Leadership is the buzzword of the new millennium. Management is out, leadership is definitely in. John P. Kotter of the Harvard Business School wrote the book on leading change. His book presents an eight-step process for creating a vision of planned change and achieving and institutionalizing those changes in the organization. The message is simple and powerful: Leaders make change happen. There is also a warning that without leadership support planned change efforts will founder. The writing is straightforward, and sufficient examples are given to illustrate Kotter's points.
As a former manager and management educator, and present management consultant, I was eager to read this book. Kotter's earlier work in the field ("A Force for Change," 1995) had whetted my appetite, but left me wanting more depth and detail. Unfortunately, "Leading Change" wasn't the complete answer, and I'm still waiting for the in-depth answers.
The book's greatest strength is also its biggest weakness. Kotter's approach is very general. That means of course that the prescription applies in some fashion to virtually any organization of any size, public or private. But the general model of eight steps may also miss or gloss over nuances or realities that could be specific to a certain type of organization. As an example, I currently work with client organizations as small as 20 employees and as large as 9,000. Kotter's principles may apply equally in both organizations, but the mechanisms for implementing the principles will be vastly different.
Kotter's approach to organization change involves the leadership and then a critical mass of employees and managers. His view is that the leader is critical in establishing and maintaining a sense of urgency, creating a coalition for leading the change process, establishing and communicating a shared vision, empowering teams to achieve the vision, and institutionalizing (anchoring is his term) the changes in the corporate culture.
When reduced to such discrete steps, the prescription looks and sounds like just another leadership nostrum. While hard to argue with, these steps also appear to have a great deal in common with common sense. But as Steven Covey among others points out, common sense is not common practice. Listing eight steps in planned change could encourage leaders to adopt a check-off mentality--"We're just now finishing step three and moving into step four." That mentality oversimplifies the process and fails to recognize the both the complexities and the interdependencies of planned change.
In the final analysis, I'm left agreeing with Kotter that these are in fact the things a leader or a coalition of leaders must do if change is to be successful. On the other hand, while the book is long on the "what" of leading change, it is short on the "how." It tells me what needs to be done, which I essentially already knew, though I'm glad for the confirmation, but it doesn't tell me specifically how to go about doing it. The proposed 8-step change program, like the 14-point quality programs and 7-habit models of effectiveness before it, is a great framework or skeleton. In this case, I would have liked to see some more meat on the bones.
The biggest value of Kotter's book will not be in helping leaders, change agents, and consultants know what to do, but rather in helping leaders who have shirked or misinterpreted their leadership responsibilities in planned change efforts to recognize their critical role in the process. My suggestion for a subtitle is, "Changing Leaders' Attitudes." And in that regard, I believe the book will succeed and even become a classic in the management versus leadership category.
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