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John Kotter on Leadership

John Kotter has a highly regarded approach to differentiating leaders from managers, but it is arguable that managers can do much of what his leaders do and that leadership has a very different meaning.

A limitation of Kotter’s model is that he restricts managers to routine. They are given so little of significance to do that one wonders why we should bother with them at all.

Having little use for managers was typical of leadership gurus writing in the 1980s when the Japanese success in the West created a massive backlash against management. This was a disaster for our thinking about management from which we have yet to recover.

Kotter shares with other 1980s leadership gurus a tendency to exalt leaders as visionary, inspiring motivators of people at the expense of plodding managers.

Equally limiting is his focus on leadership and management as types of people or role occupants rather than as processes that all employees can apply.

Kotter’s Definition of Leadership and Management

Kotter claims that managers deal with complexity, leaders with change. Hence, leaders and managers have different purposes or functions.

Kotter tells us that managers and leaders both engage in the following 3 tasks but in very different ways:

  1. Deciding what needs to be done 
  2. Creating networks of people who can accomplish an agenda 
  3. Ensuring that people do the job

Task number one – deciding what needs to be done

Kotter tells us that managers focus on planning and budgeting; they set targets while leaders set a direction, a vision or strategy. Managers are more concerned with routine operational results than with overall strategic direction.

Task number two – creating the capacity to accomplish an agenda

According to Kotter, managers use organizing and staffing to build capacity. For them it is a structural problem. Leaders, on the other hand, align people with the vision or strategy. This is a communication issue not a staffing or structural matter.

Task number three – ensuring that people do the job

For Kotter, managers ensure that work gets done through controlling and problem solving, a very task oriented emphasis. Conversely, leaders motivate and inspire, thus having a people focus in getting work done.

Kotter takes great pains to show how planning differs from creating a vision, how organizing and staffing differ from aligning people and how controlling differs from inspiring. However, he makes no similar effort to justify allowing only leaders to do one set of tasks while restricting managers to the more mundane, routine and task oriented way of working.

He seems to take if for granted that leaders are inspiring and people oriented while managers must be controlling and task oriented. With this assumption as a starting point, he then simply spells out in detail how leaders and managers work, the former dealing with change and the latter dealing with complexity, which in his view is mainly routine.

Let’s discuss task number three first – ensuring that people do the job. Kotter is quite clear that leaders are not restricted to strategy. His leaders get involved in implementation too. But here the water starts to get muddy because a great deal of implementation can be handled by managers.

Surely some change implementations are fairly straightforward, calling simply for good management. Once employees buy the need for change, implementation becomes a management project. In this case, leadership really just sells the tickets for the journey; it influences people to get on board, then stops. Of course, new resistance may arise en route and the tickets may need to be resold, but then such leadership is still a brief impact not an ongoing process.

Consider an analogy. When persuading your children to eat their vegetables, you stop harping at them once they start eating them, only speaking to them about it again if they stop before they are finished. Similarly, does leadership not also stop once stakeholders get on board?

By allowing leaders to take care of the implementation of change, Kotter blurs the line between leadership and management. That is, the more routine the implementation, the less need there is for leadership. But the implementation of any change must have some routine aspects, at least in the sense that they proceed without resistance.

But the line is blurred from the management side as well. Kotter doesn’t feel that managers need to be inspiring because their work is routine, but suppose a “routine” project gets behind schedule and a manager needs to get employees to work harder.

Can the manager not inspire or motivate employees to work harder or faster? This can’t be leadership if leaders deal only with change. So, again, it isn’t totally clear where leadership ends and management starts. If managers can indeed inspire employees to work harder then managers can behave in line with Kotter's third leadership style of working as well as participate in the implementation of change.

Modifying Kotter’s Model

In order to argue that managers can also perform Kotter’s first two tasks, setting strategy and aligning people, we need to develop a different way of differentiating leaders from managers.

First, we need to switch our focus from leaders and managers as role occupants to their corresponding processes and from functional objects to functional processes. Analogously a hammer is an object defined by its function of pounding in nails. But there are also functional processes, such as cooking, cleaning, constructing, repairing, curing, serving etc.

When we focus on objects, such as a hammer, we are immediately led to ask what properties such an object must have to perform its function. This is why our focus on leaders and managers leads us to ask what sort of people they need to be. However, when we focus on processes such as cooking, we want to know how the process works and we can leave open the possibility that virtually anyone could apply that process. Thus the nature of the person carrying out that process is situational.

Consider first the function of management as a process. Let’s define it as the process of achieving a goal in such a way that makes the best possible use of all pertinent resources. This definition covers self-management, managing our time, careers, finances and anything else that is important to us.

Our new definition of management isn’t restricted to people with authority over others. It also makes it clear that the means of achieving a goal are completely open so long as we make the best possible use of resources. That is, you could be quite creative in managing your time or money so long as you get the best possible return on your efforts.

Thus managers can indeed motivate and align people because their job is to get work done in such a way as to make the best possible use of all resources, including people. This covers Kotter’s second two leadership ways of operating: aligning people and motivating them.

But what about Kotter’s number one task, setting strategy? How can managers do this? Suppose we say that CEOs are managers. They are charged with achieving a goal (usually to achieve and sustain high profitability) by getting the most out of all the resources at their disposal.

