What Leaders Really Do

The Bottom Line

ISSN: 0888-045X

Article publication date: 1 March 2000




Kotter, J.P. (2000), "What Leaders Really Do", The Bottom Line, Vol. 13 No. 1. https://doi.org/10.1108/bl.2000.17013aae.001



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

What Leaders Really Do

John P. KotterHarvard Business School PressBoston, MA1999

Keywords Leadership, Managerial power, Organizational theory

This author is a world renowned thinker on leadership in business. This book is a collection of Kotter's six most important Harvard Business Review articles on the topic of leadership written from 1979 to 1997. This is not a book to be memorized or to be used as a menu from which to pick and choose. It should be used as a source of ideas, inspiration and self-reflection.

The articles in this book deal with the challenges inherent in the work of management and with what differentiates effective from ineffective responses to these challenges. What is clear to Kotter is that the exigencies characteristic of the fast moving, technologically competitive and organizational environment of this and the next century demands more leadership from more people to make enterprises prosper. Without that leadership, enterprises, whether profit making or non-profit making, will stagnate, lose their way and eventually suffer the consequences. For example, there are any numbers of cases concerning real human beings who suffer under incompetents or tyrants or even under well-meaning bosses whose failure to lead brings down the organization. These are the well-meaning bosses whose failure to lead and or manage cause people to lose their jobs to "incompetent reengineering or strain under the pressure of propping up a shaky bottom line". This is not a failure of leadership style. According to John P. Kotter, the core issue here is one of "Substance". "Substance", states Kotter, is "core behavior on the job, not surface detail and tactics". Thus core behavior changes little over time, regardless of different corporate cultures, or industries.

The first part of the book focuses on leadership and change. In the article written in 1979, he stated that although organizational change often runs into some sort of human resistance, few managers take time before an organizational change to assess systematically who might resist the change initiative and for what reasons. To predict what form(s) of resistance individuals and/or groups might take from passively resisting change to aggressively trying to undermine it, managers need to be aware of and understand the following four common reasons why people resist change. First, they do not want to lose something which they perceive of as valuable; second, a misunderstanding of change and its implications; third, their belief that change does not make any sense for the organization; fourth, a low tolerance for change.

To understand why employees resist change, he offers his strategy for achieving successful organizational change. This includes conducting, as soon as possible, an organizational analysis that identifies the current situation, problems and the forces that are possible causes of these problems. He follows this prescription by an analysis of factors relevant to producing the needed change. These factors include targeting on who might resist change and why; who has information that is needed to design the change; whose cooperating is essential in implementing change; and what is the position of the initiator of change vis-È-vis other relevant parties in terms of power, trust, normal modes of interaction and so forth. This is followed by the selection of a change strategy which specifies the speed of change, the amount of preplanning which is required, the degree of involvement of others; and the specific tactics to be used with various individuals and groups. All of these elements must be not only implemented precisely, but also monitored to obtain the intended change. Even though the manager accomplishes the implementation of change, the manager, according to Kotter, must always be alert and prepared for the unexpected, which invariably occurs during the implementation process and have contingency plans to deal with it. Yet, even with contingency plans, even the most extraordinary interpersonal skills will not make up for a poor choice of strategy and tactics. As the business world becomes more technologically dynamic, the consequences of poor planning and unwise choices of strategy become increasingly severe.

In this section, Kotter also makes a significant differentiation between management and leadership, which are very important, both for the business world, and for library management and leadership. He considers management and leadership two distinctive and complementary systems of action, with their own functions and characteristic activities. Because most US corporations and other organizations are overmanaged and underled, they need to develop their capacity to exercise leadership. Once companies understand the fundamental difference between leadership and management, they can begin to groom their top people to provide both. For Kotter, management is about coping with complexity. Companies and non-profit organizations manage complexity by planning and budget-setting targets or goals for the future (typically for the next month and year), establishing detailed steps for achieving those targets, and then allocating resources to accomplish those plans. Management of profit-making and non-profit-making organizations must develop the capacity to achieve its plan by organizing and staffing, that is, by creating an organizational structure and set of jobs to accomplish plan requirements; staffing the jobs with qualified individuals; communicating the plan to these people; delegating responsibility for carrying out the plan; and devising systems for implementation. Thus management ensures that the plan is accomplished by controlling and problem solving. This is done by monitoring the plan both formally and informally by means of reports, meetings and other tools; identifying deviations and then planning and organizing the team to solve problems.

