Change leaders are people who drive transformation by focusing on big visions and opportunities for growth. They are creative and innovative, and they constantly think outside the box. When a change leader sees a window of opportunity, he or she doesn’t hesitate to make the leap. Furthermore, a change leader inspires and empowers his or her colleagues to join the movement for change.

Why is this relevant to occupational therapy? Because OT change leaders have the potential to make a sweeping impact in the healthcare community. We’ve been delivering efficient, effective services in a holistic way for a very long time. Now that the evolving healthcare landscape has put those skills at a premium, OTs have a huge window of opportunity to play a key role on their patients’ care teams. For many important reasons, we must make the leap through that window. But change isn’t easy—and leadership qualities are not intuitive. So, how do you become an OT change leader? Well, you can start by following these seven steps: 

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1. Ask questions.

Each day, you have the opportunity to challenge the status quo. To do so, you have to approach every task and process by first asking yourself, “Just because OTs have done it this way for years, does that mean it’s really working?” Then, think about what would work better.

For example, when you’re treating a patient with a broken hip, ask yourself:

  • Why are falls risk patients being referred to you in the rehabilitation hospital after breaking a hip?
  • Could this patient’s fall have been prevented in the first place?
  • Why aren’t OTs present in primary care settings, where they could proactively educate patients about fall prevention?

With the cry for lower healthcare costs—and thus, better preventive care—louder than ever, OTs have a huge opportunity to step up and bring new ideas to the table. And that means we must get out there on the front lines of this country’s healthcare transformation.

So, become the guru, the expert, the go-to—on all matters related to your niche. Find other thought leaders who share your interests, follow them on social media, read what they are reading, and emulate their leadership skills. Gaining knowledge about your field will not only spark ideas and boost your credibility, but it also will reinvigorate your career.

2. Be willing to change—and ready to fail.

OTs are no strangers to the concept of change. We empower our patients to embrace—and adapt to—change on a daily basis. Let’s bring that perspective into our professional lives. Change is scary for some people, but it doesn’t faze us. It’s time to use that fearlessness to our advantage.  Use your knowledge and acceptance of change to reach out to your colleagues and help them see the light, too.

But remember, the road to change is a bumpy one. That’s why it’s crucial to acknowledge that you will fail—probably many times. You will—with absolute certainty—face rejection, criticism, and roadblocks. And that’s okay. Simply tackle those challenges and move forward. Remember, we deal with failure all the time as we help our patients become independent. We push past obstacles, ignore doubters, and cheer on our patients when they are ready to give up. Apply that same philosophy to your journey toward change leadership: Accept failure and remind yourself that your role as a change leader is a work in process.

3. Write down your goals and plans.

OTs are masters of writing goals and treatment plans. Because without a goal, your patients have nothing to strive for—and no way to measure their progress.  The same is true when it comes to your leadership goals. When you write down your ideas, you make them real. And you’re also more likely to hold yourself accountable to following through on those ideas.

For example, let’s say you want to champion evidenced-based OT practice. What are some tangible plans you could lay out to work toward that goal? I would suggest starting small—perhaps by scheduling some lunch groups at your organization to discuss current research. If that goes well, set your sights a little higher—by joining your state OT association or publishing an article in OT Practice about the importance of evidence-based practice.

Now, writing down those kinds of goals is probably relatively easy, because they seem fairly attainable. But you shouldn’t avoid writing down your bigger—some might say wilder—goals, too. Be brave; write down your biggest goal on paper. Perhaps your dream is to launch your own website about evidence-based practice. By writing that down and looking at it often, you’ll be more likely to follow through on your plans for development.

Finally, if you’re stumped on how to come up with innovative ideas or how to approach your goals, I recommend checking out the book Start by Thomas Nelson.

4. Follow your true passion.

It might sound cliché, but it’s true. Without a passion for your movement, you will not survive the failures, the rejection, and the dark days when the light of your vision seems dim. Your passion is the nexus to your change movement, and it will guide you through those challenges. To be a change leader, you truly have to love what you’re doing.

Struggling to find that passion? Then, it’s time to get more involved in your profession. Join the AOTA or your state association, read everything you can about the issues we’re facing, and connect with other OT change leaders. There also are other outlets you can use to ignite your creative thinking. One of my favorites: a good, long walk. It  allows me to clear my head and reflect on why I love being an occupational therapist. However you go about rediscovering, once it surfaces, grab on tight.

5. Get out of your head.

Everyone (and I mean everyone) has a negative voice in their head that pipes up whenever they’re starting down a new path. That voice snidely says, “This idea is dumb. You will never succeed in achieving this goal. Why waste your time with this; it’s foolish.” Change leaders have learned to ignore that voice.

I learned that lesson the hard way: I once had the idea that OTs should be involved in hospice care. So, I submitted a paper about it—and it was rejected. I then immediately abandoned my idea, because I listened to that internal dialogue. And guess what? OTs are now playing a larger role in hospice care.  The experience taught me to ignore that voice. 

To block out your inner critic, change the conversation. Empower yourself with the notion that your idea might just work. Remind yourself that being a change leader takes courage and persistence; qualities you, as an OT, already possess. Find a mentor or a good friend who will help keep you on track to achieve your goals—and who, more importantly, won’t let you quit.

6. Connect the dots.

In the healthcare space, change is happening everywhere—and all the time. To stay on the leading edge, you’ve got to connect the dots in an innovative way. For example, maybe you recently attended a conference on coaching strategies for parents. You also heard a podcast about the growing telehealth movement. These experiences got you thinking about rural and underserved areas in your state, where children don’t have access to OT. So, you start exploring whether it would be possible to create an OT telehealth program to coach parents in those areas on how to help their children.  That type of innovative thinking requires reading, learning, and networking; you can only connect the dots if you know about the dots.

7. Build a coalition.

Leading change isn’t just about pursuing your own big visions; it’s also about empowering others to join you. OTs tend to be innately creative and innovative, but we often limit our use of these skills to the narrow context of our clinical roles. If we step outside of that box, we can harness our creativity to build change coalitions. Find creative, innovative ways to connect with colleagues who share your vision and ambition. There’s a wide variety of platforms—like social media, blogs, publications, and speaking engagements—to spark your peers’ interest and entice them to join the discussion.


It’s an exciting time to be an OT change leader, because there are many avenues for each and every one of us to transform our profession. The public and your colleagues are open to new ideas. And what better time to start sharing yours than right now? 

What are your visions for change? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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