Leopards Can Change Their Spots!

There are many stories and even research out there that says change is difficult. Studies have found that even people diagnosed with a chronic illness do not make lifestyle changes despite coaching and advice. Smoking is another area where despite the warnings somephoto 3 - leopard people continue to smoke.

The image to the right is a photograph taken by my brother, Richard Cridland, in Kruger National Park, South Africa, on a family holiday 18 months ago. We watched this gorgeous female leopard for hours. She put on quite a show! It was an unforgettable peak experience.

While there are numerous studies that have found people don’t change their habits, books like Norman Doidge’s, The Brain That Changes Itself, have shown us the change is not only possible from a behavioural perspective, it is possible from a neurological perspective. This book and the anecdotes, research, and science behind it, has changed the way we view ourselves, and the possibilities out there. And yet time and time again when I work with clients, I still sometimes hear people say, “a leopard can’t change their spots,” or words to that effect. 

So what is it that leads us to change? When is it time to change? Is there a magic change formula?

In my experience, in most cases change results from crisis, challenge, hardship, or great necessity. This makes sense. For many of us we don’t fix things unless they are broke. When we are smooth sailing there is no need to change. When we run head first into a brick wall, we need to change, or we continue to bash our heads on the brick wall!

This is why conflict provides such a fertile soil for change. Conflict often does indicate that something is broke or that we have hit a brick wall. In the case of conflict the something that is broke may be perceptions, communications, a relationship, a team, or in some cases a whole organisation may be experiencing difficulties.

The crises involved in the conflict often results in fertile soil for planting the seeds of change. In workplaces conflict provides the opportunity for developing employees, and bringing about changes in the way people relate to each other. Learning is often quicker and more effective when done in the context of conflict resolution, than traditional forms of workplace learning where staff sit in a training room and learn theory and skills.

More traditional forms of workplace learning such as leadership development programs, or workshops, are helpful, but how helpful is the question. Sometimes, even with the most skilled facilitators, some people don’t take the learning back to work and make sustained changes.

Even individual feedback obtained during coaching doesn’t always sink into our neurons, creating new neural pathways, unless we are coached by a great coach that helps make the data relevant to the here and now, and link it with our values and motivation.

During ongoing mediation processes that incorporate individual coaching that focuses on developing self-awareness, change is not only possible, it is often inevitable.

When conflict resolution coincides with leadership development incredible outcomes can be achieved. People who have under gone leadership development for years, without changes, can suddenly “get it,” and change. When used effectively during conflict resolution, learning from leadership programs and self-awareness data finally becomes relevant to what people are experiencing at work, and the change process begins.

Change is not easy. There is no doubt. There are no guarantees of outcomes when working with people, as ultimately making changes to one’s life and relationships are an individual choice that requires commitment, effort, motivation, and valuing of the change.

Change is, however, possible, with the magic formula.

As mentioned, over the years I have heard from numerous people I have coached as part of leadership development programs, or I have facilitated a mediation process for, say “Leopards can’t change their spots,” either referring to themselves or others.

I disagree. I have seen countless people involved in high-level conflicts make life changing changes to their lives and relationships as a result of conflict, even in the final years of their careers.

High-level conflicts that end up in workplace mediation all share a few things in common:

  1. the people involved have reached a cross road, if they don’t change themselves, they need to change their environment (eg. change their jobs)
  2. they feel “nothing” has worked in the past and have given up trying, things have since got serious, others are involved, claims have been lodged, and so now they “have” to try

Change is inevitable when people involved in high-level conflict have reached this cross road.

The magic formula for change is simple:

  1. You need to feel dissatisfied with the current way things are
  2. You need a goal (know where you are heading or wish to be heading)
  3. You need to value the change, and see the impact it will have in your life, and others’ lives
  4. You need to have the motivation to achieve the goal (even in the tough times – when that chocolate cake or other distraction is presented to you as a way out of pain)
  5. You need to see the benefits of sustainable change in your life and work
  6. You need to stay committed for the long term (even in the face of setbacks like relapse)

Change is possible when these ingredients are in place.

So don’t listen to yourself or others when you hear “a Leopard can’t change her spots.” This is not true. Any leopard can change his or her spots. He or she just needs to commit to the magic formula. Most people don’t change because they don’t value the change enough, or don’t believe that the change can have as big an impact on their lives as it can.

So instead of beating yourself or others up about change, try the magic change formula. Work out ways that you or others value the change, find the motivation (link it to what’s important to you), and look for the benefits (sometimes they can be hard to quantify).

Possibly most important of all is committing to long term change. There will be set backs, no doubt, when you are at a friend’s birthday party, and they offer you the moistest, most delicious, chocolate cake you have ever seen. One slice doesn’t mean you need to give up. In fact one slice may help you to realise how far you have come (maybe you don’t really enjoy it that much (yeah right!), or you realise the impact of that slice on your body (lowered energy after the sugar hit, or pains in your stomach).

Relapse is often where people fall off the wagon and stay there. Recognising that relapse is a normal part of the change process, and feeling the emotions that arise as a result, provide a great self-awareness activity. Accept and allow relapse of it happens, and jump back on the wagon!

If you or others want to change, you can! So allow yourself and others the space and time to do it!

I was fortunate enough to see many leopards during our trip to South Africa. What I learnt from these heightened experiences, which I hadn’t thought of before, is how different leopard’s coats are. Leopards are absolutely magnificent animals. A definite bucket list experience!

Sadly, one of the leopards’ friend’s in the african ecosystem, the rhino is being hunted at an alarming rate. Since 1 January 2014, 113 rhino have been senselessly killed by poachers in the Kruger National Park, where we saw this beautiful female. If you would like more information about the threat to rhinos or how you can help to save them click here.

We would love to hear your stories of change, the trials, the triumphs, and experiences along the way. Please post below.



  1. This is such a refreshing method of how to view change. I was involved in high-level conflict at work during 2012 – 2013 and had to leave that job. The ramifications that I experienced as a consequence forced me to regularly visit a counsellor, (in my own way and not having previously visited your website) implementing your 6 steps of magic formula, to be able to cope with and manage how I felt afterwards. I now know I’m on the right path!!

    • George,

      I am so happy to hear that you were able to implement the steps of the magic formula and are now on the right path. Thanks also for sharing your story. It takes a lot of courage to make changes in life, as sometimes it can seem easier to remain feeling powerless and not act.


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