Change Whisperer – Gail Severini, Symphini Change Management Inc.

Top 10 Competencies for Change Leaders

Transformational change is disruptive, non-linear, unpredictable and requires a leap that not everyone will make.

What does this require of leaders?

Below is my top-ten list for change leaders. In two weeks, the blog will list my top-ten competencies for change agents—and a bonus list for change targets.


  • The lists are only loosely prioritized because, given that every application (organization/initiative) is different, competencies may be more or less relevant in that context.
  • Some of these items might not fit the full technical definition of a “competency”. Some are mindsets. All can be developed.
  • Behind each of these items is a mountain of research and more resources. Reference material is provided at the end and subsequent posts will provide some training sources.

Change Leaders

  1. Determination and discipline— The leader …“Has a profound resolve toward the specific shifts the organization has identified as essential for its future success, and not just a generic interest in change.” (Assessing Leaders for Change Roles, Change Thinking Blog, Daryl Conner). And, has the personal discipline to adhere to the path and take difficult and challenging actions.
  2. Self-Knowledge and mindfulness—The ability to be calm in the midst of high-stress, dynamic change comes from being centered as a person. Knowing and accepting oneself, even while continuously striving to be better, is part of it. The ability to concentrate and be attentive to other people and concepts, to think deeply and calmly, is another part. These are intricately connected.
  3. Realistic optimism—“Type-O people view life as a set of constantly shifting, interacting parts that can produce a rising number of combinations. Each day, Type-O people assume that a new set of opportunities will emerge that will produce even more demanding challenges.” (Human Resilience During Change, Conner Partners White Paper).
  4. Strategic thinking—Create a vision and the path to navigate to it. While this might sound like classic white-collar, MBA-stuff, I mean it in the grisly, School of Hard Knocks sense—complete with battle scars.
  5. Stewardship—There are as many ways to lead an organization, and change, as there are leaders. I admit to a strong bias, that I hazard a guess that many share, to follow leaders who see their role as “the willingness to be accountable for the well-being of the larger organization by operating in service, rather than in control of those around us.” (1).
  6. Integrative thinking—Once we accept that transformational change presents enormous ambiguity it becomes obvious that the ability “to hold two conflicting ideas in constructive tension”. “The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking” (2) is an essential competency.
  7. Culture awareness—An understanding of organizational culture generally, this organization’s current and desired cultures specifically, as well as plans for making the shift.
  8. Influences others—Once a leader is personally committed to the change, the next challenge is to garner the same deep level of commitment from others. This begins with the leader’s ability to influence others. In “Change The Way You Lead Change”, (3) authors Herold and Fedor have a fantastic section on “Drawing On Our Buckets of Influence”.
  9. Good judgment—The ability to make great decisions is actually rare, and extraordinarily valuable. “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.” (Bob Packwood).
  10. Make meaning—Making the change relevant to every resource who has to make the transition is key. It is an unusual capability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to understand how the change affects them and then to help them understand it and navigate their way through it.  Making sense of the change for individuals is the first step and a continuous process.

School of Hard Knocks and Sherpas

There is no greater teacher than experience. Whether you are a leader or an agent, every experience will teach you more than any training, and arm you more than any tool or methodology. Find ways to work with more experienced practitioners and, if possible, find a mentor. Mentors can be like sherpas—they have travelled the journey many times before and can act as interpreters and guides.

Reference Material

  1. “Assessing Leaders for Change Roles”, Change Thinking Blog, Daryl Conner
  2. “Becoming a ‘Mindful’ Practitioner”, Change Thinking Blog, Daryl Conner


1. “Stewardship: Choosing Service over Self-Interest”, Peter Block, Berret-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 1996

2. “The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking”, Roger Martin, 2009.

3. “Change The Way You Lead Change”, David Herold and Donald Fedor, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California 2008.


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5 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Gail, you have composed a great list of competencies for success with change. ‘Confidence’ is a theme I see across most of them – confidence in leaders, agents, employees and one’s own abilities to define and progress toward a positive future state. As you say, “There is no greater teacher (and confidence-builder) than experience.” Thanks. Phil

Comment by Phil

Thanks Phil. Can’t wait to read your book! Your experience rang out like a bell in The Strategic Leadership Forum’s Change Management Roundtable in May. Let’s get together for lunch soon and compare notes.

Comment by Gail Severini ©

Hi Gail. Nice list. What comes to mind when reading your list was steadfastness, determination, and a strong set of core values.

Comment by ffuquapurvis

Gail this list is on point! Definitely a “must share” with AmeriCorps VISTA colleagues…..

Comment by Marcia Webb Hayes

Thanks so much Marcia. It’s important work.

Comment by Gail Severini

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