Transition Leadership by Catherine Hayes

Facilitating Successful Transformations  

Navigating the complex territories of continuous change and transitions is an unspoken given for today’s leaders.  A key task that challenges leaders to develop and utilise specific capabilities to achieve successful outcomes.  A practice I have come to know as Transition Leadership.  What is it and why it works?............. 

Managing behaviours. Utilising power through organisational structures. Advocating individual responsibility and accountability.  Broadcasting information.  Enforcing compliance of rules and regulations.  Rewarding and compensating individual performance. 

I am sure that some, if not all of these Leadership approaches will be familiar in your experiences of organisations.  Approaches, that you may have personally experienced and/or encouraged to practice at some point in your career.  

What used to be termed as the ‘one throat to choke’ approach. The deliberate intent that connects all of these practices can be summed up in one word ‘control’.  Leadership methods specifically designed to mitigate the risk of individuals, teams and organisations from being out of control.  

Power and control focused leadership approaches that have been practiced and honed over many decades in organisations.  All derived from the Western belief that our world can be controlled.  

Historically these practices have been successful. Unfortunately, in today’s continuously changing environment they are no longer achieving desired results.  Particularly when it comes to leading successful change and transformations. 

One of the overlooked outcomes of power and control focused leadership, is fear based environments and cultures.  When people are fearful, they become attached to the familiarity of what they do and who they know.  Often unconsciously adapting behaviours, relationships with others and their environments in their attempts to feel safe.  

Moving towards others to minimise the threat of criticism. Controlling, dominating intimidating or avoiding others altogether are signals of fear based organisations.  

When surrounded by fear, people are constantly looking over the shoulders and watching their backs.  Embracing and working with complexity and ambiguity, can be one step too far for individuals, teams and organisations.  How can I take the risk of stepping into the unknown when I don’t feel safe, with what I am already in?  What will be the consequences if we don’t get it right or make a mistake?  These are frequently asked questions in cultures underpinned by fear.



The advancement of technology has burst the bubble on our Western illusion that we can control the universe.  The term disruption is currently being positioned as something new in our world of business.  In reality, what it is actually doing is drawing our awareness to how the world is.  As quantum physics has revealed, our universe is in continuous processes of transition. 

The Buddhists have a term for this, its called impermanence.  It means something that is not permanent, lasting or durable.  Looking within ourselves, and out into our immediate environment, provides some clues. 

For example, we have a thought and moments later our thought has been replaced by another thought.  We may wake up feeling happy and contented, step out of bed and trip over the cat and seconds later we have experienced a shift in our physical and/or emotional state.  Our days circle from day through to night.  The weather and our seasons are continuous cycles of unpredictable change, particularly in the UK, how often do the Met Office predictions match reality?  

The same applies to what we believe to be solid and/or permanent physical structures.  Science has drawn awareness to what appears to be solid, is at a molecular level, actually changing.  It’s just that the molecules move at a different rate than our naked eye can see.

Despite our aspirations, in today’s environment we can no longer kid ourselves that being able to fully control change is achievable. We are in a paradigm transition.   Challenged to work with and adapt to things the way they are, not the way we may want them to be.  Navigating continuous change, requires working with emerging complexities of an impermanent landscape.


Transition Leadership 

So if historical control focused leadership practices are not achieving results in today’s environment what does?

In over twenty years of researching performance cultures, I found that being able to work with complexity and ambiguity is key. Creating core capabilities for supporting individuals, teams and organisations to navigate successful transitions.  Requiring focused attention, engagement and integration of three key factors:


Self – Gaining Awareness and Insight

The key principle is that it’s difficult to lead others and organisations if we can’t lead ourselves.  Leading successful change starts with knowing our responses to complexity and ambiguity. Knowing how our motivations and needs drive our thinking and behaviour is the first step. Particularly drawing attention to how we respond when our needs are not being met. 

For example, if we know we need to understand something, it can drive us to learn more.  It can also be a hindrance when our lack of understanding creates anxiety, prompting knee-jerk reactions. We risk unintentionally getting in our own way, and the paths of others with our reactions to not-knowing. The impact is that we reduce our capacity for working with the unknown.

Self-insight and knowing the relationships we have with ourselves complexity and ambiguity creates opportunities for informed awareness and choice.  Supportive resources to interrupt, and gain access to patterns in thinking behaviour, that often go unnoticed until its often too late. Leaders who know their edges and responses to complexity and ambiguity reduce the risk of the ‘bag on head syndrome’. They are able to see and develop capabilities for navigating the unknown. Creating cultures and environments that support individuals, teams and organisations to do the same.  


Others – Creating a Supportive Environment

There is no ‘silver bullet’ or ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to navigating the complexities and ambiguities of change. Different needs and motivations drive different responses and reactions. Two people can have the same experience, and yet respond and react to them in very different ways. 

