Kot 02-5-58

What Leaders Really Do



John P. Kotter

Harvard Business Review, 1999, 172 pp


A compilation of and commentary on six articles on leadership previously published in the Harvard Business Review.  The material deals with the challenges inherent in managerial work and what differentiates effective from ineffective responses to these challenges.  (4)

Kotter is a professor of leadership at the Harvard Business School.  He is the author of several books including Leading Change (1996).


1 Leadership at the Turn of the Century

“[M]ost organizations today lack the leadership they need.  And the shortfall is often large.  I’m not talking about a deficit of 10% but of 200%, 400%, or more….” (1)


“What is clear is that the increasingly fast-moving and competitive environment we will face in the twenty-first century demands more leadership from more people to make enterprises prosper.  Without that leadership, organizations stagnate, lose their way, and eventually suffer the consequences.”  (2)


“[M]ore change demands more leadership, which places managers in more complex webs of interaction.”  (5)


“The fundamental purpose of management is to keep the current system functioning.  The fundamental purpose of leadership is to produce useful change, especially nonincremental change.  It is possible to have too much or too little of either.  Strong leadership with no management risks chaos; the organization might walk right off a cliff.  Strong management with no leadership tends to entrench an organization in deadly bureaucracy.”  (11)


“Because managerial work is increasingly a leadership task, and because leaders operate through a complex web of dependent relationships, managerial work is increasingly becoming a game of informal dependence on others instead of just formal power over others.”  (14)


“In ‘real life,’ effective executives spend a lot of time just talking to other people, including people who are not their subordinates.  They deal in a broad sweep of topics…., are much more likely to ask questions than to give orders, and actually make ‘big’ policy decisions only rarely.”  (17)


2 Choosing Strategies for Change

The four most common reasons people resist change: (31)

  • A desire not to lose something of value
  • A misunderstanding of the change and its implications
  • A belief that the change does not make sense for the organization, and
  • A low tolerance for change


“Few organizations can be characterized as having a high level of trust between employees and managers; consequently, it is easy for misunderstanding to develop when change is introduced.”  (34)


“Managers who initiate change often assume both that they have all the relevant information required… and that those who will be affected by the change have the same facts, when neither assumption is correct.”  “Moreover, if the analysis made by those not initiating the change is more accurate than that derived by the initiators, resistance is obviously ‘good’ for the organization.”  (35)


“One of the most common ways to overcome resistance to change is to educate people about it beforehand.”  (37)


“If the initiators involve the potential resistors in some aspect of the design and implementation of the change, they can often forestall resistance.”  (38)


“The most common mistake managers make is to use only one approach [in dealing with resistance] or a limited set of them regardless of the situation.”  “A second common mistake … is to approach change in a disjointed and incremental way that is not a part of a clearly considered strategy.”  (43)


“A common mistake…is to move too quickly and involve too few people despite the fact that they do not have all the information they really need to design the change correctly.”  (47)


3 What Leaders Really Do

“[L]eadership and management are two distinctive and complementary systems of action.”  “Both are necessary for success in an increasingly complex and volatile business environment.”  (51)


“Most U.S. corporations today are overmanaged and underled.”  They need to develop their capacity to exercise leadership.  Successful corporations don’t wait for leaders to come along.  They actively seek out people with leadership potential and expose them to career experiences designed ot develop that potential.”  (51)


“[S]trong leadership with weak management is no better, and is sometimes actually worse, than the reverse.” (52)


“Management is about coping with complexity.”  “Without good management, complex enterprises tend to become chaotic….”  “Good management brings a degree of order and consistency….”  (52-3)


“Leadership, by contrast, is about coping with change.”  “More change always demands more leadership.”  (53)


“Each system of action involves deciding what needs to be done, creating networks of people and relationships that can accomplish an agenda, and then trying to ensure that those people actually do the do.  But each accomplishes these three tasks in different ways.”


Companies manage complexity by planning and budgeting, by organizing and staffing, and by controlling and problem solving.  By contrast, leading an organization to constructive change involves setting a direction (developing a vision of the future and strategies to achieve the vision), aligning people, and motivating and inspiring them to keep moving in the right direction.  (54)


Setting direction is not the same as long range planning.  It is more inductive.  “Leaders gather a broad range of data and look for patterns, relationships, and linkages that help explain things.  What’s more, the direction-setting aspect of leadership does not produce plans; it creates vision and strategies.”  (55)


“What’s crucial about vision is not its originality but how well it serves the interests of important constituencies—customers, stockholders, employees—and how easily it can be translated into a realistic competitive strategy.”  “When a company that has never been better than a weak competitor in an industry suddenly starts talking about becoming number one, that is a pipe dream, not a vision.”  (56)


Alignment is a communications challenge.  It means talking to many individuals.  “Anyone who can help implement the vision and strategies or who can block implementation is relevant.  Trying to get people to comprehend a vision of an alternative future is also a communications challenge of a completely different magnitude….”  (58)


