Leading Change When You Don’t Have Power


You identified the 8 obstacles to change. You convinced everyone that change is necessary, and the time for change is now.

But who’ll help you lead the charge? It’s time to build your change team.

Kotter tells us that a “powerful guiding coalition” is absolutely essential for successful change, meaning that the change team has to have people on it with the power to clear out obstacles, enforce new policies, and allocate resources and rewards (as well as dish out punishments).

He’s probably right that this kind of power helps a whole lot. And I’m sure his fairy tale land where powerful guiding coalitions are given the resources and authority they need to bulldoze opposition is a delightful place to live.

But back here on Earth, we all know that the people with that level of authority rarely execute the day-to-day work, and they’re not going to be on the ground guiding the change process.

The Power Shortage

So we have to ask ourselves a question: How can we lead change when we don’t have any power?

It’s a problem I face often. It’s the source of a great deal of frustration. Sometimes it keeps me up at night, and some days it makes me want to throw my computer through a window (along with my reputation as a rational sort of person).

Why won’t people just do what I tell them?

And then I remember why: Because they have no reason to.

I’m young. I’m relatively inexperienced. I’ve been at Bethel for a little under 2 years. Some of my coworkers have been here for 20+. Why should they take the risk to follow a n00b like me?

But my frustration and self-pity grows from an inadequate definition of power.

I’m operating out of and being constrained by the traditional definition that says power is assigned. It’s authoritarian. There’s a boss who makes the calls and everyone else follows marching orders. But this kind of power is outdated in an unpredictable world where change needs to happen fast and often.

Earned Power vs. Assigned Power

You don’t have to be assigned to a position of power in order to be a leader. And oftentimes, earned power is more influential and effective than assigned power when you’re leading people, anyways.

What do I mean by earned power?

I’m talking about the kind of influence that comes from being respected for the work you do, looked to for solutions and ideas because you keep pushing yourself to get better, and well-liked because you advocate for and care about your teammates (I’m talking actually care, not the phony Carnegie “How To Win Friends and Influence People” kind of care).

It’s about connections and relationships, and working towards common goals, and proving to your team that you care about doing great work as much as they do.

It’s about the kind of trust that grows from community and loyalty, and standing by people through the ups and downs and showing that you support them and want them to succeed. It’s about giving everything you can because you don’t want to let them down.

That’s earned power. And when you have earned power, people will trust you enough to take a great risk and follow you down the path of change.

When it comes to earned power, I’ve had some amazing role models at Bethel. They’ve shown me that teams full of people who have earned power and trust can accomplish a great deal, and when they say change needs to happen and volunteer to lead it, people will join them.