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Navigating the leadership rip currents of change

Leaders must always be prepared to overcome resistance to change and Dave Coffaro offers a roadmap to create buy-in.

7 min read



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While navigating a rough, foggy ocean, a battleship’s radar suddenly indicates an object directly in its path. The ship’s captain sends a radio signal saying, “We are on a collision course. I advise you to change course 10 degrees north immediately.” 

A response crackles over the radio: “Negative. We advise you to change course 10 degrees south.”

Dave Coffaro

The captain can now see a blinking light from the approaching object. Frustrated, he replies: “I’m this ship’s captain. I command you to change course 10 degrees north immediately!”

“I’m a controller, second class,” came a reply. “Advise that you change course 10 degrees south to avoid imminent collision.”

At this point, the furious captain yells: “This is a battleship! Change your course immediately!”

After briefly pausing, the captain hears a calm reply: “This is a lighthouse. Your call on what you want to do.”

Navigating changing conditions can be challenging, even for the most skilled leaders.  This article discusses actionable ideas to elevate leaders’ acumen in navigating change.

Conditions: The invitation to change

One definition of the word “condition” is a particular state of being of a person or thing with respect to circumstances. This definition excludes the fact that most conditions are subject to change. And while the velocity of change varies from condition to condition, rarely are changes permanent. 

Continually changing business operating conditions are expected. What is new is the rate, breadth and depth of change for businesses. Consider the public text-sharing app space. X, formerly Twitter, took five years to reach 100 million users; Meta Threads took five days to achieve the same number of users. Overnight disruption to the 10th degree! Imagine the dynamic in the competitive landscape: advertisers contemplating where and how to reallocate their spending or businesses reconsidering implications for public text-sharing as part of the social media strategy. 

Time will tell the value of either text-sharing platform. Yet, this illustration of change velocity provides a clear message: Operating conditions can change quickly and substantively in anticipated and unexpected ways

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States Army War College began using the acronym VUCA to describe a substantively different and unfamiliar international security environment: volatile (unpredictable, rapid change), uncertain (current environment is unclear, future is uncertain), complex (plethora of interconnected elements come into play with the potential to create chaos and confusion) and ambiguous (lack of clarity or awareness about situations). VUCA characteristics apply to business operating conditions and those affecting international security. 

In navigating change, evolving conditions are an invitation to adjust. Questions for leaders become: How and when do we address this invitation for change? Part of the answer lies in the evolving condition itself. What are the first indicators that a business condition (or conditions) is changing? Are these conditions changing slowly or rapidly? What are the benefits and risks of adjusting now vs. further in changing conditions? What is the case for change that will engage our stakeholders? How will we communicate evolving conditions and the case for change to our stakeholders? 

Rip currents: The force of resistance

Last weekend at Newport Beach, every lifeguard station on the Balboa Peninsula had red rip current flags raised. El Niño weather conditions created outsized waves and a strong undercurrent. Rip currents are powerful currents of water flowing away from shore. They can pull swimmers and surfers away from the shore, past the line of breaking waves. These undercurrents are very powerful and dangerous. 

In navigating change, human undercurrents present a significant risk. Like rip currents at the beach, these undercurrents resist change, pulling people back to their perceived status quo. Change resistance can show up as discomfort, fear, misinformation, distrust or unwillingness to adjust to new conditions. In opposition to VUCA conditions, most people look for consistent patterns and predictability. Resistance may have been on Woodrow Wilson’s mind when he said: “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.” 

Resistance to change can be a debilitating obstacle to an organization’s progress and adaptability to dynamic operating conditions. Yogi Berra said, “Baseball is 90% mental. The other half is physical.” Keeping math accuracy in mind, it is fair to say that navigating change is 90% mental and 10% everything else. Change efforts fail more often than they succeed because leaders frequently fall short of making a compelling case for change, overlook employees’ perceptions about the change experience, and fail to communicate with team members effectively and consistently. 

In navigating forces of resistance to change, leaders can elevate their probability of success by addressing these questions: How will we communicate our case for change? How will we create a sense of co-ownership in our change initiatives? In what ways can we ensure effective, ongoing two-way communications with all stakeholders as we navigate our change initiatives? How will we gain and sustain insights into team members’ perspectives about our change initiatives? When inevitable challenges arise in our change initiatives, how will we engage team members in adjusting and adapting our plans?

Why is change such a challenge?

Confucius said, “Life is quite simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” The most crucial factor in successfully navigating change is earning and sustaining the buy-in of the people executing the changes. So simple, so complicated. The complication comes from overlooking the essentiality of earning and maintaining buy-in. 

In my book “Leading from Zero: Seven Essential Elements of Earning Relevance,” I distill the need into winning the hearts and minds of stakeholders (employees in particular). Bain & Co. studied the question: Why is it so difficult to make change take root? The company’s “Results Delivery: Busting Three Common Myths of Change Management” report looks at barriers to successful change management at 184 global companies. The company found that 65% of initiatives required “significant behavioral change on the part of employees — something managers often fail to consider and plan for in advance.” In addition, 63% of companies analyzed faced “high risks to their change efforts because of significant communications gaps between the leaders of the effort and the employees most affected by it.” Bain found many companies assume they can succeed with the right combination of strong incentives for their leaders. Yet, they overlook the importance of building employee commitment during a change effort.

Leaders must win team members’ hearts and minds to effectively navigate change by creating a pull toward the precise definition of success (the vision). Leaders must curate an environment where people are empowered to make an impact through their ideas and actions, aligned with the organization’s vision. This happens by actively defining, designing and delivering a culture where team members co-own the organization’s path through changes. Leaders own setting the tone for active engagement, collaboration and nurturing esprit de corps. A deep level of co-ownership and shared dominion over the organization’s future state can emerge by creating emotional engagement with the team, aligned with the business’s goals in navigating changes. 

Navigating change

Effective change leadership is not an event. It is a proactive, ongoing process that requires an organization to sustain a laser focus on continually evolving conditions within their business and across their external operating environment. Change leadership is an opportunity to create co-ownership in navigating the continually evolving business operating environment. Recognizing and addressing the invitation to change, identifying and overcoming resistance forces, and understanding the keys to uncomplicating the process are core to navigating change, creating and sustaining buy-in across stakeholders, inspiring participation in the transformation at hand and maintaining focus.


Dave Coffaro is a strategic management consultant who guides businesses in navigating change. As principal of the Strategic Advisory Consulting Group, he works with services firms to accelerate growth and generate more favorable economics. His most recent book is “Leading from Zero: Seven Essential Elements to Earning Relevance.”

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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