Leading Means Leading Change

Jan Rutherford

It’s that time of year when everybody talks about making changes. All business leaders are facing the usual challenges – transforming cultures, creating better processes, setting shorter sales cycles. All change has one thing in common – whoever is leading it needs to gain acceptance and commitment from the team.

Leadership is nothing if not change. As leaders, we know that creating positive change starts within. I learned much of what I know about leading change while I was in the U.S. Army, from ages 17 to 26. I saw people who held impressive ranks, but that didn’t always correlate with effectively leading and managing change.

People in business may think leading in the military is simple – just give an order and people follow! But that really only happens in combat – just a small percentage of a soldier’s time. In business, people often follow repeatable policies and procedures that can be trained in a course. In the military, assignments are short, so you’re always doing something for the first time. In some ways, there is more change in the military than in the business world.

Becoming a leader who inspires change isn’t easy. Even in the military, leaders have to work hard to gain commitment and acceptance. A friend who is a retired two-star general says, “If I had to give an order, I knew I had already failed.” In other words, if a soldier did something because “I said so,” the leader hadn’t gained acceptance or commitment along the way.

Change Is Cultural

Early in my business career, I thought I could train and coach teams through challenges and problems. But I soon realized that behavior in organizations comes from everything that makes up the environment – that’s the key determinant of success or mediocrity. And that’s why we spend so much time figuring out how to create the right environment, the right culture, so we can foster innovation, facilitate change, and provide fulfillment to the team members. When we can do that as an art, we can instigate change from the heart. But culture has to start at the top, with the vision, mission, and values. If your leaders aren’t walking the talk according to the values, you’ll never create the culture change you desire.

In the military, every unit has a unique culture they take pride in. For example, field artillery units wear red socks. The culture creates bonds of trust, and within that trust, people have open conversations and rules for creating the norms. When that kind of culture exists, leaders can guide change. They don’t have to sell people on the details. Continuous change just becomes “the way we do business.”

Change Requires Sacrifice

To inspire people to change, leaders need to be willing to change their own way of doing things. What does long-term change mean for you? Chances are you’re comfortable. Change requires some degree of discomfort, but great achievements require great sacrifices.

Successful leaders have a passion, and they’re willing to sacrifice the status quo to fulfill it. Think hard about what “sacrifice” means.  Now think about what sacrifice requires. It means giving something up so you can focus on something else. Leaders give their teams more and more to do, but they don’t tell people what to stop. Then they can’t figure out why so many change efforts fail. You yourself have to say “no” to some things, and that may be the hardest step of all.

A famous motivator, Charlie “Tremendous” Jones, once said, “You are the same today as you’ll be in five years except for two things – the books you read and the people you meet.”  I’d add “and the sacrifices you make.” It would be pretty amazing if we all made a New Year’s resolution to sacrifice something so we could change something else – and inspire the will to change in others.


These are the Ten Self-Reliant Leadership Essentials that effect change –
in yourself and in others.

1. Passion: What am I driven to change?
2. Vision: Do I know where I want to go?
3. Consideration: Am I assessing past events that may be holding me back from changing?
4. Intention: What happens if I don’t change? What will the future be like?
5. Planning: Have I given myself milestones for change, with due dates?
6. Commitment: Is my passion powerful? Do I have the courage to act?
7. Sacrifice: What will I need to stop doing? Am I willing to leave my comfort zone?
8. Discipline: Can I stick with the change and not procrastinate?
9. Action: Am I working my plan and measuring success?
10. Habit: Has the new behavior become a habit, so it no longer feels like a sacrifice?

The last marker of personal change is not so much an action, but a result of a disciplined approach to these ten steps: Character. Has the habit become so ingrained as to become part of who I am? What will be my legacy with the people I lead? What can I do to augment my personal growth?

Which step is your strength? Which step most needs your focus to adapt the way you think, approach others, and truly effect change?


The Littlest Green BeretFor the past 20 years, Jan Rutherford’s business roles have been in marketing, business development, sales management, corporate training, product management, and government affairs. Half the proceeds of his book, The Littlest Green Beret: On Self-Reliant Leadership, go to the Special Operations Warrior and Green Beret Foundations. He is also a blogger on leadership and change; to learn more, go to http://janrutherford.com.