Leadership Approaches for Promoting Change in Organizations


Conrad Askland
December 2018 – Colorado State University



Nonprofit arts organizations can have a particularly difficult experience enacting change within their organizations. This is partly due to the artist mindset that can have a default resistance to change, group and sub-group dynamics that create barriers to change, an ineffective leadership practices to overcome these challenges. This paper will highlight some of the barriers to change that appear in arts organizations as well as provide various leadership approaches that can be effective in facilitating healthy change within those organizations. Included are ancient leadership theories of Lao Tzu, the theory of reverse dominance and constructive dissent by Grint and successful leadership tactics identified by Kotter.

Keywords: effective leadership, organization change, implementing change, leadership process



How can an arts leader best decrease resistance to change as well as bring about substantive change to an arts organization? The starting point can be to identify the most common sources of resistance to change and then implement proven successful leadership practices to overcome that resistance to successfully bring about substantive change. As a leader of an arts organization attempting to implement change, how can you overcome the sentiment of “we’ve always done it this way?” Would the best approach be to distance yourself from the group and hand down new guidelines from on high? This is indeed an approach that has been used extensively in past Western leadership practices with varying degrees of success. Coercion and consensus are two different approaches and both can yield different results in the short term and long term.  Our examples of leadership theory will include the ancient leadership theories of Lao Tzu, the theory of reverse dominance and constructive dissent by Grint and successful leadership tactics identified by Kotter.

A leader’s overall reference point for the organization can make or break that organization’s success in moving forward with change. Whether the leader is focused on short term or long term goals can affect the decisions toward implementing change, as well as the leader’s focus on group involvement versus distancing themselves from the organization. This paper will cite contemporary leadership authors, leadership professors and leadership journal

articles to discover leading causes of barriers to change and some of the best practices in overcoming those barriers within arts organizations.



Analysis of hunter-gathers animal groups show that resistance to leadership is common. This scenario of followers resisting the leader is called “reverse dominance” (Grint, 56). We can observe this same phenomena in human organizations where a collection of individuals form to resist the dominance of an unpopular individual leader (Grint, 136). In an arts organization, this can develop into an inability to change, transforming the group into a fatalist community beyond repair (Grint, 134).

One barrier to group change is the collective identities already in place for the group. The mindsets of “we’ve always done it this way” and tradition are associated with its past are deeply entrenched in the memory of the group members. A failed leadership approach is to enact change on this group as an authoritarian, whereas a successful leadership approach can be to manage the continuity of change and not just the primary introduction of change (Bolden et al, 1376-1380). The mindset of “we’ve always done it this way” might be particularly prevalent in performing arts organizations where the members only work with that same organization and have set, over time, into a rigid process of bringing their projects to the stage.

The leadership approach to enforcement of uncomfortable change in the past was to distance the leader from the group. The contemporary approach in Western democracies, however, is to minimize the social distance between leadership and the group. This is in part due to the desire of transparency created by increased media communication and public access to information (Grint, 119-120). In a nonprofit arts organization where leadership changes every

two years, the distancing approach could be even more disastrous than with a long term individual leader.

A key to good leadership is providing a path for others to accomplish tasks. This can be done more successfully with interpersonal influence than with coercion. Lao Tzu said:

A leader is best

When people barely know he exists

Not so good when people obey and acclaim him

Worse when they despise him

But of a good leader, who talks little,

When his work is done, his aim fulfilled,

They will say:

We did it ourselves

(Lao Tzu, cited in Manz and Sims, 1991: 35)


It would be a mistake for a leader to think that one of their hurdles is overcoming consent. In fact, the difficulty in the most difficult problems is not necessarily to get consent, but rather to encourage open dissent. An authoritarian leader can easily create consent but that is often destructive and leads to the irresponsible passive follower which in turn creates the fatalistic community. A healthy organization needs constructive dissenters who are willing to speak openly with his or her boss or leader (Grint, 29-30). Particularly with volunteer nonprofit

board members, constructive dissenting should be encouraged for the overall health of the organization. A volunteer in a dysfunctional organization culture can easily become an ineffective wallflower to the group dynamics and forward growth.

There has been a shift in leadership power over the last 40 years. The old paradigm of leadership in power has shifted to power given to the followers. Power is no longer automatically assigned to leadership and the contemporary social contract between leaders and followers is that leaders wield less power and are expected to have increased transparency (Northouse, 11). The roles of leadership and management have many overlaps in function and duties, but one differentiating role function can be that leadership is a multidirectional influence relationship and management is a unidirectional authority relationship. It can be said that leaders and followers work together to create change, whereas managers and their teams join to sell goods and services (Rost, 1991, pp. 149–152).

