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Change Management vs. Change Leadership: Key Differences

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Published on: 11/20/2023
Last Updated: 11/20/2023
8 minute read

In today’s highly competitive business environment, adapting to change is often what separates successful companies from unsuccessful ones. In fact, 47% of surveyed managers say they must reinvent their businesses at least once every three years to survive.1

While organizational change is necessary, many employees naturally resist it. As a result, up to 70% of all change initiatives fail.2

This statistic highlights the importance of change management and change leadership. While these two key concepts may sound similar, they differ in fundamental ways. Below, we’ll break down change management vs. change leadership and discuss how you can pursue a career path in either field. 

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What is Change Management? 

Change management is the process of approaching organizational change systematically to ensure a smooth transition. The different types of change management can be used to tweak or transform a company’s strategy, structure, culture, processes, or technology systems. 

Key Principles of Change Management

The key principles of successful change management are as follows:

  • Have a clear vision for the change initiative you want to employ
  • Communicate your change initiatives to employees and other stakeholders
  • Involve employees throughout the change process
  • Address employees’ concerns and resistance 
  • Provide training as needed
  • Showcase strong support from leadership at every stage

Change Management Models and Frameworks

Due to its importance, change management has been studied extensively. As a result, several models have been developed to help companies navigate the change management process. 

Some of the most popular change management models are as follows:

  • Kotter’s 8-Step Change Management Model outlines eight steps for enacting successful change within an organization. These steps include:
    • Creating urgency
    • Constructing a powerful change coalition
    • Clarifying a clear vision 
    • Communicating this vision
    • Clearing any obstacles to the change
    • Celebrating short-term successes
    • Building on the change
    • Incorporating the change into your company culture
  • The Lewin’s Change Management Model consists of three stages: unfreeze, change, and refreeze. Similar to an ice cube, this model asserts that you must give your company sufficient time to prepare for a change (unfreeze), implement the change process (changing), and stabilize the change so that it becomes an enduring component of your company culture (refreeze). 
  • Prosci’s ADKAR Change Management Model recognizes that successful change is only possible when the individuals involved are willing to embrace it. Thus, change managers must address any resistance by convincing employees and other stakeholders that a change is worthwhile. 

    The ADKAR model asserts that the following five components are essential to gaining employee buy-in:
    • Awareness
    • Desire
    • Knowledge
    • Ability 
    • Reinforcement

These are just a few of the change management frameworks companies can employ. The right framework will depend on a company’s desired change and implementation timeline. 

What is Change Leadership?

Change leadership focuses on the vision, strategy, and motivation involved in driving a change initiative. Change leaders serve as the engines behind these initiatives, guiding and motivating their teams throughout the implementation process. 

Traits and Qualities of Effective Change Leaders

Effective change leaders can benefit from possessing the following qualities:

  • Strategic thinking – A change leader should be able to think strategically and evaluate the big picture. This way, they can determine the right change initiatives and pursue them proactively, rather than reacting to problems after they’ve already occurred.  
  • Vision – Pursuing the right types of change requires a future-focused mindset. Change leaders are responsible for developing and communicating a compelling vision for their organization’s future. This vision can serve as a compass for all subsequent decisions when leading change.
  • Enthusiasm – Persuading employees to embrace change can be challenging. Not only do change leaders need to alleviate their concerns and resistance, but they also need to garner excitement for the positive outcomes that await the organization on the other side. 
  • Empathy – Steamrolling stakeholders is not a productive way to bring them on board. Instead, change leaders must take time to listen to employees' concerns and address them empathetically. By exhibiting understanding and patience throughout the process, a change leader can boost their chances of winning over lukewarm participants.
  • Communication skills – In addition to having a motivational attitude, change leaders need to possess exceptional communication skills. This way, they can explain the reasons behind their recommended change initiatives and outline the steps involved in pursuing them.
  • Problem-solving skills – Enacting change within an organization, whether it’s big or small, rarely takes place without some setbacks. Change leaders must be able to navigate hurdles that arise with strategy and confidence. 
  • Resilience – Change leaders must stay optimistic as they navigate employee resistance and other obstacles. By learning how to recover from setbacks quickly, change leaders can keep the process moving and increase the likelihood that their initiatives succeed. 
  • Adaptability – Change leaders need to practice what they preach. If they expect employees to adapt to change, they must also exemplify adaptability and act as role models by maneuvering change with a positive attitude. 

