Leadership of Change: Do Steps Trump Style?

    Jeffrey Ford Posted by Jeffrey Ford.

    Jeffrey Ford is associate professor of management in the Fisher College of Business at the Ohio State University in Columbus. He coauthored Deadline Busting: How to be a Star Performer in Your Organization with Laurie Ford in 2005.

    Leadership of Change: Do Steps Trump Style?

    When it comes to the leadership of change, which is more important, leadership style or following the “right” steps for implementation?

    For the past several months, I have been conducting research into the leadership of change.  My interest is in finding out what differentiates effective leading of change from ineffective.  Although my research is far from complete, I have found something you might find interesting – the leadership of change has a much different focus than leadership in general.

    One of the hallmarks of general leadership is “leadership style”.  At the heart of leadership style is the idea that leaders have a particular way or pattern of leading and that not all patterns are appropriate or effective in all situations.  Leaders who are very production or task oriented, for example, will tend to be more effective in situations where getting things done is paramount than will leaders who are more affinity or relationship oriented.  Based on this literature, one would expect that the effective leadership of change would also involve leadership style, but it doesn’t.

    In the literature on change leadership, such as John Kotter’s book Leading Change, the focus is on steps, not style.  More specifically, the focus is on identifying the “right steps” or the “right process(es)”, which if fully and appropriately followed, will result in the successful implementation of change.  Apparently, when it comes to change, it is not the leader’s personal style that matters, but the steps they use in conducting change.

    What I find interesting about the steps approach to change leadership is that it ignores the very extensive literature on general leadership which indicates that how leaders treat and interact with followers matters.  The steps approach implies that no matter what a leader’s style might be, or how ineffective it is on a daily basis, it won’t matter when it comes to change as long as they fully and appropriately implement the right steps.

    Come on, are they serious?  Are they really saying that steps trump style?  Does anyone really believe that a jerk of a leader can successfully engage people in a change if she simply follows the right steps?  It would seem a marriage of the two approaches would give a more complete picture of what is required for the effective leadership of change, but so far I have not found such a marriage.