Six characteristics of highly effective change leaders


Change leaders are defined as “individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems,” (Reach for Change, 2012). As such, change leaders undertake roles that are greater than the job itself. The role of the change leader is not only to achieve the goals of the team, but also to affect normative changes that can represent paradigm shifts. Coach Herman Boone of the Williams High football club in Alexandria, Virginia was one such change leader. Depicted by Denzel Washington in the 2000 film Remember the Titans, Coach Boone motivated his team to an undefeated season and the championship. He did so not only through effective coaching leadership, but also through the change leadership required for changes to broader social norms related to race and power. When he became coach, Boone found himself working in an environment that remained hostile to change. The community was legally integrated, but completely segregated in practice. With little impetus for change, the community remained stagnant. Boone’s change leadership transformed community norms and behaviors through his effective efforts as a football coach.

Boone’s leadership can therefore be broken down into its two core components: his leadership as a coach, and his leadership in the community. The former type of leadership represents Boone’s official position and title as the school’s new head coach. The second type of leadership was an unofficial, tacit position that paralleled his role as a coach. Without serving as a catalyst for change in the community, and without recognizing the social and political context in which he operated, Coach Boone would never have understood how to reach out and motivate the players. Yet without having an arena within which to demonstrate his leadership skills, such as football, Coach Boone might not have been able to affect change in his community. Boone succeeds because he integrated two distinct types of leadership.

As a coach, Boone develops a synthetic leadership style appropriate for the coaching situation. When he first speaks with the players, he states, “This is not a democracy. This is dictatorship. I am the law.” An authoritarian leadership style such as this might be counterproductive in some organizations, but it works well within the context of a high school. The team members are still adolescents who have yet to develop their own strengths as players, let alone their ability to participate in a democracy. Therefore, the style of leadership Boone exhibits on the outset helps to garner respect from the teammates. He comes across as being a strong and assertive leader, and his authority is only questioned on the grounds of his race.

Later, it becomes apparent that Boone’s seeming authoritarianism is reserved only for working with the kids. When Boone works with his colleagues, he comports himself differently and reveals his ability to take situational variables into account. Boone actively solicits advice, input, and support from the former coach, Bill Yoast (Wil Patton), who also happens to be white. With Yoast’s support, Boone creates a tight team that would never have formed had Boone cultivated mistrust, resentment, or antagonism. The difficulties Boone faces in the early weeks of his position seem insurmountable, as the white players have deeply rooted prejudices. Boone is wise enough to recognize that those prejudices can be erased, and serves as a change leader in order to reveal the root causes of those racist beliefs. Boone knows that the students are not bad individuals, but victims of dysfunctional patterns of social learning that have taken place over the course of several generations of norming. The community itself needs transformation, and Boone becomes the inadvertent change leader.

Boone’s style of change leadership reflects core principles including acting with purpose, acting with empathy, motivating the masses, collaborating in order to compete, and remaining humble and confident at the same time (Fullan, 2011). Coach Boone demonstrates what is known as “impressive empathy,” defined as the ability and willingness to understand those who disagree with or even oppose. Faced with tremendous opposition on the part of the white players, Boone musters all the dignity he can to respond with empathy. Boone recognizes that their racist beliefs come from their parents, and not from their character. Yet Boone was not hired to solve the problem of racism; he was hired to win games. Therefore, Boone seeks only to cultivate a team spirit on the Titans. Cultivating team spirit depends absolutely on social harmony, and to achieve that goal, Boone serves as a change leader with impressive empathy. Boone discovers the higher purpose to which all teammates can believe in — winning — and uses that as the common ground to motivate white and black alike. Motivating the team to win requires the use of both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards: the cornerstones of basic behaviorism. As Fullan (2011) points out, intrinsic rewards are far more effective than extrinsic rewards. This is why Boone’s motivation of the team to win had to depend on their intrinsic motivation to be honorable, mature young men.

Dealing with conflict and adversity with grace is a hallmark of an effective change leader. Coach Boone greets conflict and adversity with veritable enthusiasm, rising to every occasion with clever methods that never require the surrender of his dignity or principles. For example, when he takes the position, the racist white boys confront Boone almost immediately. Gary states, “We don’t need any of your people on defense, we’re all set.” Instead of reacting with anger, Boone reacts in a creative way. He gathers all the boys together and states, “I don’t care if you’re white, green, black, or orange.” The key is to work together as a team, because a segregated team cannot possibly win games. Thus, Boone pairs white with black team members as roommates. Boone’s creative solutions amount to a sort of forced integration that had never occurred before in the boys’ lives. Legal integration had never manifested in the community, because the community had never before had a change leader to guide them toward common goals. Motivated to win, Boone was also motivated to overcome racism in the community. These mutual goals depended on one another. When racial tensions seemed to be at their highest, Boone takes the team to Gettysburg, the graveyard of the dead who fought during the Civil War. He lectures the team: “take a lesson from the dead. If we don’t come together, right now on this hallowed ground, then we too will be destroyed.” The message gets through to the kids. Boone continues, “I don’t care if you like each other or not, but you will respect each other.”

