Change agent leadership for a fractured world – By Dr. Dean Williams, Harvard Kennedy School

Dean Williams taught at Harvard for twenty years and served as director of the Global Change Agent program at the Harvard Kennedy School.
He recently left full-time teaching is now president of The Leaders Compass, an international research and advisory group. He works with companies, governments, universities, and NGOs all over the world on building leadership capacity for addressing adaptive challenges and promoting change.
He is the author of Real Leadership: Helping people and organizations face their toughest challenges, and Leadership for a Fractured World: How to cross boundaries, build bridges and lead change.
His website and blog can be found at
Change agent leaders are needed to mobilize people and resources to address the diverse and complex problems that communities and institutions face today. Many of our problems are interdependent problems, meaning they are shared by multiple groups and cannot be resolved by one group acting alone. An impediment to addressing interdependent problems is the tribal impulse, the tendency to stay within one’s group boundary. Change agents cross boundaries, build bridges and lead change. They exercise leadership with or without formal authority and develop strong networks of partners. They act courageously to challenge group assumptions, harness the power of diversity, and stimulate creative problem solving. The process is not without its dangers, therefore change agents must develop certain skills and capacities in order to succeed.

It is a crazy world and a complex world filled with surprise, uncertainty, danger, division, and abundant opportunity. While the extraordinary technological innovations of the past thirty years have connected us in unprecedented ways making the world seem smaller, there are all manner of barriers, boundaries, and fractures that separate groups and make problem solving for our most critical challenges extremely difficult. Indeed, so many of the problems we face today—whether in business, government, or our local communities—are interdependent challenges which require the engagement of multiple groups, and a significant dose of creativity, if they are to be brought to resolution.

What adds to the difficulty in bringing situations of irresolution to resolution and making sustainable progress through creative problem solving is what I call the tribal impulse—the tendency of groups to hide behind group boundaries and hesitate or even refuse to cross boundaries and partner with others to address shared challenges. This tendency can also cause a group to exaggerate their own virtues while diminishing the virtues of other groups, thereby causing or perpetuating fractures, impeding bridge building efforts, and generating debilitating conflicts.

You can see the tribal impulse at play within nations and between nations. You can also see it in companies and bureaucracies that have rigid “silos”—units and divisions—where people avoid working with other groups, withhold vital information, refuse to partner, and even intentionally sabotage the initiatives of others.

The tribal impulse is not necessarily bad. It has many delightful aspects in that it promotes community, identity, and a sense of belonging. It becomes counterproductive when it encourages parochialism in thought and action, which may be manifest in a cultural arrogance, a lack of curiosity, and an “us versus them” mindset. For a company or a government the negative consequences can be significant as the culture will be one of mediocrity where groups are divided, problems are avoided, creativity is lacking, and the institution fails to deliver on its promise.

Given the complexity and demands of the world today, we need a new way to think about leadership as the prevailing view has flaws and deficiencies. It is a product of the tribal impulse and promotes what I call big man leadership. Big man leadership focuses on a dominant authority figure who uses prominence and dominance to orient people, manage their affairs, solve their problems, and bring prosperity to the group. In a relatively stable, orderly, predictable world, this approach might work, but it does not work in a highly interdependent, unpredictable, and globalized world where problems are messy, the pathway forward uncertain, and power dynamics are in a constant state of flux. What is more, big man leadership can easily result in the expression of counterfeit leadership—dependence on one person to show the way but that person makes serious mistakes that cause people to work on the wrong problems or pursue activities that produce little value.

Today we do not need a single leader but multiple leaders. We need people who are more than just authority figures to take initiative, raise concerns, and assist in the mobilization of people and resources. We need men and women who can appreciate the value of the tribal impulse but can also transcend the tribal impulse when needed and activate engagement of multiple groups to address the demanding interdependent challenges that are impeding our collective progress. We need what I call change agent leaders.