Some managers might unilaterally decide upon a new strategy for the organization. Others might use engaging questions to draw ideas for new strategies out of others, thus not deciding strategy but facilitating its formation. But if CEOs unilaterally decide upon a new strategy OR draw it out of others, they are wearing a management hat because they are only leading if they are actually influencing the selection of a vision.

But now, if managers can do all this, what is there left for leaders to do and why should we accept this radical redrawing of the boundaries between them?

This calls for a new definition of leadership: influencing people to change direction by setting an example or by promoting a better way. Isn’t this what a vision does, promote a new direction?

On this definition, CEOs show leadership when they actively persuade organization members to buy their visions. This means that there can be no such thing as autocratic leadership because deciding for people does not amount to influencing them. Leadership is an influence process, it sells the tickets for a journey but stops when people get on board. This is how ALL influence works, including selling. Most car salesmen don't keep selling to you once you sign on the dotted line.

CEOs can also lead by example in an infinite number of ways, such as through a strong work ethic, clear values, honest accountability and transparent communication. Setting an example and promoting a vision both amount to influencing people to behave differently. Clearly, leading by example doesn’t decide for people.

If leadership is indeed restricted to influencing people to change direction, then we must say, by elimination, that managers must therefore take care of all implementation, everything to do with getting the best out of people and making all decisions that need to be made, including deciding on new strategies.

Effective managers can foster innovation by creating the requisite culture and by asking a lot of engaging questions such as “What to you think?” They are by no means restricted to maintaining the status quo or simply managing routine operations. They can be catalysts, coaches, facilitators, developers of people as well as decision makers.

Why should we restrict leadership to influence? Because, strictly speaking, that is what it really means. Think about the fact that leading entails following. Isn’t following a leader a voluntary act? Hence, must it not be the case that leadership can only influence?

There are other good reasons, however, for confining leadership to influence. It can be shown at a distance, such as when a green leader promotes energy conservation in Canada and is followed by communities in New Zealand. When Martin Luther King, Jr. promoted fair treatment for African Americans, he had a similar leadership impact on the general public, several levels of government and the U.S. Supreme Court. People who show leadership at a distance are outsiders to their respective audiences and thus cannot decide anything for them.

When an employee convinces management to adopt a new product, this is leadership shown bottom-up. Now, this employee clearly can’t decide anything for management and may not be involved in implementation. Such leadership merely sells the tickets for the journey; it doesn’t drive the bus to the destination.

A final point: Kotter’s claim that managers deal with complexity is biased toward large organizations. But surely someone can manage a small community club effectively even if it isn’t complex. Thus we need a broader concept of management, one that covers both simple and complex situations as well as self-management.

Also, when he claims that leaders deal with change, he is clearly thinking about large-scale organizational change because all such change entails a long, drawn out process. But surely leaders in small groups can influence others to pursue a new direction, or even just to think differently, without entailing a major organizational change. Clearly when you simply lead people to think differently, there is no organizational change to manage.

So What?

John Kotter’s account of leadership and management is out of date because it reinforces the negative image of management as controlling, task orientated and limited to routine. These old clichés have no logical or factual basis; they are merely biases arising from our emotional reaction to Japanese commercial success in the West during the 1970s and 80s.

Not only does Kotter’s way of defining leadership trash management, it boxes leaders into a corner. They must be inspiring; they can’t lead in a quiet or factual way to motivate people. We need to allow for a much wider range of influencing styles. Massive changes may call for inspiring leadership, not so smaller changes.

By defining leadership as an influence process, we leave completely open the means of influencing people. Clearly coercion isn’t influence. But, beyond that, hard facts or gentle persuasion can work with certain people. An inspirational vision isn’t always required. What it takes to influence people is totally situational. It varies with what is being promoted, the receptivity of the audience and what might appeal to them.

Similarly, by defining management as achieving goals in a way that makes best use of all resources, we are not committed to the means. When managing employees who are inexperienced or poor performers, a controlling, task oriented style might be necessary, but when managing highly skilled knowledge workers, a more empowering, facilitative style is appropriate. The idea that managers can only be controlling and task oriented has absolutely no foundation except as a foil to glorify leadership, the way we need cold to understand hot or evil to understand good.

Broader definitions of leadership and management make it easier to see how all employees can both lead and manage, a huge advantage. Front-line employees with no one reporting to them manage well when they get their jobs done in a way that makes the best use of their time, talent and other resources. They show leadership when they set an example that others follow or when they advocate any better way of working.

In summary, leaders don't manage change, they promote it and leave it to others to take care of implementation. Of course the same person can do both but only by switching hats from leading to managing when switching from promoting change to managing its implementation. Confusion arises because we persist in referring to "leaders" and "managers" rather than leadership and management as processes. This is confusing because we are made to wonder whether the same person can do both if leaders and managers are really different kinds of people. This whole way of thinking (people in roles) is a dead end.

All references to John Kotter’s work are to his article: “What Leaders Really Do,” Chapter Two of the Harvard Business Review set of collected articles entitled: On Leadership, originally published in 1990.

See my latest books on Amazon to learn how to be happier regardless of your beliefs or circumstances and how to empower yourself to show leadership every day without being in a position or having to overly defer and depend on positional leaders:

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