What’s Keeping You from Leading Change?

How to neutralize your fear of change.

There are some things that are unchangeable—things outside of our control. But what about the stuff that we do control? What about the stuff that we can change. The places where we have autonomy or authority. You’re a business leader, and your primary product is slipping in market share. If something doesn’t change soon, you’ll be out of business. You know it. Your staff knows it. Your competition knows it.

  • You’re a team leader, and your staff is growing complacent. Moral is low, people are beginning to leave, and you know something must change internally for the team to be a team once again. You’re the leader. You have the power to make a change.
  • You’re a pastor or church leader. Things have grown stagnant in the congregation. People are still attending, but they aren’t engaging like before. They arrive late and leave early. New families are not showing up. You know something must change if you are going to reach the community again.
  • You’re the leader. You know what’s wrong, and you believe you can fix it. You can make the shift. You can implement the change.
  • You’re a parent, and you sense your influence is lessening because your relationship is slipping. Something needs to change. If it doesn’t transition soon, you fear the opportunity to change will be gone forever.
  • In your personal life, some areas are a mess. That’s the best way to describe how you feel. Physically you are a mess. Emotionally a mess. Spiritually a mess. Maybe a habit needs to be put down, or a relationship needs to be ended. Change is necessary, and your know it.

What’s keeping you from leading change?

There are many reasons we resist changing what is actually under our control to change. In my life, there are three specific fears that have caused me to pause instead of pushing me to progress. If you’re a leader, you’ve probably experienced them, too.

  1. Fear of failure. We know the only failure is a failure to learn, but intellectually embracing a pithy statement is much easier than holding to it literally. Failure is such a strong deterrent for change that we often choose the status quo of apathy, mediocrity, and even small failure. That is nonsensical, but we do it every day, because even a huge possibility of success is no match for a slight possibility of failure.
  1. Fear of criticism. Do you enjoy criticism? That’s a rhetorical question for sure. Many of us like to receive constructive advice, but throw in the word “criticism” and we are left with our tail between our legs. Knowing someone will criticize your change is often enough to keep leaders from considering change. Change induces criticism—always has, and always will.
  1. Fear of uncertainty. Even if our current circumstance is failing, the certainty of failure feels weirdly better than the uncertainty of possible success. That makes no logical sense, but in the moment, it is a powerful force that resists change.

Each of these fears is legitimate, but also manageable. As a leader, cognitively counteracting each of these fears might build the bridge to your next needed change.

Here’s how I’ve personally counteracted my fear of change to become an agent of change:

  1. Define success on your terms. Failure is not like a baseball cap. One sizes doesn’t fit all. Failure should be defined by the leader of the change, not by the crowd watching the change. The reason fear of failure keeps us from trying to change is because we’ve accepted the world’s definition of failure. Our fear of not achieving someone else’s definition is what’s keeping us from trying. That is ridiculous. As the change agent, you should define not only the change, but also the metric of evaluating success. If your change fails, allow it to fail against your definition of success. Defeat fear of failure by defining your own version of success.
  1. Grow from critics. Don’t allow criticism to thwart your desire to change. Every change will have at least one critic. And by every change, I mean every change. It comes with the territory. When we accept this as a law of change, we can more easily move forward. And criticism is often helpful in course correcting our change. In every criticism, there’s something to learn. When you consider the source of the feedback, you can determine what to keep and what to discard. Criticism should act as a rudder, helping a leader course correct along the path of change. It should not become an impediment to initiating change. This should make you feel better: Most critics of good ideas eventually become late adopters of the very ideas. Just look at how many churches offer “contemporary services” these days! I’ll save you the diatribe around the criticism this change received. Defeat fear of criticism by seeing feedback as a rudder to course correct your moving ship of change.
  1. Create clarity to beat uncertainty. People are more uncertainty-resistant than change-resistant. For example: I’ve never been offered a raise, which changed my income, and resisted. I’ve never upgraded my phone and resisted the change, either. People resist uncertainty more than change, so as a leader, we should leverage clarity to fight uncertainty. As Andy Stanley has taught me, “Leaders can afford to be uncertain, but they can’t afford to be unclear.” If you look at your organization, team, business, family, or personal life and know something needs to change, be clear with those around you about the necessity of change. Create clarity in every space where clarity can be provided. In doing so, you will lessen the resistance and find a new path to make progress. Defeat fear of uncertainty by providing clarity around the problem and necessity for change.

Change is a constant. Change is necessary. Change is what keeps life and organizations from becoming stagnant and dying. Change introduces movement and momentum. As a leader, we can’t allow fear, criticism, or uncertainty to keep us from moving forward. What we can do is redefine success, see critics as a necessary part of change, and fight for clarity where clarity can be found.

Change is hard. It’s one reason leadership is necessary. If it were easy, everybody would do it. You’re a leader, though, which is why you can do it.

What are you going to change?

Gavin Adams
Gavin Adams believes the local church is the most important organization on the planet, and he is helping to transform them into places unchurched people love to attend. As the Lead Pastor of Watermarke Church, (a campus of North Point Ministries), Watermarke has grown from 400 to 4000 attendees in five years. A student of leadership, communication, church and faith, Gavin shares his discoveries through speaking and consulting. Follow him on Twitter or at his blog.