An effective change leader moves beyond change management to support employee productivity as well as quality. Change leaders empower employees while not absorbing their stress, thus fostering the clarity, engagement and trust to build a positive culture and the bottom line.
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Organizations across every industry faced significant change in recent years, and the pace shows no signs of slowing. Many leaders and employees are tired and burned out. As a leader, you may have experienced significant personal change while navigating the pandemic and impacts to health and world economies.

In the Gallagher 2021/2022 State of the Sector report, responding effectively to change emerged as a top priority for organizations, with disengaged employees as the top challenge. Gallagher's 2024 Organizational Wellbeing report underscores significant opportunities to build leadership trust, especially for Millennials and Gen Z. The time for effective change leadership is now.

How do you effectively lead through personal struggle? Numerous consulting firms offer "change management" support to help organizations manage tumultuous times. These firms offer well-intended processes that walk leaders through transformations, reorganizations, strategic planning and market shifts. Such strategies may have worked to some degree before the pandemic, but the work ecosystem has changed. Now we need more.

Change management vs. change leadership

Today's employment environment demands both change management and change leadership. "Change management" refers to an actual change event and the process surrounding it. At Gallagher, we have supported numerous organizations through change and have directly observed and intervened to support effective change management and change leadership.

In the Gallagher 2021/2022 State of the Sector report, Sally Earnshaw, Gallagher managing director, Culture Change practice, emphasizes that effective change leadership requires leaders need to "own transformation, wholesale: from the engagement of their people, the clearing of the path and the delivery of the value proposition, to the adoption of new mindsets and ways of working."

Change leadership embraces the transition, focusing on workplace experiences, emotional response, and how you as a leader help yourself, your teams and your employees move effectively through challenging times. You lead change while enabling your people to accomplish business goals. Intense change, however, can cause you to neglect two important support elements: Supporting yourself and supporting your people.

Neglected element no. 1: Supporting yourself

Responding to the pace of change can be fatiguing and emotionally stressful. Often, leaders will suppress their emotions and stress, potentially triggering an unplanned unleash of emotions in the wrong place and time.

So how do you reduce your own stress as a leader during challenging organizational transitions? Author Susan Peppercorn refers to the influence that leaders project on their teams and employees as their "leadership shadow."1 This shadow is the image that you cast as a leadership role model across your teams, employees and the organization.

As you enter an organizational transition, check in with yourself daily and think about your shadow and whether you feel confused, nervous, angry, frustrated, sad, overwhelmed, tired, stressed or guilty. Alternatively, you might feel a strong sense of relief, grateful and energized for the future. You may feel a combination of positive and negative emotions that change daily. Take time to honor and recognize your feelings through self-reflection.

Allow yourself to feel what you need to in the right context. Expect that emotions may be difficult. Lean on trusted colleagues, family and friends and ask them for feedback. Model self-reflection, compassion and trust — and you and your employees will move forward. Managing emotions will get easier over time.

As you work to cast a positive shadow, make sure you don't take on your employees' stress as your own. Dina Denham Smith and Alicia A. Grandey use the term "compassionate detachment" to describe "the difference between absorbing emotional comments like a sponge versus holding them as objects in your open palm."Your role is to listen, support and empower employees, not to take their problems and create tasks or issues for yourself. Employee emotions provide information to be processed, and you're the information seeker.

Neglected element no. 2: Supporting your people

In addition to leveraging your leadership shadow in a positive way, continue to build a culture to support your teams and employees. The Gallagher 2021/2022 State of the Sector report recommends creating clarity and engaging your people, fostering trust, encouraging the right behaviors and inspiring resilience.

Successful change leaders will lean into communication, empowerment and caring. Employees look for clear leadership communication via regular and reliable meetings. Leaders can ask for feedback, listen and respond with empathy, and mitigate rumors in an information vacuum. Empower employees through clear and attainable short-term goals, celebrate small wins and connect work to a larger purpose.

To care for employees, Gallagher coaches recommend leaders strive to be approachable, accessible, candid and visible. Listen effectively, connect with employees individually and as a team on a consistent basis.

Gallagher executive coaches recommend overlapping change leadership techniques to include:

  • Emphasize what is positive now.
  • Acknowledge the reality of what's happening.
  • Create avenues for employees to voice concerns.
  • Create and celebrate achievement of energizing, short-term goals.
  • Encourage the right behaviors.
  • Balance workloads to combat burnout.

Change leadership protects people and the bottom line

Why is this culture support important? Studies and our experience show that effective leadership through change significantly upholds the bottom line. Ineffective leaders and personal stress can cause many employees to suffer declines in productivity and quality during tumultuous change.

Gallagher data points out that on a typical day, employee understanding and connection to the organization's purpose, vision and business strategy represent an area of opportunity. During times of stress and change, however, opportunity for better connection widens. At the same time, employee expectations of leaders and people managers as communicators has increased significantly. Thirty-seven percent of survey respondents say expectations have increased "significantly," while 44% say expectations have increased "a little," according the Gallagher 2024 Organizational Wellbeing report.

Moving beyond change management

An effective change leader moves beyond the scope of change management. Create the space to experience your emotions using compassionate detachment, empowering employees while not taking on their stress. Understand your impact as a leader by intentionally casting a productive and helpful leadership shadow for your people. Finally, follow communication best practices for engaging your teams and nurture productive one-to-one conversations.

Transitions will challenge leaders, teams and employees. At the same time, leaders can navigate rough waters with using a well-rounded approach that supports themselves and their people.

Gallagher can help

Gallagher Leadership Advisors consulting team offers a variety of people solutions for your business needs, including supporting change leadership. Gallagher can help support you, your employees and your organization to achieve organizational goals as you navigate challenging transitions.


Learn more and discuss your questions and organization's needs.

Author Information


1Peppercorn, Susan. "How to Support Your Remaining Employees After a Layoff," Harvard Business Review, 29 May 2020.

2Denham Smith, Dina and Alicia A. Grandey. "The Emotional Labor of Being a Leader," Harvard Business Review, 2 Nov 2022.


Consulting and insurance brokerage services to be provided by Gallagher Benefit Services, Inc. and/or its affiliate Gallagher Benefit Services (Canada) Group Inc. Gallagher Benefit Services, Inc. is a licensed insurance agency that does business in California as "Gallagher Benefit Services of California Insurance Services" and in Massachusetts as "Gallagher Benefit Insurance Services." Neither Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., nor its affiliates provide accounting, legal or tax advice.