Respect becomes a keynote of Boone’s change leadership style. He respects everyone on the team. He does not use petty insults to discourage them, or silly treats to motivate them extrinsically. Instead, Boone relies almost exclusively on intrinsic motivation. “We are going to change the way we run, the way we eat, the way we tackle,” so as to work like a team and ultimately, “change the way we win.” Winning provides intrinsic, internal motivation for students driven to prove their merits and become heroes. As the team starts to work together, some of the older members grow visibly more mature and take on leadership roles of their own. One team member balks when Coach Boone tells them to “just do your best” after being down after the first half of the championship game. “You demanded more of us,” the player states. “You demanded perfection.” Pointing out that Boone had always been able to motivate them intrinsically, the players proceed to win. When the Titans win, their victory becomes a symbolic win for the community. A racially integrated team was required to change the social dynamic in Alexandria.

A core principle of change leadership is learning the balance between confidence and humility. As Fullan (2011) points out, change leaders are “more confident than the situation warrants but more humble than they look,” (p. 111). This description fits Coach Boone to a tee. Boone comes across as being supremely confident, but deep down retains a sense of humility that guides his decision-making, communication style, and leadership style. Nowhere is his subtle humility more noticeable than with his relationship with Bill Yoast. Yoast and Boone could have clashed more than they did, but both men emerge as powerful change leaders who pool their resources to reach common goals. Yoast gladly accepts the position as assistant coach, even though he was Boone’s predecessor. Instead of being resentful, Yoast becomes an integral part of the team and helps to motivate the players in key situations. At the same time, Boone could have shunned Yoast out of spite, jealousy, or both. Boone instead immediately invites Yoast to help him, knowing that the experienced coach would help him gain insight and understanding of the white players, what motivates them, and their team dynamic. Armed with a comrade, Boone becomes the change leader the Titans needed most. Yoast recognizes Boone’s greatness, and vice-versa. When the team makes it to the championship and they raise the trophy, Boone beams with respect and tells his colleague, “You’re hall of fame in my books.” His reference is to the fact that Yoast sacrificed his own inauguration into the coach’s hall of fame in order to help the Titans win the championship. Yoast, like Boone, has the potential to be a change leader who understood the principles of social justice that were transcendent to the smaller victory of winning at sports. Yet Yoast needed Boone more than vice-versa. Boone would have become a change leader on his own and without Yoast’s assistance, whereas Yoast had been unable to lead the Titans to the winning season they had without Boone.

Change leadership is a complex concept that involves direct experience and knowledge, as well as insight, intelligence, and personality traits like confidence and humility. An active and engaging form of leadership, change leadership is not detached or laissez-faire in any way. Boone reflects an instinctual approach to change leadership, because he remains actively engaged with the team, continually coming up with new and creative approaches, and is also involved in the personal lives of the players in ways that go beyond the call of duty and toward a genuine understanding of what motivates each player or what lies behind each player’s psychology. It is likely that most change leaders, like Boone, are naturals, born with the ability to motivate others and create deep and meaningful change in their communities. Amid the backdrop of social turmoil, Boone forged a path to harmony. He became impervious to setbacks, and encouraged his players to do the same. Boone discovered the broader social and cultural patterns that had been keeping players from working together or from recognizing their deeper purpose. Capitalizing on the social justice issue of racism, Boone was finally able to help the players realize that it was precisely their greatest weakness that would become their greatest strength. Racial integration became the calling card of the Titans, and their pride led them to victory even more than their playing.

Responding to conflict with a low level of anxiety and maintaining the emotional stability required to withstand turmoil, the change leader inspires trust and confidence in others (Clay, 2010). Interestingly, Boone had to heighten the anxiety of his players in order to lead them to a place of peace. He had to integrate them, force them to room with each other, and encourage intercultural communications. If Boone had allowed them to self-segregate as they had always done before, Boone would have failed in his job as coach as well as in his role as change leader. As a change leader, Boone demonstrates a predilection to taking action, and a resolute decisiveness. Not once does Boone appear weak, even when faced with adversity or setbacks. His openness to diversity, and especially his tolerance of high risk scenarios makes Boone a classic change leader too (Clay, 2010). When Boone accepts his job as coach, he knows that winning is a requisite for his career success. Rather than buckle under the pressure, he takes the risk of integrating the team instantly and potentially losing his job. Open to the radically different experience of coaching an integrated team, Boone leads the entire community toward greater tolerance and mutual respect.

Change leadership by definition entails operating within a broad framework of social justice and collective action. A change leader must always remain cognizant of the social, political, and environmental context impacting individual or incremental goals. In the business community, change leadership entails wielding the power of the business to solve social problems or to achieve goals like justice (Reach for Change, 2012). All change scenarios share this common rubric. In Remember the Titans, Coach Boone emerges as a quintessential change leader. Transforming a mediocre high school varsity football team into a championship winner was the proximate, or immediate goal of Boone’s career change. However, Boone was more than just a coach. He was a change leader who harnessed the power of intrinsic motivation to encourage greatness from each individual member of the team.


Clay, B. (2010). Six characteristics of highly effective change leaders. Retrieved online:

Fullan, M. (2011). Change Leader. John Wiley.

Reach for Change (2012). What is a change leader? Retrieved online:

Yakin, B. (2000). Remember the Titans. [Feature Film].

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