How Can the Role of Leadership Be Best Understood in Organizational Change?

Leadership as the Head

The Head offers a prescriptive long-range strategic framing of the role of leadership in organisational change, common in bureaucratic approaches to organisational theory. The Head may take a normative re-educative approach influencing bodily reactions to stimuli; asserting power with mind over matter to affect change in a power-coercive approach; or making decisions to improve the wellbeing of the body to perform better by employing an empirical-rational leadership approach.

In this context the role of leadership relies heavily on the bureaucratic position, political power, authority and an implicit assumption that all change is a result of a planned change strategy, whether continuous or episodic. It also assumes that it is driven from the top in a linear way influencing how the Body responds. This enables the change process to be modelled, simplified and implies that the Head knows what is going to happen and can control events and how the Body changes based on rational decisions-making. Thus the Head offers a normative approach, which can determine the beginning, middle and end of the change process and the Body is a socially constructed entity regulated by domination, control and power.

The biology of the Human Body exposes the limitations of this perspective. Bodily responses to circumstances are often subconscious. Mind over matter does not account for the complexity of system responses. Leadership as Head does not account for context or causality and implies organisations operate in a vacuum. It also concentrates the power to drive change programmes on senior management without recognizing minority influence, the reality of incremental strategy and ignores success achieved from mistakes and high level of failure in planned change programmes.

Leadership as the Heart

The Heart positions the role of leadership as the change agent. Focusing on charisma and leadership traits the Heart delivers organisational change through individual power and adaptation more often associated with emergent change and an interpretative paradigm. The Heart positioned at the centre of the Body remains sensitive to the environment, connected and responding to the needs of each member part of the Body. Although the Heart provides support for followers, it may put concern for itself above others metaphorically withdrawing support from extremities to protect the core organs.

The term ‘raison d’etre’ is often used to describe the vision, values or purpose of an organisation. The Heart has its own rules, draws strength from within and uses discourse to create desire for or a fear of organisational change. Adopting the tenets of Human Relations and post Bureaucratic Theory Heart as Leadership humanizes and individualises organisational change to include notions of fairness and consistency reducing resistance. However the Heart may resist change and it is difficult to evidence the interactions and processes between Heart and Body.

The physiology of the Body demonstrates the difficulty of the post Bureaucratic argument. The Heart is still in a position of power and control. The Heart assumes that charisma provides energy for change and suggests Heart failure results in failure of the vision expounded by the Heart. But a charismatic leader may only be able to lead because the followers share the vision, values and purpose in the first place. If the change the Heart wants does not fit the Body, failure will occur despite the charisma of the Leader. Unlike the Head that changes methods of control to gain acceptance, the Heart’s role as leader may, like a donor organ, be accepted or rejected by the Body.

The Body

It is the sum of the parts of the Body operating together that delivers healthy organisational change, every part an equal part of a system that relies on and impacts other elements of the Body. The Body represents a socio-technical approach to organisational change requiring consideration of not just the role of Leadership but its affect and impact of and on the organisation’s stakeholders, processes, context, leadership and employees. But this panoramic framing can make the study of organisational change abstract and impractical.

Positivist approaches to the role of Leadership rely on the Body remaining constant, enabling a mechanistic method of control that can be cloned. However a determinist view of the Body suggests it has its own DNA, system interactionism, controls and capability that create a unique context for organisational change.

Invoking an OD perspective, every element of the Body is part of, a determinate of and a product of the system. Change any one part of an organisation, deliberately or by accident, and the organisation changes. Work against the Body and resistance, drag and natural barriers affect the opportunity for healthy change. Work with the Body and participative change becomes self-sustaining.

Like the Body changes occur both inside and outside the control of the organisation. Organisational change happens by planning for the changes that can be controlled and adjusting to unplanned changes.

Rather than fighting against organisational context, trying to impose unnatural order, the role of Leadership seeks to find balance and use naturally occurring resources, cycles and controls in driving organisational change.

Headless or Heartless

The metaphor of the Human Body uses a unitarist construct of the organisation and a realist assumption that organisational change is inevitable, continuous transformation is necessary for organisational health and that the momentum of change will continue. But organisational change, like leadership, is a social construction. Without knowledge of whether organisational change would have occurred anyway it is difficult to understand what influence the role of leadership does or does not have on its significance, explanation or cause. Identifying organisational change as healthy assumes there is evidence that no change would be more or less healthy, than the organisational change that results from Leadership actions.

A Body needs both a Head and Heart to survive. Power and politics are often portrayed as bad rather than appreciating that politics and power help address the competing demands for stability and change.

The role of Leadership in directing and managing organisational change necessitates both Head and Heart. Heart without Head may result in unsuitable or unnecessary change but Head without Heart may result in resistance.

The metaphor of the Human Body accepts Leadership rationality and control are important, which is more appropriate to classical approaches to organisational change and Leadership.


The role of Leadership is difficult to define, not just as a concept but also in its significance, explanation or cause in organisational change. The role of Leadership is both a product of and an influence in organisational change and is unique to the organisation in which it operates. If we accept the construct that organisational change is inevitable then both bureaucratic and post bureaucratic schools offer part of the answer regarding the role of Leadership in organisational change. Despite proposing that organisations are organic systems, by suggesting that Leadership has a role in controlling change a mechanistic approach to organisational change is accepted.

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