The change agent leader helps people face reality and make sense of what is going on around them

For any group, community, or business to make progress and succeed, certain realities must be faced and not avoided, and those realities must be addressed in a responsible manner. Facing reality is not easy for people, particularly when it is threatening or complex. As individuals, and as cultural tribes, we have all manner of defense mechanisms to distance ourselves from personal responsibility for facing reality and addressing shared problems. Humans are inclined to gravitate to the simple and the safe both in terms of problem framing and problem fixing. We attribute blame to others; we justify our actions based on cultural reasons; we manipulate data to make it more palatable; and we have competing priorities that causes us to ignore or play down some problems at the expense of others. But we ignore or distort reality at our own peril.

The change agent shakes people out of their complacency and helps them to face the reality that there that there is a situation of irresolution that needs to be addressed, danger is on the horizon, or there is an extraordinary opportunity available but change is needed to pursue and take advantage of that opportunity.

But sometimes reality is messy and complex. For example, globalization presents many problems for which we struggle to frame the precise nature of the challenge and therefore have little idea of what the solution should be or what strategies need to be pursued or sacrifices made to bring resolution to the challenge. Too often when dealing with complexity, there can be considerable pressure on leaders to choose quick-fix solutions or reach for the “low hanging fruit”, thereby leaving real problems to fester or be handled by someone else.

When problems are murky or complexity is overwhelming and reality is not easy to define, the change agent stimulates a learning process—a process of diagnosis and discovery. They help people make sense of what is going on around them through dialogue and experimentation, and figure out what work is needed to successfully respond. If it is a systemic problem or one that requires that people change their habits, values, or priorities, the change agent orchestrates a process of adaptive change—a steady process of getting people to question underlying assumptions and reassess priorities.

The change agent leader crosses boundaries

When dealing with an interdependent challenge that includes multiple groups, the change agent unhesitatingly crosses boundaries to engage and mobilize the various factions in problem solving and creative work.

The boundaries in our lives are numerous. They include clan, national, cultural, geographic, religious, age, gender, class, professional, linguistic, and organizational boundaries. While boundaries divide groups, they play a vital function for survival. For good reasons, since the beginning of time, we have established boundaries to provide us with order, organization, protection, community, and meaning. However, while boundaries serve a productive purpose, they can also be an impediment, particularly when dealing a complex problems.

A boundary can be a form of constraint, but it can also a frontier. As a frontier it presents fascinating opportunities for exploration, learning, expansion, and creative problem solving. The change agent must be willing to go to the frontier and cross boundaries to learn about the nature and extent of the problem and to identify who needs to be engaged in the work of change. Of course, people have been crossing boundaries since the beginning of time, but usually for the purpose of exploitation, superficial tourism, or outright battle. Crossing boundaries for change agent leadership work is about relationship building, partnering, and promoting collaboration for win-win outcomes.

Crossing boundaries, however, is challenging work for multiple reasons. It requires leaving your comfort zone and going into unfamiliar and sometimes unwelcome territory where one is perceived as “the other”. It requires suspending judgment and cultivating relationships through patience and trust building. It requires dealing with the concerns of the “boundary keepers” who are the formal and informal authority figures who seek to maintain the status quo for the tribe. It also requires managing the fears and concerns of your own faction that may see you as wasting time or even betraying them or being disloyal.

The change agent leader harnesses the power of diversity

Connected to crossing boundaries is the role of the integrator. The change agent realizes that you cannot solve a complex problem from one point of view but need to integrate multiple points of view. For example, in the context of a university, you have incredible expertise in various discipline such as economics, business, public policy, anthropology, medicine, etc. Knowledge in a university is about depth in a particular domain, but what is lacking is breadth. To achieve breadth, you must interact with multiple disciplines and explore problems from multiple angles. This capacity of human interaction does not come easily because of the tribal impulse that keeps us locked in to a particular perspective, set of assumptions, and group loyalties.

