Leading Through Transition

They say change is the way of life. Yet, people tend to have difficulty in dealing with change. In the world of economic development, change is coming at us faster every day. As leaders, the role we play is to help facilitate positive change and lead our Organizations through the challenging transition. But, often the way is anything but clear and the right thing to do is not always obvious.

William Bridges has created a model to describe the process of organizational change. His work is frequently used in the private sector to help business leaders manage their companies through transitions. Bridges model identifies three key stages – 1) Endings, 2) Neutral Zone and 3) New Beginnings. Download a wonderful paper entitled “Getting Them Through The Wilderness” to more fully understand the Bridge’s model. Endings is all about getting people in your Organization to accept that the way things were is no longer possible. For most of your tem, this will be a period of mourning. It is a period often fraught with fear and anger. To move forward, something must be left behind. The Neutral Zone is the in-between time where we’ve accepted that the old way is no longer possible, but people have not fully accepted the new way of doing things. The biggest risk for an Organization is to be stuck in the neutral zone. New beginnings is when your Organization has “arrived”. New values, new attitudes and a new way of doing the work have emerged. The leadership worry at this stage is to protect against backsliding.


Successful transition takes time. But, here are 12 Principles to help you lead your economic development Organization through major transitions created by change.

  1. During any transition, the only thing you can consistently control is your own behavior.
  2. Transition is about making decisions today for tomorrow.
  3. The most important skill during any transition is your ability to tell the truth and not project your aspirations or make false promises.
  4. The first step in any transition is for the leader to focus internally and make the journey his or herself. If you don’t let go of the past and embrace the new beginnings, the people you lead can’t be expected to either.
  5. Your Organization will advance through the transition only as far as you do as the leader.
  6. In any transition you must be willing to give up control. Moving through the transition is not an intellectual exercise it is an emotional one.
  7. Transitioning requires transforming ways of operating and thinking. Even though it may feel uncomfortable, it is a tremendous opportunity for growth
  8. It is important to “lean into” change and not be immobilized. Minimize resistance to change.
  9. To be an effective leader you must recognize your own personal transition phase and accept, empathize and support the fact that others in your Organization may be in differing phases than you are.
  10. In the transition phase, you often have to rely on your intuition since formal systems and processes may not yet be in place to guide decision making and communication.
  11. Don’t act for the sake of acting. False starts will create mistrust and make the transition to a new beginning even harder to accomplish.
  12. During transition, the Organizational system continues on even if not everybody has successfully completed the journey to the new beginning. Not every employee will necessarily make it to the other side and will need to be let go.


Leading an Organization through transition is a significant test of your skills as a leader.  It has been my experience that the best Organization redesign efforts often fail because of failure to effectively lead the people and help them make the journey through the transition. Often this is because the process is rushed, and people do not have enough time in the neutral zone to get comfortable with the change that is happening and enrolled in the new beginnings. If you want to be a great leader in economic development and help your community deal with the change created by today’s global economy, become a student of leading through transition. It is hard, but rewarding work.


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