What Does It Take to Lead Change?

In today’s world, the pace of organizational change has increased dramatically and there’s no end in sight. This pace is being driven by escalating competition, globalization (including emerging economies like BRICS), the pace of technical innovation, and the demand for ever-increasing improvement in performance. Ultimately, this means that leaders have to execute change in timeframes that are increasingly shorter.

Given this challenging set of circumstances, what’s a leader to do?

There are in fact positive, concrete steps that you - as the leader - can take to build your ability to help your organization respond to the decreasing timeframes of change and reduce the risks associated with any change.

Two crucial change leadership qualities: “know-what” and “know-how”

You’re undoubtedly familiar with the concept of know-how. Know-how is usually defined as the knowledge of how to do something well. It suggests not only having the knowledge, skill, and ability to do something but also knowing the pitfalls and obstacles to navigate in the process. Know-what is the companion of know-how. To help understand the concept of know-what and its relationship to know-how, let’s look briefly at a couple of scenes from the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Just after the thrilling opening sequence, Professor Henry Jones Jr. is back at his day job at Marshall College where he teaches archeology. He’s visited by Army intelligence officers who want to know what he may know about the lost city of Tanis, the Ark of the Covenant, and why the Nazis would be searching for Jones’ mentor Abner Ravenwood.

Indy knows very well the story of Tanis, the ark, the staff of Ra, and the Well of Souls and tells his visitors about it. He also quickly figures out what the Nazi’s interest in Ravenwood would be and what’s at stake. The intelligence officers are impressed and conclude that they’ve come to the right place.

In the following scene, Indy’s at home when his friend Marcus comes to tell him that the government wants him to go in search of the ark to prevent the Nazis from recovering it. Indy pulls out his suitcase and begins to pack. The first items he puts in are his leather jacket, his iconic hat, his bullwhip, and his revolver.

In the space of these two scenes, two things are firmly established. Indiana Jones knows what and in watching him pack his suitcase we’re persuaded that he also knows how.

So what’s the connection to leading change? Good change leaders need to embody both of Indy’s qualities.

On the one hand, you need to possess know-what about the change you intend to make. On the other hand, you need to know how to go about actually leading that change. Let’s look at each more closely.


There are at least five areas of “know-what” that you must possess.

  1. Understand the conditions for “no change.” This may sound like nonsense, but it’s actually fundamentally important. If you’re going to lead change, you must understand the conditions that are supporting the status quo. What's keeping things just as they have always been?  These are the clues to understanding where and how to move in the direction you intend to go.
  2. Consider the impact of change.  All change impacts people. Sometimes the change is minor and just requires some personal adjustment. But very often the change goes much deeper. Deep changes require proportionally more change effort and it’s important to know this before you begin.
  3. Build the network of support for change. Major change is too difficult to accomplish alone. You need support. That requires a network because it’s really important to know who has your back.
  4. Mobilize your organization. The “know what” here is a solid sense of several things. Have I framed the need, purpose, and vision well enough? Do I and others understand the risks involved? Do I have leadership support? Have I considered what the change will mean for the organization and the people who’ll experience it? Do I have a credible plan?
  5. Resistance. Resistance to change is a normal response. People prefer stability to instability. Resistance can be a serious obstacle but it is also an indicator that allows leaders to know where and how to address it.


There are at least six areas of “know-how” that you must possess.

  1. Rationale. One of the very first questions in change is always, “Why?” To effectively lead change you must know how to develop and communicate a very solid rationale and clear indication of return on investment for all the cost, time, energy, and effort that will be expended. The rationale needs to have both logical and emotional components – appeals to the heart as well as the head.
  2. Vision. Unless you know how to convey a compelling picture of the future with attractive reasons why people should strive to help to create it, the change will be severely hobbled from the start.
  3. Alignment around urgency. Complacency is the enemy of change and forward progress. You must know how to build agreement and commitment to a situation of pressing importance that requires action.
  4. Tactical support. As noted above, change is too difficult to accomplish alone. You need tactical support as well as leadership support. So, you must also know how to carefully select and form a group to serve as your tactical arm.
  5. Roadmap. People who are about to experience change want the comfort of knowing that their leader can demonstrate not only the direction to go but also how to get there. You must know how create a plan for change that accomplishes two objectives. First, it inspires confidence about knowing the way forward. Second, it is comprehensive and integrates the way in which people will be engaged in the process of creating change.
  6. Effectively telling the story. It doesn’t matter how good any of the foregoing areas of know-how are unless the leader can tell the story in a way that it will be received and understood. You must know how to communicate with clarity and sensitivity to the audience you’re addressing and with the authority of one who knows where they’re going and how to get there.

Leading change is more like Indy’s challenge in the Raiders of the Lost Ark than you might think. The stakes are high and the clock is ticking. Your leadership is the most critical element of your change effort. What are you doing to build your know-what and know-how for meeting the challenge?

To learn more about how to build your know-what and know-how, click here to see how The Change Kit can help and schedule a live demo.

4 thoughts on “What Does It Take to Lead Change?

  1. How wonderful to see someone make it so clear that it’s more than KnowHow. If we don’t understand the KnowWhat it’s like taking a drive and not knowing the conditions of the road ahead or what the true arrival will look like. Thanks Gary.

  2. Gary,

    This is wonderfully written and well said. Change can be such a daunting thing for organizations but you’ve outlined the terms for its success.

  3. Indy made his actions look relatively easy, even though they were clearly challenging. If leaders pay attention to the “know-what” and “know-how,” they can facilitate change more easily, despite the presence of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Thanks for sharing your straightforward, practical approach for effectively leading change.

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