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What is change leadership? The role of a leader in change management

By 21st February 2024March 8th, 2024No Comments
A group of penguins perched at the edge of an ice flow. The leader dives in, setting an example to the crowd.

What role does leadership play in change management? In this article, we’ll uncover how leaders can create effective change.

Bringing together the latest research and expert insights from our change team, we’ll explore what change leadership is, why it’s important, and how to become an exceptional change leader.

Let’s dive in.

What is change leadership?

Change leadership is the practice of inspiring and steering change. A change leader is someone who sets the strategy and vision for a change programme, and creates momentum to drive that change forward.

Unlike change management, which deals with the practicalities of change – preparing people, overcoming roadblocks, and getting an organisation from point A to point B – change leadership is about motivating others, leading by example, and being the voice of change within an organisation.

Change leaders are often known as project sponsors. They are usually senior executives, depending on the strategic importance and risk level of the change programme. But anyone can benefit from developing change leadership skills.

"A change leader is one who is prepared to take risks and leap into the unknown.

Change is messy and organic; it doesn't follow a linear path, but ebbs and flows. A risk taker, an experimenter, an innovator who is prepared to lean into the change is inspiring - and can motivate those sitting on the fence."

Michele Payne, Programme Manager
The Inform Team

Why is leadership important in change management?

Active and visible leadership has topped the list of Prosci’s Best Practices in Change Management study since 1998.

Inactive, invisible and misaligned change leaders resulted in slower progress, higher resistance, and ultimately – failure to get results.

So no pressure, right?

What’s the difference between a change leader and a change manager?

As a change leader, you don’t have to go it alone. If you’re the captain of the ship, think of your change manager as your trusted first mate.

While a change leader or sponsor sets the overall vision and is accountable for the project, change managers are responsible for turning that vision into a practical plan and successful programme.

A change manager is often an external consultant (hello 👋) – while a change leader should be a well-known figure within their organisation.

Cut out of John P Kotter, speaking at a lecture, alongside covers of three of his books: a force for change, leading change, and a sense of urgency.
John P Kotter, Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership, Emeritus, Harvard Business School. Image credit, CC-BY-SA 4.0

According to John P. Kotter, one of the OG voices in change management, “leadership and management are two distinctive and complementary systems of action… both are necessary for success in an increasingly complex and volatile business environment.”

The roles of change leader and change manager are co-existent and complementary.

For successful change, you can’t have one without the other.

What does a change sponsor do?

The biggest mistake an executive sponsor can make is taking a ‘set-and-forget’ approach to change leadership.

According to Tim Creasey, Chief Innovation Officer at Prosci, sponsorship is “not just signing cheques and signing charters. A senior leader needs more than a pen and paper to sponsor change.”

Being a change leader is an active role. Effective sponsors have the following behaviours in common:

Strong woman wearing orange workout clothes leads an aerobics class. She is determined. The people behind her are following along smiling, slightly out of focus.

Active and visible participation

Change sponsors should be seen and heard by employees, at all stages of the programme. They lead by example, talking the talk, and walking the walk.

Three senior executives gather in a room. They are having a friendly, animated discussion.

Building a coalition of support

Great change leaders bring other senior people on board, building relationships so that the change becomes a priority across the organisation.

Close up photo showing two hands holding up paper speech bubbles against a blue background.

Communication with people affected

Employees want to hear the business reasons from someone at the top. Direct communication and support helps your message land.

Leading change as a people manager

Senior executives make excellent strategic sponsors for change. They can align change with top-level organisational goals and add a sense of gravitas and urgency to a programme which gets things done.

That said, C-suite leaders are busy people and they’re less likely to have their daily work affected by the change. And that’s where people managers can step in and lead the way.

Great managers understand their people and can use this knowledge to smooth the transition to a new way of working.

People managers bring projects to life. They play five key roles in leading change:



The data shows that employees prefer to hear detail about how change affects their role and team from their manager


If a manager champions a change, it’s likely their team will too – and vice versa. People managers play an important role in setting the tone for how change is received


Interacting with the project team, taking direction and providing honest feedback

Resistance manager:

According to researchers, immediate supervisors are best placed to mitigate resistance to change. They know their people best, and can work with change managers to identify and equip team members who have concerns or need extra support.


During the daily business of leading a team, people managers provide one-to-one support to coach employees through their personal change journey.

What makes an incredible change leader?

To dive a little deeper, we asked our team of specialist change managers what skills and qualities made for excellent change leaders.

This is what they said:

Jack, a change manager at Inform

“Empathy! Being empathetic to people’s pain points and irritants separates a great change leader from the pack. After all, we all want to be heard.”

Jack Stamp, Change Manager
Anna, a change manager at Inform

“Authenticity and honesty. The ability to listen to their people and respond appropriately, in an honest way. They need to be able to articulate ‘the why’ of change in a clear, simple and relatable manner.”

Anna Mollart-Solity, Change Manager
Katie, a change manager at Inform

“Excellent change leaders constantly role model the change they want to see and empower their teams to fail fast and keep learning.”

Katie Thompson, Programme Manager

Develop your change leadership skills with The Inform Team

To discover more about change leadership, including examples, tips and success stories, tune into episode one of our Diary of a Change Manager podcast, with Samatha Kinstrey and Michele Payne.

To find out more about how Inform can support your change leaders, check out our change management and culture services or drop us a message to set up a quick call.

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