An alternate view that compares leadership and management is Kotter (1990) who argues that the function of management is to provide order and consistency to the organization, whereas leadership is the focused on producing change and movement. Management is about order and stability and leadership is about seeking adaptive and constructive change (Northouse, 13).

With both previous examples we see the importance of leadership being able to enact change. The enacting of this change is most successful when it is implemented with the followers rather than as orders directed at them. Particularly with nonprofit volunteers, it can be seen that

non-paid volunteers would be even more resistant to having orders directed at them versus a paid employee.

If leaders do have power, then coercion is certainly one of those available powers. Coercion effects change but does so with the use of force. If change is forced on a group against their will there is often the inclusion of penalties or rewards in the work environment. It is important to note that coercion itself is not leadership. For our arguments, we will says that coercive people are not models of ideal leadership (Northouse, 12). With coercion off the table as an available tool for effective leadership, we again turn to the importance of enacting change as a group team. Although leaders often get the blame or praise for the success, or lack of, after change has been implemented, the reality is there is often an entire team of people and processes involved in bringing a project to completion. The model for success of a team is a leader than can actualize the team members to peak performance. The reason we typically focus on a leader as being sole responsible is explained by Émile Durkheim, a French sociologist from the turn of the 20th century, that followers actually want their leaders to be god-like in their powers (Grint, 9).



If management is about coping with complexity and leadership is about coping with change, then what are some of the tools that successful leaders can use to facilitate change? John Kotter (Kotter, 1990: 104) identified eight activities a leader must engage in to successfully bring about change:

  1. Creating a sense of urgency.
  2. Forming a guiding coalition for change.
  3. Articulating a clear vision.
  4. Communicating the vision.
  5. Removing obstacles.
  6. Planning short-term wins.
  7. Producing continuous change.
  8. Institutionalizing new approaches.

Kotter’s eight leadership actions for successful change provide a fluid time line that can be utilized repeatedly. The first steps of urgency and coalition provide an immediate need for change along with the base support from the group for that change. Urgency and coalition support provide the reason and forward motion to promote change in the first place. With either of these elements missing, the leader of any arts organization may find themselves stalemated without a reason for change or any support to move forward. This can be true in any size of organization from a small arts nonprofit up to large scale for profit organizations. As with Grint’s constructive dissent theory, forming the coalition could include listening carefully to opposing views to understand their frame of reference and to encourage open debate and constructive dissent. Hopefully the obstacles of group dissent have already been addressed in these steps so they do not have to be added again to the fifth step of removing obstacles. This series of actions suggests that dissent within the group should be addressed first before starting to outwardly enact the changes proposed and agreed upon by the group.

Kotter’s steps of articulating the clear vision and communicating the vision are the steps to guide the coalition forward on a unified front with a well understood direction by the entire team.  Removing obstacles could also be part of the short term wins to give the group the experience of success. Framing the short term wins as milestones can also improve the forward momentum of the group for when they tackle the long term wins in the future.

Kotter’s step seven of producing continuous change is perhaps the most transformative in terms of groups dynamics. The small town arts organization that has been running for many years would most likely have many group cultures in place and chief among those might be adversity to change. The first changes enacted within this group might be the most challenging for the leader as they address not only group cohesion but also the historical practices of that group. As each change is successfully implemented and the small wins start stacking up, the group dynamic can slowly change to endorse change as part of it’s organizational dynamic. They key is Kotter’s use of the word “continuous” when applied to change. One change will not change the group dynamics for the long term but continuous change can ease the way for future forward movement of the group.

Though management and leadership processes are both important and complementary, Kotter encourages leadership to switch focus toward processes that are more dynamic and strategic instead of relatively inflexible and bureaucratic processes. (Bolden et al, 420-423). Dynamic leadership processes can be better informed if the leader has a deep understanding of where team members stand on specific issues. This can be accomplished in part by having open communication with individual team members away from structured organizational meetings. The informal atmosphere encourages a more authentic connection and also encourages informal and hopefully open communication from both parties. This can be particularly successful with smaller organizations where a few interpersonal relationships can make or break the health and success of that organization.