Depending on the nature of the change process, what people do and how they approach their work responses can vary.  Leaders who invest time to understand and explore the diverse views, opinions and concerns of others create and facilitate supportive environments. 

Supportive environments create mutuality, facilitate sustainable partnerships, key foundations for creativity and innovation. This enables organisations to use complexity and ambiguity to create competitive advantages.  

By creating teams that are structured on collective accountability and individual responsibility leaders return authority to their workforces. They fully leverage the benefits of diverse skills, knowledge and different perspectives. Supporting organisations to work with the inherent complexities and navigate ambiguities of continuously changing environments. The outcomes are reflected in knowing their markets, creating high performance standards that lead to increased bottom line results.


Business – Translating Ideas into Practice

Responding to continuous changing environments, meeting expectations, targets and deadlines, today’s leaders report feeling overwhelmed. Whilst attempting to navigate their transformation challenges leaders can unintentionally overlook key change practices. Defining and clarifying purpose; Developing strategies; Enhancing processes and systems; Managing projects and programmes. Key tasks that can often be prioritised over ‘getting stuff done’. The driver being ‘well its all going to change anyway. Why invest too much time strategising, planning, enhancing and monitoring if its only going to change again?’. 

Unfortunately, the lack of these activities can introduce unnecessary complexity and ambiguity into the change agenda.  Often making the transition process more complex than it needs to be. Clearly defining purpose and strategy creates a focused context that people can align and connect to. Enhancing processes and systems strips out inefficiencies and dysfunctions that might get in the way of the change or hinder effective implementation. Project management focuses the approach and utilisation of resources. Programme management monitors the progress and change activities that are simultaneously impacting the organisation at any one point in time.

Effective Transition Leaders are not required to acquire all these capabilities themselves. It’s not about being an expert in strategy, process efficiency, project and programme management. The key is knowing, what capabilities to look for, what is likely to be required. And, the role that these play in the change agenda.

Without them, people can invest and waste a vast amount of time trying to gain clarity and/or work around dysfunctions. Becoming unable to navigate and work with the real complexities and ambiguities of their change agendas. At best the impact can be a waste of time and resources. At worst the change agendas fail and cause more dysfunctional challenges than when they started. 


Transition Leadership Key Questions

If what you have read above has prompted you to consider your Transition Leadership capabilities, then the following questions may be helpful to question:


  1. What needs and motivations drive and inform your leadership behaviour?
  2. How do you tend to react and respond to complexity and ambiguity?
  3. Where are your personal challenges with complexity and ambiguity?  
  4. How do your challenges impact your behaviour and relationships with others?


  1.  How much effort do you put into developing and facilitating partnerships?
  2. How do you tend to respond to conflict situations? (engage, resolve, challenge, ignore)
  3. In what ways do you return authority to individuals and teams?
  4. How much time do you invest in exploring and supporting the views, opinions and concerns of others?


  1. Is the purpose of your change clear and how do know others understand it?
  2. What is your transition strategy and how have you engaged others in designing and delivering it?
  3. What processes and systems might need to be adapted, changed or created?
  4. What project and programme management practices are you utilising?


Why Integrating Self, Others and Business Work

Navigating the continuously changing landscapes in today’s organisations requires diversity of input into the transition agenda. No one person can have all the answers.  It requires integrated input and participation from a broad range of capabilities, knowledge and skills. 

Leaders that integrate aspects of Self, Others and Business create sustainable transition capabilities for themselves and others. Supporting their organisations to create opportunities and choice. Resourceful alternatives to anxiety overwhelm, dysfunction and paralysis. Symptoms that leaders who are unable to work with complexity and ambiguity can unintentionally create for their organisations.

I suspect that as you ponder the above questions, some of the answers will be clear and others will not be quite so easy to answer. The key with developing and embedding transition leadership capabilities into your daily practice is to explore the more challenging ones. 

Paying attention to the edges of where we are challenged with unknowns facilitates opportunities for self-insight. If we can invest in knowing our edges and personal challenges, with transitions we are less likely to get in our own way. 

I appreciate that this is more of a challenging and time-consuming task in the short term.  It’s much easier to put our attention on the aspects of ourselves that are known and we are more comfortable with.  

Although, my experience of leaders who do, take the challenge is that their efforts pay dividends to the effectiveness of their careers. In the context of leading others through transitions, they also mitigate the risks of derailing change agendas and ultimately the effectiveness of organisations.


Catherine Hayes is an Organisation Transition and Transformation specialist. She supports leaders and their organisations to navigate and work with complex transition challenges to deliver tangible results. Combing 30 years of practice with 20 years of applied research, organisational, clinical psychology and Buddhist philosophy, she has created change processes and diagnostic analytics and tools that support insight into the complexities and functioning of organisations. Including the development of a transition leadership approach that supports leaders and their workforces to acquire transition capabilities, whilst implementing their transformation agendas. Catherine is also the creator and facilitator of the practitioner Exec MBA Transition Leadership Series at CASS Business School.

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