder how committed you actually are to it. Take a moment and write it up for yourself and ideally for your spouse and team so that they can see what you are aiming for, give you ideas, and also help you to get there.

5) They Brainstorm a List of Ideas

Making changes can feel very overwhelming. It can really frustrate a team. Any leader in tune with these characteristics of leaders of change knows this.

Take the time to allow various people to share ideas for what changes should be made and give them all the benefit of the doubt that they could help. Make sure to allow everyone to share and to include their thoughts on the brainstormed list.

The list of ideas for possible change will give your team the satisfaction of eliminating something from the list and also choosing those that rise to the top.

'Failure to plan is a plan to fail.' -- @bradbridges #coaching #leadership Click To Tweet

6) They Create Plans

Knowing what you are going to change and actually doing it are often very different from one another. Take a second and create a plan for how you are going to change, who all the changes will involve, and how you will measure your effectiveness at the end.

I often work with boards of organizations getting clear about the results they want to achieve. If the board isn’t clear, then the organization tends to flounder and experience mediocrity, plateau, or failure. You must not only define what you will achieve but also define your path to get there with clarity and precision.

I say it frequently but a failure to plan is a plan to fail. You might enjoy (and cringe) when you read a recent NBC Chicago news article about a $400 million dollar failed transit station that illustrates the need for planning well.

If you need help getting the train to leave the station (pun intended) on your next project, you may want to consider a project management system like the one we use. It allows the various teams I collaborate with to keep all our information in one spot (in the cloud) and update it from cell phones, tablets, laptops, and desktop computers. Rather than having an email inbox cluttered with tons of tasks, you can move an email you want to act on later to a project in Nozbe where you can get to it at another date for whatever reason. Nozbe has a free 30 day trial that allows you to test and see if it’s helpful for you or your team before paying the minimal monthly fee if you decide to stay with them.

7) They Do Something Innovative

Innovation isn’t some random thing we do just so that we get to do new things. Innovation is what we do in order to breath new life into ourselves, our teams, and our organizations. We can easily stifle innovation when we allow any of these innovation killers such as “We’ve never done it that way.” In fact, a local McDonald’s recently made some minor yet incredibly beneficial changes to innovate in a way that appealed to families and professionals. You can too.

Anyone can create a plan of action that repeats what they did in the past or some iteration of it. Far fewer people can do something truly disruptive to their market that hasn’t ever been done before. You’ll never innovate unless you get comfortable with occasionally failing (its likely).

Make sure that your innovation breathes life into you, your team, and your organization. Make sure that it disrupts the metaphorical “apple cart” a little. Make sure that you are at least a little concerned about how it will turn out. If you have no concerns then I become concerned that you haven’t innovated and are merely repeating or repacking what you have always done.

For a great story and explanation of how to do something not only innovative but inspirational with your life, you may enjoy reading my friend Kimanzi Constable’s book Are You Living Or Existing?: 9 Steps to Change Your Life. Kimanzi shares about 9 steps to making change as someone who isn’t studying change from an aloof spot in an educational institution but rather as a leader who embodies many of these characteristics of a leader of change. He shares as a practitioner, a person living with integrity, and as an innovator in authentically leading and serving his family. You’ll be amazed to hear that he and his wife have made the changes necessary to get their family out of debt, invest in a healthier marriage, change careers, and relocate their family from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Maui, Hawaii.

8) They Prepare the People Around Them For Change

When you know that change is on the horizon, you should stop and make sure that other people know that as well. People hate getting surprised and especially hate it when it means that they will have to do something different in life.

Make sure people know that change is coming, that you’ll be doing things differently, that there will be sometimes frustrating changes they’ll have to make personally because of the changes you have made.

9) They Write Down Their Thoughts and Emotions

Your feelings can easily take you over and frustrate you to the point that you get little to nothing done. Don’t let that happen.

Write down your thoughts and feelings on paper, on your phone, or on your computer. You will benefit from knowing what you actually feel, seeing it written on paper, and then asking yourself what actions or thoughts you need to have as a result of reading them.