“Another big challenge in leadership efforts is credibility—getting people to believe the message.  Many things contribute to credibility: the track record of the person delivering the message, the content of the message itself, the communicator’s reputation for integrity and trustworthiness, and the consistency between words and deeds.”  (59)


4 Leading Change  (Why Transformation Efforts Fail)


  1. Not establishing a great enough sense of urgency
  2. Not creating a powerful enough guiding coalition
  3. Lacking a vision  A vision says something that clarifies the direction in which an organization needs to move.”  (82)
  4. Undercommunicating the vision by a factor of ten
  5. Not removing obstacles to the new vision
  6. Not systematically planning for and creating short-term wins
  7. Declaring victory too son


5 Power, Dependence, and Effective Management

Chapter answers three questions:

  1. Why are the dynamics of power important?
  2. How do effective managers acquire power?
  3. How and for what purposes do effective managers use power?

[Somewhere in the book he comments that looking back he would change some parts that appear manipulative.]


Typical managers are highly dependent on the activities of a variety of people to perform their jobs effectively, many of whom they do not directly control and who may not be cooperating.  This is one of the biggest frustrations of managers.  (97-8)


“As a person gains more formal authority in an organization, the areas in which he or she is vulnerable increase and become more complex….”  (99)


“Successful managers cope with their dependence on others by being sensitive to it, by eliminating or avoiding unnecessary dependence and by establishing power over those others.”  (100)


Four different types of power over others: [some seem manipulative] (103 ff)

  1. Create a sense of obligation.  Some people have an incredible capacity to do little things that mean a lot to people.  Managers develop friendships with those upon whom they depend.
  2. Belief in a Manager’s Expertise.  People often defer to those whom they believe to be competent experts.
  3. Identification with a Manager. 
  4. Perceived Dependence on a Manager.  The manager secures the resources they need and by influencing the perception of the manager’s resources.


6 Managing Your Boss

The relationship involves mutual dependence between two fallible human beings.  “Some people behave as if their bosses were not very dependent on them.  They fail to see how much the boss needs their help and cooperation….”  (126)


Requirements for a productive relationship:  (128)

  1. “That you have a good understanding of the other person and yourself, especially regarding strengths, weaknesses, work styles, and needs.
  2. That you use this information to develop and manage a healthy working relationship—one that is compatible with both people’s work styles and assets, is characterized by mutual expectations, and meets the most critical needs of the other person.”


“Managers who work effectively with their bosses…seek out information about the boss’s goals and problems and pressures.  They are alert of opportunities to question the boss and others around him or her to test their assumptions.  They pay attention to clues in the boss’s behavior.”  (130)


“You are not going to change either your basic personality structure or that of your boss.  But you can become aware of what it is about you that impedes or facilitates working with your boss and, with that awareness, take actions that make the relationship more effective.”  (131-2)


“The subordinate who passively assumes that he or she knows what the boss expects is in for trouble.”  “Ultimately, the burden falls on the subordinate to find out what the boss’s expectations are.”  (138)


“Few things are more disabling to a boss than a subordinate on whom he cannot depend….  It’s difficult for a boss to rely on a subordinate who repeatedly slips deadlines.”  (140)


7 What Effective General Managers Really Do

The daily behavior of successful general managers means spending most of their time with others, including many beyond their boss and direct subordinates.  The breadth of topics is extremely broad.  The GM asks lots of questions and rarely makes “big” decisions.  They is much informal conversation and humor.  Frequent topics are irrelevant or unimportant to the business.  They rarely give orders but frequently attempt to influence others.  They often react to others’ initiatives.  Most conversations are short and disjointed, covering many topics.  They work long hours.  (148-9)  While this doesn’t look like management textbook behavior, it can be very efficient.


The GMs greatest challenges are to figure out what to do despite great diversity, uncertainty and a mountain of information and to get things doe through a large and diverse set of people.  What this requires is a complex and subtle approach in line with a general preset agenda via a huge network of relationships.   (150-151)


These agendas are “loosely connected goals and plans that address their long-, medium-, and short-term responsibilities.”  (151)  In a new job, the general manager must develop this network of cooperative relationships.  (155)


Execution = Getting networks to implement agendas.  (158)


Executives don’t plan their days in much detail but react with many short, disjointed conversations.  They take advantage of the opportunities that arise to build networks, learn information, and influence people.  “Yet these patterns are possibly the most important and efficient of all.”  (162-3)


Insights on what top managers should do?

  1. Grow your own executives.  It is difficult to learn enough about a business to run it.
  2. Management training courses are overly formal and deal simplistically with human relationships.
  3. Spend considerable time collecting information, establishing relationships, selecting a basic direction for the area of responsibility, and developing a supporting organization.
  4. Formal planning systems probably hinder performance. (167-9)