Leading Change – John P. Kotter

“A managerial mindset will develop plans, not vision; it will vastly undercommunicate the need for and direction of change; and it will control rather than empower people.” – John P. Kotter

What’s the difference between a manager and a leader? Most of us can glibly dismiss managers as not-leaders, but explaining the difference takes a little more thought. Kotter argues that management is about the processes that keep a complicated system running smoothly, including planning, budgeting, organizing, staffing, and controlling. Leadership, in contrast, is what creates organizations in the first place or adapts them to change, by defining what the future should look like, aligning people with that vision, and inspiring them to make it happen.

Kotter is a giant in the change management field. Except, he compellingly rejects the idea of change management. What we should be doing, he argues, is change leadership. Historically, the focus in universities and businesses has been hiring and training managers. That’s a good thing: they are essential! But as a result, we are now short on leadership, and we often end up with a manager where leadership is needed.

Kotter presents eight steps to changing an organization. If you skip any, go back to step 1.

  • Establish a sense of urgency
  • Create a guiding coalition
  • Develop a vision and a strategy
  • Communicate the change vision
  • Empower broad-based action
  • Generate short-term wins
  • Consolidate gains and produce more change
  • Anchor new approaches in the culture

The first six are about building up momentum, while the final two are about preventing backsliding. The distinction between management and leadership also provides another lesson, though. Far too many leaders, or would-be leaders, spend so much time managing they don’t have any time to lead. Developing a vision and inspiring people takes time: all culture changes are slow, and cannot be rushed. One can hurriedly set up a budget; one can’t hurriedly change people’s minds.

Kotter is an engaging writer and the book is powerful. If you’re thinking about changing an organization—and these days, who isn’t—well worth the read.

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