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Leadership and Change: Some Writings of John Kotter

by Herb Stevenson

In 1990, John Kotter wrote, A Force for Change: How Leadership Differs from Management. In it he noted that “good management brought a degree of order and consistency to key dimensions like the quality and profitability of products. “Leadership... [however] ...does not produce consistency and order...; it produces movement.” (p. 4). These distinguishing features are the crux of every executive position and the work of OD consultants and executive coaches. Generally, the higher the individual moves up the organization, the greater the focus on leadership and the less on management.

Management Processes

Kotter elaborates by noting the narrow and short term focus of management  processes. He indicates that management processes tend to involve three functions:

  1. Planning and budgeting—setting targets or goals for the future, typically, for the next month or year; establishing detailed steps for achieving those targets, steps that might include timetables and guidelines; and then allocating resources to accomplish those plans.
  2. Organizing and staffing—establishing organizational structure and set of jobs for accomplishing plan requirements, staffing the jobs with qualified individuals, communicating the plan to those people, delegating responsibility for carrying out the plan, and establishing systems for monitoring implementation.
  3. Controlling and problem solving—monitoring results versus plan in some detail, both formally and informally, by means of reports, meetings, etc.; identifying deviations, which are usually called ‘problems’; and then planning and organizing to solve the problems. (p. 4)

Leadership Processes for Constructive Change

Juxtaposed to management, leadership leans towards a larger and broader  perspective with a longer term that seeks to produce movement within the organization. Leadership seems, in Kotter’s terms,  “to boil down to establishing where a group of people should go, getting them lined up in that direction and committed to movement, and then energizing them to overcome the inevitable obstacles they will encounter along the way.” (p. 5) He expands the concept to invoke a critical aspect of what is considered “good” or “effective” leadership, which often seems to get lost in the actual practice within organizations. Kotter notes that “we usually label leadership “good” or “effective” when it moves people to a place in which both they and those who depend upon them are genuinely better off, and when it does so without trampling on the rights of others. The function implicit in this belief is constructive or adaptive change.” (p. 5)

Kotter draws a distinction between managing and leading . In his view, “leadership within a complex organization achieves...[constructive or adaptive change]...through three subprocesses..:

  1. Establishing Direction—developing a vision of the future, often the distant future, along with strategies for producing the changes needed to achieve that vision.
  2. Aligning people—communicating the direction to those whose cooperation may be needed so as to create coalitions that understand the vision and that are committed to its achievement.
  3. Motivating and inspiring—keeping people moving in the right direction despite major political, bureaucratic, and resource barriers to change by appealing to very basic, but often untapped, human needs, values, and emotions.” ( p. 5)

Leading Change: A Metaphor

In more recent times we have realized that executive effectiveness is a blend of managing and leading. In basic terms, it is more like having a perspective and capacity to function like a camera with a wide angle, zoom lens. In most day-to-day situations, the executive  constantly shifts perspectives from wide angle, to narrow focus, from pinhead to 10,000 foot view. These constantly shifting perspectives are the interface between the executive’s capacity to examine the day-to-day data and “goings-on” within the organization and the multiple views to gain awareness of when to crawl in the weeds and when to admire the skyline view, all in the quest to keep the organization moving in the desired direction.

Eight Steps to Transforming Your Organization

In 1996, Kotter published his continuing research findings on Leading Change1. Drawing on his findings from A Force for Change,  Kotter seems to have focused on effective leadership and constructive (or adaptive) change to determine  what motivates people to want to move to another place of being (and doing) in an organization, a place where everyone will be better off without “trampling on others along the way”. With this in mind, Kotter  discovered that “good” or “effective” leadership and therefore successful transformational change involves a developmental interface between leadership and the organization that moves through the following eight steps:

  1. Establishing a Sense of Urgency by examining market and competitive realities and identifying and discussing crises, potential crises, or major opportunities
  2. Forming a powerful guiding coalition by assembling a group with enough power to lead the change effort and by encouraging the group to work together as a team.
  3. Creating a Vision to help direct the change effort and by developing strategies for achieving that vision.
  4. Communicating the Vision by using every vehicle possible to communicate the new vision and strategies and the guiding coalition teaching new behaviors by example.
  5. Empowering others to act on the vision by getting ride of obstacles to change, changing systems or structures that seriously undermine the vision, and encouraging risk taking and nontraditional ideas, activities, and actions.
  6. Planning for and creating short terms wins by planning for visible performance improvements, creating those improvements, and recognizing and rewarding employees involved in the improvement.
  7. Consolidating and producing still more change by using increased credibility to change systems, structures, and policies that don’t fit the vision; hiring, promoting, and developing employees who can implement the vision, and reinvigorating the process with new projects, themes, and change agents.
  8. Institutionalizing new approaches by articulating the connections between the new behaviors and corporate success and by developing the means to ensure leadership development and succession.

 As a road map, the eight steps seem a bit elusive as they describe what to do and not necessarily how to be as a leader even though Kotter moves back and forth between Leading change and transformational change as a process. In the next issue, we will pull from the Heart of Change and A Sense of Urgency to clarify how transformational change matches up with leadership development. 


[1]1 The 8 Steps of Transforming Change was first published in Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail, Harvard Business Review, March-April, 1995, 59-67.

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