Change Leadership Models and Theories

Change leaders often employ many of the change management models we outlined above. They may also use the following change leadership theories to guide their change management strategies:

  • The Transformational Leadership Theory was developed by James MacGregor Burns and has since become popular amongst politicians and organizational psychologists. 

    This theory suggests that leaders can enhance employees’ motivation, morale, and performance by connecting their sense of identity to the company’s mission. Change leaders who employ this style of leadership aim to cultivate enthusiasm and curate a strong sense of purpose throughout the company. They can do so by emphasizing their company’s mission, encouraging their employees to take pride in their work, and evaluating employees’ strengths and weaknesses to optimize their performance. 
  • The Strategic Leadership Theory was created by Harvard Business Review using research from the Wharton School and its consulting firm of 20,000+ executives.  The theory suggests that there are six skills change leaders should focus on cultivating throughout their careers if they want to be successful. These skills include being able to:
    • Anticipate opportunities, threats, and changes that may impact the organization.  
    • Challenge the status quo. 
    • Interpret relevant patterns within ambiguous data. 
    • Decide what to do efficiently in the face of incomplete information. 
    • Align the change agenda with stakeholders. 
    • Learn from failures and promote a culture of continuous learning. 
  • The Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Theory was pioneered in 1996. It was developed by author Paul Hersey and leadership expert Ken Blanchard.4 This theory asserts that there’s no one-size-fits-all leadership style. Instead, skilled leaders must tailor their approaches to their followers’ degrees of competence and commitment. 

    The four basic approaches change leaders can take are as follows:
    • Telling – If employees have low commitment and low competence, change leaders must give them detailed instructions and monitor their performance closely. 
    • Coaching – If employees have low commitment but moderate competence, change leaders can dial back the close supervision and provide more support instead. Proper encouragement can boost employees’ motivation, inspire their best work, and potentially increase their commitment. 
    • Supporting – If employees have moderate commitment and high competence, change leaders should use a more collaborative leadership style. For instance, they can empower employees by involving them in the problem-solving process and offering support as needed. 
    • Delegating – If employees possess high commitment and high competence, change leaders can employ a more hands-off approach. This leadership style allows employees to take ownership of their work, exercise self-reliance, and show off their capabilities. 

Comparing Change Management vs. Change Leadership

Now that you know what change management and change leadership are, let’s quickly compare their similarities and differences. 

While both focus on facilitating change and serve important purposes, their goals differ in the following ways:

  • Change management’s primary goal is to achieve specific milestones within a structured implementation plan. Change managers are responsible for planning, organizing, and executing these milestones. In turn, they must define their employees’ tasks, give them the training and resources they need to fulfill these tasks, and supervise their progress at every stage. 
  • Change leadership aims to inspire people to pursue a strategic vision with enthusiasm and purpose. Change leaders are responsible for generating their organization’s vision, sharing that vision, and empowering employees to pursue it with a positive mindset. 

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How Organizational Psychology Relates to Change

Organizational psychology is the study of human behavior within organizational settings. Like change managers and change leaders, organizational psychologists can help companies pursue effective change by:

  • Evaluating employees’ readiness for change
  • Pinpointing areas of resistance
  • Offering managers and leaders methods to mitigate this resistance
  • Enhancing team-building, collaboration, and communication
  • Fostering a positive company culture
  • Giving leaders feedback on the effectiveness of their change initiatives

For these reasons, organizational psychologists are often highly valued members of successful change coalitions. 

Start Your Organizational Psychology Journey at Alliant

While change management and change leadership are closely related, they serve distinct purposes in driving organizational change. In either case, organizational psychologists can play a pivotal role in ensuring the success of change initiatives.

Interested in becoming an organizational psychologist? Check out the programs at Alliant International University. From our master’s program in organizational psychology to our PhD program in industrial and organizational psychology, we can help you develop the knowledge and skills you need to support organizational change. 


  1. Nadya Zhexembayeva. “3 Things You’re Getting Wrong About Organizational Change.” Harvard Business Review. June 09, 2020.….

    Accessed October 25, 2023.
  2. Lisa Bodell. “Most Change Initiatives Fail — Here’s How To Beat The Odds.” Forbes. March 28, 2022.…. Accessed October 25, 2023.
  3. Schoemaker, P., Krupp, S., and Howland, S. “Strategic Leadership: The Essential Skills.” Harvard Business Review. Accessed October 25, 2023.
  4. Kenton, W. “Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Model: How It Works.” Investopedia. June 10, 2023. Accessed October 25, 2023.
  5. Kenton, W. “Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Model: How It Works.” Investopedia. June 10, 2023. Accessed October 25, 2023.

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