Given the power of the tribal impulse it is an extremely demanding leadership challenge to engage diverse groups in problem solving and creative work, and to channel the energy and heat that are unavoidable when different opinions and values clash. To produce new ideas and innovative solutions inevitably there will be group tension, even conflict, which must be managed. The change agent recognizes that the sparks and combustion associated with engagement of diverse people and perspectives are essential ingredients in the creative process. The change agent’s task, however, is to find the right mix of people help people and keep that creative heat at a level of tolerance long enough for a solution to emerge.

The change agent leader helps people move into unchartered territory with the spirit of adventure

Another aspect to the boundary work of change agent leadership is helping a group to transcend its boundaries and embark on an adventure of change or creative problem solving. Transcending boundaries means moving beyond one’s boundary out into the great unknown for the purpose of discovering a new solution or making a critical adaptation. At its essence, it is a challenge that requires doing something that has never done before.

Transcending boundaries is needed when the group is stuck, has exhausted its repertoire of solutions, and a problem seems insurmountable. It must invent in order to make progress. There is a sense that there is tremendous promise or a solution “out there”, but people must be willing to venture into unchartered territory to find it. The leadership work is to promote a process of change or problem solving through rigorous experimentation and courageous exploration. The process requires holding people through the pain of unknowing, the inevitable failures, and the constant doubt and disappointment until discoveries are made, solutions emerge, innovation happens, and the change becomes sustainable.

The change agent leader disrupts the cultural drift and challenges group superstitions

Sometimes your own group must be challenged—shaken up—because people have become insular, parochial, arrogant, or attached to practices and beliefs that are maladaptive or flawed, deficient and counterproductive. These practices and beliefs are reinforced by a cultural drift—a distinct and taken-for-granted way of thinking, behaving, and solving problems. In turn, the drift is reinforced by a set of myths, values and assumptions about the world. Members of the group essentially drift along in their cultural river without thinking deeply about the implications of their actions and choices. The cultural drift provides a set of processes and procedures for solving routine problems and addressing predictable challenges. Also, one’s identity is reinforced by the drift. The drift serves a valuable and useful purpose in most contexts but aspects of the drift might need to be disrupted and modified if the group is to make progress.

The change agent provides leadership to disrupt the drift to get people thinking about the implications of their actions and begin a process of modification and change. Sometimes that process includes challenging deeply held beliefs that have become superstitions. A superstition is something believed to be true but is not true yet it informs how people behave. All groups have some impeding superstitions, whether they are Wall Street banks or remote Amazon tribes. Most myths and superstitions are harmless but when they impact group problem solving in a negative way the assumptions underlying these beliefs must be addressed.

Of course, disrupting the drift must be done with sensitivity and care. The change agent must realize that group culture brings both hindrances as well as enablers to the work of change. Therefore, the change agent seeks to harness the positive aspects of the culture while challenging the myths and superstitions that have become hindrances. As disrupting the drift will occur to some people as being disrespectful, partners are needed who can help the group put their attention on the challenge and not the change agent, and figure out what particular beliefs or practices need to be modified or even discarded. The change agent often walks a fine line between challenging group culture and protecting group culture. Having the wisdom to know what is appropriate in a given context is an important capacity that must be developed.

The change agent is a bridge builder

Sometimes when groups are a mystery to one another or in a persistent state of conflict the work of the change agent is to stimulate a bridge building process. This requires bringing the fractured or divided groups together, healing wounds, and facilitating a process of perspective taking and perspective giving in order to develop understanding, acceptance, and a healthy relationship conducive for collaboration and co-creation.

Bridge-building work is complex as there is often an array of emotions combined with competing narratives and interpretations of who is at fault that makes it difficult to see clearly what needs to be done to take positive steps forward. The work is needed not only in the midst of conflict but to preclude conflict. When groups are drifting apart and refusing to talk with one another, bridge building work must begin. Bridge-building work is also needed after a conflict to help groups let go of their pain and bitterness and to cross the bridge and move on.

Bridge-building is also for groups that are different in terms of values and narratives, and by virtue of their differences they see little reason to connect and partner with others to address shared problems. These groups are a mystery to one another, and unless the mystery is reduced they will each go in their own direction and the potential for misunderstanding and conflict will be ever present.