If you aren’t naturally gifts at articulating your emotions with others much less yourself, that’s okay and to be expected as many people struggle with this. A helpful resource in this area is the book Emotional Intelligence: The Groundbreaking Book That Redefines What It Means To Be Smart (by Daniel Goleman).

10) They Plan to Celebrate

Take a moment to celebrate the small wins (and the big ones) when they occur. Make sure that you don’t allow yourself to become a workaholic that never stops working. You need to celebrate when good things happen.

11) They Lead Change With Integrity and a Teachable Spirit

Let’s be honest here. It is much easier to tell others to change than it is to change ourselves.

But if we hope to see change in others, how can we hope to do so without first modeling it and experiencing it ourselves? We can’t. I’ve found that even when I haven’t led change like I should have that things go better with my team if I stop and admit where I have failed rather than trying to put on a facade of success.

Don’t accept the notion that in the “rat race” you are required to lose your integrity in order to have success. Do what is right, treat others well, and do so with integrity at all times even if it comes at a personal cost to you. Leadership without integrity is failure in disguise.

Integrity also involves teachability. Leadership without teachability is like driving in rush hour with a blindfold and ignoring the advice of the person in the passenger seat. You know that others have information that you need to hear but you refuse to listen to it because you prefer to trust your own blindness than learn from others.

12) They Clarify Vision

Vision provides the picture of future change and its implications. Imagine writing a newspaper article about the way your community looks different ten years from now because of all the changes you and your organization have made.

Those around you need a clear picture of how things will look so that they can work towards it even if it feels extremely far off and impossible right now.

How have you clarified vision for those around you? Is your vision dripping with adjectives and powerful ideas and metaphors that captivate the hearts and minds of people? Why not? Go and make sure the vision is painstakingly clear. Be careful it describes how the future will look and not what you need to do to get there.

13) They Communicate Clearly, Often, and in an Encouraging Way

If you want to get things done, you need to communicate. I used to think that I was a good communicator and then realized I needed to grow in far more areas than I cared to admit. Perhaps you are like me in this sense.

I think most people struggle with communication. But good communication is vital to anyone trying to live out these characteristics of a leader of change. If you are like me, though, you have struggled in at least one of three ways: the frequency, the clarity, and the manner.

A. Frequency: The frequency of your communication matters. Here’s where I felt the pangs of conviction today. You can say something clearly one time and see no change at all. You may need to ask yourself if the message you are communicating is being shared with people consistently over time. When people here a consistent message many times and in many different ways, they are better able to digest it as the new normal rather than a “flash in the pan.”

B. Clarity: Unclear communication creates confusion and frustration. Some people hear one thing and others hear something else entirely. Sometimes your audience hears one thing and you thought you said something different. You now think that you were clear. They think they heard the message. The two groups of people move on thinking they are on the same page and that is the farthest thing from the truth.

In order to have communication clarity, I’ve found that the three most effective tools are to write down the message, video myself sharing the message, and get feedback from others after they hear the message. If you do one or all three of those, you will be leaps and bounds ahead of 99% of people in your communication.

C. Manner: Communication can be extraordinarily clear and frequent yet get rejected. This is often because of the manner or the way in which you delivered it to others.

I’ve noticed this in countless leaders throughout my life and in my own communication. They may have a message that people need to hear. They may share that message on many different occasions and in many different ways. But when they share it they share it in such a way that the people listening don’t want to hear their message because of HOW they said what they said. My guess is that this is true for most of us at one time or another. Trying thinking about HOW you want to communicate something on your mind today and HOW the other person will best receive it.

If you take action on a few of these characteristics of leaders of change, you likely lead change more effectively in ways that you haven’t before. Sometimes when we read things like this post about the characteristics of leaders of change we can get stifled by the thinking there are too many things that need to get done. But you can and must take decision action to both become a leader of change and to take action in doing what what a leader of change does.

Don’t let yourself sit back and get overwhelmed by all that has to get done. Take a minute to celebrate and thank those around you for how they have contributed to your success. Then get to work.

A special thank you goes out to all those on my Facebook page who graciously helped provide ideas and challenged my thinking on this post. Because of you, I went back and edited various parts of this post because your ideas were too helpful to ignore.


Look over the other 9 coaching questions leaders of change ask or dig deeper into a specific question.

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