Through the necessity of follower support for successful leadership, social perceptiveness is also a key to successful leadership changes. A departure from the old “distancing” method of leadership, social perceptiveness means understanding the unique needs, goals, and demands of different organizational members and interests (Zaccaro et al., 1991). The leader must know the pulse of the followers on any issue at any time and be flexible in reacting to and understanding others. The capacity to change and adapt behaviors after understanding others’ perspectives can be as important as the leader’s ability to communicate their own vision. Leaders need to also function as mediators when there is resistance to change or interpersonal conflicts about change. Skill in conflict resolution and social perceptiveness are important aspects of leadership competency. Leaders should coach followers and encourage them to completion of organizational goals (Northouse, 50). A transformational leader can engage with others in a way that both leaders and followers inspire each other to higher levels of motivation and morality. This process could be described as ‘winning hearts as well as minds’. Transformational leadership is a distinct style that can be particularly beneficial in times of change (Bolden et al, 538-542).

Another successful leadership approach is that of quite leadership, or ‘covert leadership’. Henry Mintzberg described this style of leadership as to the subtle ways in which a conductor can extract specific types of performances from musicians. Mintzberg says:

‘Quiet management is about thoughtfulness rooted in experience. Words like wisdom, trust, dedication, and judgment apply… Indeed, the best managing of all may well be silent. That way people can say, ‘We did it ourselves.’ Because we did. (Mintzberg, 1999)

Framing is an important tool the leader can use when introducing change. The leader can identify the most clear way to explain the upcoming change and create possible scenarios for how the changes will be implemented. The leader can also look at how implementing the change will affect the company’s mission and the individual careers of the organization members (Northouse, 49). Framing is also a tool that fits into Kotter’s steps of garnering group support and establishing clear communication within the organization before enacting change. It’s important to note that although framing can be used as a successful type of debate tactic, it should not be used when working to fully understand a dissenting viewpoint. The dissenting viewpoint should be fully and attentively listened to and understood before attempting to use framing as a leadership tool. This approach to framing would be supported by Grint’s concept that a healthy organization should encourage constructive dissent, and constructive dissent includes giving time and understanding to those dissenting views.


The power of contemporary leadership comes from the followers. For a leader to successfully implement change they must have the support and power given to them from the followers. Full and unilateral consent at all times is not the sign of a healthy organization. A successful leader should encourage an atmosphere of open communication and debate with team members. The leader should also know the pulse of the organization and be able to identify the individual and group perspectives of any issue at any time.

It’s quite possible that the most successful leadership style of all appears to be invisible and the group appears to function successfully on it’s own.

Works Cited:

Bolden, R., J. Gosling, B. Hawkins and S. Taylor.  (2011). “Exploring Leadership: Individual, Organizational, and Societal Perspectives.” Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Grint, Keith. (2010). “Leadership: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions).” Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Kotter, J. P.. (1990). “A force for change: How leadership differs from management.” New York: Free Press.

Manz, C. C. and Sims, H. P.. (1980). “Self-management as a Substitute for Leadership: A Social Learning Theory Perspective,” Academy of Management Review, 5.

Mintzberg, H.. (1973). “The Nature of Managerial Work.” New York: Harper and Row.

Northouse, Peter G..  (2012).“Leadership: Theory and Practice.” SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.

Rost, J. C.. (1991). “Leadership for the twenty-first century.” New York: Praeger.

Zaccaro, S. J., Fleishman, E. A., Mumford, M. D., Levin, K. Y., Korotkin, A. L., & Hein, M. B.. (1991). “Taxonomic efforts in the description of leader behavior: A synthesis and functional interpretation.” Leadership Quarterly, 2(4).

One thought on “Leadership Approaches for Promoting Change in Organizations

  1. As Clark Griswold’s repentant boss said, “Sometimes things look good on paper, but lose their luster when you see how it affects real folks.”

    Real change? Remove the barrier between CEO, management and employees.

    Never hire anyone who isn’t as passionate about the company’s goals as its founder.

    Surround yourself with people you intuitively know are likely smarter than yourself! If you don’t, then your limits and vision will never be surpassed. You’ll stagnate. Be brave – trust that the talent YOU hire and inspire will take your business opportunities to a new level.

    Remember the name of your doorman, secretary and the one who brings you coffee. THEY are the people your clients will come into contact with early on. If you’ve had the foresight to make a personal connection and voice your appreciation for their efforts, they WILL esteem you in the eyes of your clients.

    Old-fashioned, out-dated? Then how is it we develop a preference for certain businesses and remain faithful customers for a life-time? It begins with the service we receive. Nothing will replace the first impression a service employee makes on us. If they feel ‘invisible’ and 14 floors separated from the CEO, then they’ll projectt that attitude towards the customer.

    Policy on paper from an invisible ‘manager’ has nowhere the effect of a ‘hands-on’ leader – especially in growth and longevity. A house ‘divided’ will not stand, for long!

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