The work of bridge building can be complicated and arduous as the situation might be capricious, unstable, and potentially explosive. But it is critical leadership work and must be pursued with patience, and wisdom. It requires helping groups to understand the sacred values of the other and to find connections and platforms that can used to promote dialogue and the exchange of perspectives. When misunderstandings or the mystery persists the change agent plays the role of a frontier guide, helping groups move to the edge of their boundaries or even cross their boundaries for informal encounters with the other.

Counterfeit leaders are abundant—people who make fracturing comments and impede bridge building initiatives. The change speaks inclusive not exclusive or divisive language. When people speak in fracturing or tribalizing ways that diminishes other groups the change agent is quick to respond. It does not take much to trigger battles between groups but it does take considerable effort to build bridges.

The change agent approaches their leadership work as an artist

No one is so wise, so smart, or so intelligent that they know how to succeed in this crazy, complex, and changing world. Although we seek “great men” or “great women” to be our leaders, these great leaders are elusive, and that is why we need change agents –men and women who can approach the work of change with the mindset of an artist. An artist is imaginative, experimental, improvisational, and seeks to bring something new into existence. Great art causes people to think—it engages them in a thoughtful consideration of the human condition and the possibilities.

More than 200 years ago during the French Revolution, the insightful philosopher Freidrich Schiller, a firsthand observer of the revolution, wrote, “A great moment has found little men.” What he meant was that many of those leading the revolution were either technocrats, bureaucrats, or autocrats without much imagination. Certainly they had ideas, but they were rigidly and doggedly attached to their respective positions and ideas rather than approaching the process of change as an artistic venture that required multiple layers of experimentation, exploration, and the active engagement and imagination of the diverse factions of the society. The real leadership challenge was to discover what in the society’s institutions, values, and practices must be cherished and preserved and what the new overarching aspiration needed to be to unify a fragmented and traumatized country. Platitudes like freedom and equality mean little unless they can be imagined as a reality that is connected to the values and aspirations of ordinary people.

Change agents are visionary but they are also pragmatists. They conduct experiments, just like an artist, to discover what works and what does not. They experiment with the right mix of people for problem solving. They experiment with different ways of framing challenges. And they experiment with novel and various forms of intervention to get and sustain attention. Many of their experiments will fall short or even fail, and therefore, helping people learn from failure is an important leadership skill. For the both the artist and the change agent a failure is a breakdown that may reveal essential knowledge needed to produce a breakthrough. For the change agent, a failure reveals what you do not know and what is missing in terms of mindsets, capacity, and policies.

The change agent leader manages resistance productively

Whether the change agent is launching a full-frontal assault that requires deep systemic change or orchestrating an incremental adaptive process, resistance should be anticipated. A manifestation of the resistance is often in the form of apathy, sabotage, or attacks on the change agent. The change agent should seek to understand, “What threat do I or this change represent to these people?” If it is a significant threat they should be prepared for significant resistance and opposition and to be a lightning rod, conducting people’s anxiety, frustration, and even anger. Therefore, as a lightning rod, the change agent must have some principles for deflecting “sticky” attention from one’s own person back onto the questions and problems at hand and for managing the dynamics of resistance.

Firstly, it is important for the change agent to not take the resistance personally but go into diagnostic mode to appreciate the nature of the resistance. People might not be resisting the change but the sacrifices they must make in order to pursue the change. Therefore, the leadership task might be to display compassion and help people sustain the requisite loss over a period of time.

Also, just because people are resisting does not mean they are not committed or they are vehement opponents. Too often flawed leaders demonize opponents, portraying them as the enemies of change. After 9/11, in the United States, we heard the statement “You are either for us or against us.” This way of presenting the problem is divisive and does little to enroll hesitant factions. Sometimes people resist for good reason and therefore the change agent cannot afford to be arrogant or stubborn about their approach but must be open to the input of others. These inputs can help in making change more palatable and determine if a midcourse correction is needed.It is also important not to overwhelm people with too much reality or too much change—the people might rebel or flee. Indeed, the change agent must expect that for truly ground breaking projects initially few people will support them in the great leap forward. The reluctance to change should be expected no matter how clear the change agent’s logic or the passion of their presentation. It takes time for logic and passion to score with people who are used to a particular status quo.