By contrast, leadership is about coping with change. Part of the reason why leadership has become so important is because the business world has become more competitive and more volatile. Faster technological change, greater international competition, the deregulation of markets, over-capacity in capital-intensive industries, the unstable oil cartel, junk bond raiders, and the changing demographics of the workforce are characteristic of competitiveness and volatility. For the corporation to survive, more and more changes are necessary to compete effectively in this new environment. More and rapid change demands more leadership. That is to say, leading an organization to constructive change begins by setting a direction, i.e. developing a vision of the future along with strategies for producing the changes necessary to achieve that vision. In contrast to management's activity of organizing and staffing, leadership's activity is aligning people. This means that leadership must communicate the new direction to those who will be instrumental in creating coalitions that can understand the vision and are committed to its achievement. In contrast to management's activities of controlling and problem solving, leadership achieves the vision by motivating and inspiring. That is to say, motivating and inspiring people keeps them moving in the right direction, despite major obstacles to change, by appealing to basic and often untapped human needs, values and emotions. In summary, according to Kotter, these different functions - coping with complexity and coping with change - shape the characteristic activities of management and leadership. Thus, management and leadership involves what needs to be done, creating networks of people and relationships which can accomplish an agenda, and then trying to ensure that those people actually do the job.

In part two, Kotter discusses how managerial work today is less about wielding power than about coping with dependence. As a result, managers are put into a far more complex web of interaction with influential others than any organization chart can depict.

Given this situation, Kotter observes that one of the distinguishing characteristics of the typical manager is how dependent he/she is on superiors, subordinates, peers in other parts of the organization, the subordinates of peers, outside suppliers, customers, competitors, unions, regulating agencies and many others.

These dependency relationships come as a result of the division of labor and limited resources. Thus because of these factors, managers are directly or indirectly dependent on many others for information, staff services and cooperation in general. Yet all the people upon whom the manager is dependent have limited time, energy and talent, for which there are competing demands.

However, according to Kotter, to help cope with these dependency relations, the manager must create, increase and maintain at least four power relationships which puts the manager in a position to influence those people upon whom he/she is dependent when necessary and to avoid being hurt by any of them.

This method of influence is based on the creation of a sense of obligation in others, building a reputation as an expert, fostering others' subconscious identification with them and/or their ideas, and by feeding others' beliefs that they are dependent on the manager either for help or to avoid being hurt.

The more others perceive that they are dependent, the more people will be inclined to cooperation with the manager. To create perceived dependence, the manager must identify and secure the resources which the other person(s) require to perform the job, resources that he/she does not possess and which are not readily accessible elsewhere.

In the Introduction to this book, which should probably be the Conclusion, Kotter makes a series of ten observations based on his 30 years of reflecting on the nuances of leadership and management and observations of those who run organizations, their behavior and the effect that their behavior and choices have on others.

Thus, within the context of his Introduction, he seeks to bring clarity to the definition of leadership; the dynamics of leadership, the exercise of which has become the most important skill needed in twenty-first century organizations. Each of these observations, according to Kotter, "reflects important changes that continue to occur in the contexts in which managers work, changes driven by powerful forces associated with technology, the globalization of competition and markets and workforce demographics". These powerful forces cause enormous changes and have "destroyed mid-twentieth century stability" by demanding from managers both incremental change and bigger leaps. Therefore, the number of endeavors to transform organizations (reengineering, restructuring, restrategizing, quality programs, cultural change, and mergers and acquisitions) has increased dramatically.

Among these observations concerning managerial behavior we find that he believes that successful change in any organization regardless of the specific approach is a time-consuming endeavor; that for a number of reasons, even capable and well-intentioned people can make predictable mistakes when they attempt significant non-incremental change; that without sufficient leadership the probability of mistakes increases greatly and the probability of success decreases accordingly; that because of the increase in the rate of change, leadership is a growing part of managerial work.

We recommend that library managers keep this book for ready reference on their desks. Because you must deal with an ever-changing environment, this book will help you think things through by providing guidelines for strategy development, interpersonal relationships on the job and for tactics, which need to be taken.

Kay Ann Cassell Associate Director, Programs and Services for the New York Public Library's Branch LibrariesMarina I. Mercado Adjunct Faculty member at Mercy College, New York and a consultant in international business.

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