Of course, sometimes, given the sense of urgency and the dangers on the horizon, the challenge might be to expedite the process of change by launching a full-scale assault by pushing on different fronts, busting many boundaries, and overwhelming people with programs, moral arguments, campaigns, and even threats in order to get people to change their ways and transform the system. This is a high risk strategy, and few leaders do it well without generating considerable resistance and casualties. It can only work when there is proper preparation, active engagement of the diverse factions, and when leaders are prepared to go to the ground and listen deeply to the fears and concerns of those being impacted by the change. When this process is combined with support at all levels to help people deal with their losses, develop new capacities, and to make adjustments in practices and priorities, the chances of success are significantly increased.

The change agent leads with purpose and passion

The change agent leads from a deep sense of purpose that helps anchor them in the midst of the storms that may be generated or when they become a lightning rod conducting the anxiety of the group. Purpose, in the context of leadership, is more than just a good idea or an intention; it is a profound commitment to solve a problem, make a change, or contribute to the betterment of the company, the community, or the planet. It is the recognition that something is at stake for a group and unless change happens there will be loss or a possibility unfulfilled.

A sense of purpose orients the change agent and those they work with when they feel bewildered, lost, or confused as they cross boundaries and seek to navigate the foggy terrain of change. When the challenge is overwhelming, attacks are regular, and success is elusive, it is a natural reaction to think “why bother?” Reconnecting with one’s sense of purpose can help to ensure that one’s internal flame of hope and possibility is not extinguished. Purpose can give you sufficient energy to continue even when one feels that they are meandering in circles, inching forward too slowly, and success is elusive.

One’s purpose should be aspirational. Aspiration is a strong desire to make a difference, solve a problem, or bring something new into existence. It is a challenge that requires courage to pursue. Courage is a psychological disposition that leads one to take bold, creative, and decisive action, even great risks, rather than do nothing, retreat or flee. We cannot take the risk out of change agent leadership – in the same way that the mountain climber cannot take the danger out of climbing Mt. Everest. Climbing Mt. Everest is by nature a risky activity, from beginning to end, and that is also true for many change initiatives—you cannot guarantee success. Of course, the risks may outweigh the benefits possible from the change; so the change agent must be responsible to weigh the consequences from all sides.
A compelling sense of purpose is manifest in the form of passion. The writer E.M. Forster said, “One person with passion is better than forty people merely interested.” Passion is what animates and energizes one’s sense of purpose. Passion is that stirring emotion that drives action. It is the fuel for pursuing one’s aspiration. Without passion the work is bland, even boring, and one is in danger of turning into a mere bureaucrat or administrative operative, doing one’s job for the sake of it but not with any degree of creativity, energy, or additional effort. With passion, higher sentiments and values are ignited that give reason to the pursuit of change, justification for dealing with the impediments and trials that accompany the process, and generate a powerful mood and energy that gets the attention of others and elicits their support.

The change agent has a global mindset

The change agent seeks to be global in mindset and practice. They cannot simply represent their tribe or clan or advocate an agenda that leads to advantage for their group alone. That does not mean they should not celebrate or fight for the interests of their community, but it means they seek to understand other groups and their concerns, aspirations, cultural narratives.

A global mindset encourages the global processing of information. Global processing is distinct from local processing. With global processing one steps back and distances oneself from the problem to see the problem in a larger systemic context, like using a wide-angle zoom lens. When you step back and take a broader perspective you notice things about the problem, and the system, that you cannot see when you are close to it. You can see the forces and currents that shape the problem. You can see the groups struggling with or actively avoiding the problem and gain a sense of the reasons for their behavior. This capacity helps the change agent in framing the challenge or reconfiguring features of the challenge, to see openings for action and potential partners, and to generate more creative and workable strategies for moving forward.

The global mindset also promotes the emergence of global virtues. Humans are inclined to embrace the virtues of their respective tribe—these virtues can be noble but some might be maladaptive and divisive. A global mindset promotes higher-order thinking that sees the commonality of others, is sensitive to the needs of others, and aims for win-win solutions. It seeks first to understand. Of course, by virtue of being human, the change agent will be tribal in many aspects—they too need a community and are a product of their respective communities—but they can transcend tribal loyalties when needed and even challenge their own tribe when the situation demands.

A global mindset allows the change agent to be less rigid and more multidimensional in style and approach. This is important because different challenges in different contexts require the expression of different forms of intervention. With such a flexible mindset one can see and harness an array of resources and use those resources creatively in the promotion of change. And one can also develop a network of cross-boundary partners from diverse backgrounds and experiences to support the work of change.


We need change agents in all domains of human activity. Interdependent problems and messy adaptive challenges are plentiful, and therefore the opportunities for change agent leadership are also plentiful. Power is more distributed and diluted than it has ever been, with a move away from single prominent authority figures to multiple actors at all levels of a society, community, and organization. This is good news for those who want to be change agents, as one does not have to rely on positional authority to contribute. Anyone can intervene into a social system and contribute to the work of facing problems and promoting change. Everyone has some power, even if it is nothing more than the power to stand up or sit down or to say “yes, I agree” or “no, I disagree.” Those with considerable power can generate significant reactions, and those with little power can generate small reactions and those small reactions might produce a ripple effect. What is key for any change agent is the creative, courageous, strategic, and wise use of one’s power, no matter how limited it is.

Can a single individual do all the things I have presented in this paper? No, but they can do some, and they can probably do all but with varying degrees of skill and effectiveness. They can lead on big issues and lead on small issues. The can lead from the front and they can lead from back. Leadership moments—challenging situations—arise every day, and the change agent needs to be ready to intervene, lean in, and ensure their voice is heard. The smart change agent, however, does not lead alone but develops a network of change agents who encourage, assist and help one another.

One thing is certain, given the challenging times we live in the study and practice of change agent leadership is critical. It can make the difference between mediocrity and excellence, between success and failure, between growth and decay, and between life and death. Indeed, the future of the welfare of our planet is dependent on the quality of leadership we collectively provide.





• Dependent on positional power and authority to get things done


• The change agent is an artist. Not dependent on formal authority but the power of courage, imagination, experimentation, and exploration, on behalf of a noble aspiration


PROMINENCE – “Look at me”
• Focus of attention is on the authority figure


ATTENTION MANAGER –“Look at the problem”
• Focus of attention is on the interdependent problem and on the reality people seek to avoid


DOMINANCE – “Listen to me if you want to progress”
• Problems are treated technically or bureaucratically, and solutions lie with the authority figure and in their capacity to get others to do what they want done


ADAPTIVE PROBLEM SOLVING – “Learn your way into progress”
• Problem solution and change lies with different groups and their capacity to learn rapidly from one another, create, and make fundamental adaptations in values, habits, practices, and priorities


• Problems exist inside boundaries and the role of authority is to manage the boundaries and determine who is in and who is out.
• Failures are to be avoided, and those who fail are punished


• Problems know no boundaries. Change agents cross boundaries (connect groups), bust boundaries (breaks up silos and maladaptive practices), and help groups transcend boundaries (embark on a journey of discovery, innovation, and change).
• Failure reveals what is missing. It is embraced as a breakdown that presents an opportunity to learn what is needed for a breakthrough


TRIBALIZING –“Follow me, I’ll advance your interests”
• The emphasis is on promoting group interests, even at the expense of others. Loyalty and obligation is exclusively to the tribe


PROMOTE THE COMMON GOOD – “Figure out what progress means for all”
• The emphasis is on engaging multiple groups to generate shared progress that adds collective value. The question “What is at stake if we don’t solve this problem or change?” is central



Dr. Dean Williams
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