John Kotter on Leadership, Management and Change

An interview with the author of Leading Change and What Leaders Really Do by Jim Bencivenga

Good leadership is like gravity. It’s felt everywhere but little understood. For too many educators, leadership is present more as a felt absence or visible through a glass darkly. At its worst, those in charge are not up to the task.


For 32 years, Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter has been studying the presence and absence of leadership in business organizations. Much of his thinking can be applied to school organizations as well. His work is especially relevant to the needs of schools and school systems to create succession planning and the role of the superintendent and principal as both manager and leader.

Kotter has closely examined and detailed what CEOs and senior executives do, why they do it and how their decisions affect their own and the behavior of others in setting and accomplishing strategic thinking with its vision and direction. He is recognized as one of the foremost authorities on leadership in the world. Explaining and helping organizations understand and bridge a leadership void has been and is his life's mission.

After a career spanning thousands of interviews with executives and managers, directly observing hundreds of them in action and conducting 14 formal case studies at Harvard Business School, Kotter’s conclusion was inevitable. He writes in his most recent book, John P. Kotter on What Leaders Really Do: "I am completely convinced that most organizations today lack the leadership they need. And the shortfall is often large. I'm not talking about a deficit of 10 percent, but of 200 percent, 400 percent or more, in positions up and down the hierarchy."

If you've never read Kotter, this slim volume is an excellent place to start. It is refreshing to experience how lucid, practical and insightful he is. Kotter tells the stories of people who are responsible for making change happen. These stories link his thinking to actual practice, each in its distinct milieu—the lessons, the techniques, what worked and didn't work and how leaders learned lessons from their experiences.

In addition, the structure of the book, not unlike Kotter's whole approach, respects the time constraints of busy executives. He says he wrote it so that "You can pick up the table of contents, find something and in 15 minutes walk away with some ideas that you could use that same day."

The book is full of examples of how a vision for change, and then the process of change itself, can be brought about by staff and managers. It examines a nexus of critical actions that enable skilled leaders to transform large and small organizations.

Most corporations today are overly managed and underled, says Kotter. Management and leadership have two distinct, fundamental purposes. Management is about coping with complexity. Leadership is about coping with change. Good CEOs and senior management effectively do both all the while knowing where their strengths and weaknesses lie. They take steps that span a career—and that at times are personally painful—in working to improve their weaknesses. The key, of course, is to perceive and admit them.

Kotter is Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership at the Harvard Business School. He is a graduate of MIT and Harvard and has been on the Harvard faculty since 1972.

The following excerpts are from a wide-ranging interview Kotter granted The School Administrator recently.

Q: What forces do you see in both business and industry that will grow even stronger and affect schools? What forces do you see that have an international dimension and that will come home to roost?

Kotter: Globalization has been a trend for a century and will continue for the next century. Technology, the Internet, is going to be humongous. There will be other sophisticated forms of technology that we don't yet know what it all means, biotech being the most obvious. The continuing trend toward decentralization and democratization, which has been going on for many centuries. All of these things hit everybody.

For schools there are two things in particular. The complexity of management-leadership jobs has gone up. Therefore, as schools have a bigger demand placed on them, the minimum skills for school leadership have gone up. And second is just dealing with all the changes this stuff creates. Helping people recognize that their lives will continue to unfold in a new way. They've got to continue to grow. They'll be in organizations that will be changing and school leaders have got to help people cope with that.

Q: What particular challenges should superintendents and school leaders be looking to take on to accomplish this? What structural changes in the system?

Kotter: I don't want to go out of my area of expertise here. The goals I can understand are much more sophisticated output and students who can better deal with a changing world. If the systems don't do a perfect job of that now, it isn't going to happen because somebody pushes two degrees to the left or right. It's going to require some leaps. Now exactly what those leaps are, I'm not entirely competent to say.

And then there are situations and realities you can never plan for. No one could prepare for the attack on the World Trade Center or for anthrax in the mail. In these situations you find out who the leaders are.

At the very least a leader is calming the troops, being genuinely visible while gathering some sense of what needs to be done. The anti-leader is hiding in the basement with lawyers. For organizations needing a new CEO, see what people have done in past crises. That will give you some sense of what they will do in future ones.

Q: Have you ever studied a school district and looked at a school district?

Kotter: Everything is unique and every sector is unique. But there are powerful similarities that are a function of modern technology and human nature. This is where we get ourselves into trouble. One of the defenses people use is "No, no we're different. This school is different. A part of this school is different. Schools and businesses, you can't compare.”

The reality is there are fundamental things that run across all sectors in terms of challenges and solutions. I think really smart people go out and just look for excellence anywhere. It doesn't matter where. And they don't try to apply it in some kind of mindless way. The person over there comes to work at 7:30. That must be the secret. I'll come to work at 7:30. That's not the point. But the point is to look for excellence and try to use your own brain to say: “What are they doing there that I can learn from?” Because when people do that, it always works.

Central to all this is a terrific network of relationships that you can draw on both within the organization and outside, and if that network has some neat people who are facing some of the same challenges you are, and you can draw on them in an easy way or even in a social way to share and watch each other and learn, that's fabulous. One of the problems that people get themselves into is that their networks are too parochial, they're too narrow. They don't reach out enough to different kinds of people who are strong enough.

Q: Superintendents deal with a tenured workforce and legislative mandates and financing at state, local and federal levels that are outside their control.

Kotter: You mentioned tenure. These are not systems that change easily. They're pretty sturdy set things. If you fall back to industry, you can say, “OK, what has happened to pretty sturdy businesses that got out of touch with reality? And what got them going?”

There are two elements and they often come together. One element is just stronger and stronger leadership in upper-level positions. The other is some form of competition or alternative to the people they are serving. What gets organizations in trouble all the time is that success creates quasi-monopolies. Quasi-monopolies they lose track of. You hear questions like "How did we ever get here? What do we need to do to be great?" The managers get lazy. Again, I'm talking business. They have a heck of a time.

One that I've studied over the years is Xerox. Terrific company, fabulously successful. They had a huge market share because they invented that machine. And they didn't even understand how much they turned inward, were paying too much attention to their own bureaucracy and their own politics, missed what was happening outside of them and it wasn't until they got really clobbered by the Japanese that they began even to wake up and do some things that were good for everybody.

So alternatives for the people and leadership go together because very often it's either the leadership that helps work with people to nurture some alternatives or it's the alternatives that put pressure on the system that allows the current leadership to push them out and get new leadership.

Leadership Turnover

Q: A high turnover of leadership in a school district would be an indicator of some problems? Or some bold leaders that couldn't win?

Kotter: It depends on who's leaving and under what circumstances. You may have a terrific person come in as superintendent. Some folks may be wonderful human beings, but they just got stuck in the past and couldn't do the job. If they started turning over and some people who are more in tune with the future got into those jobs, that could be good turnover. But if the turnover is some dedicated, fabulous people who want to do the right thing but have just thrown in the towel and say, “I can't stand it anymore.”—well, that obviously is a bad thing.

Q: One circumstance is to ensure leadership development and succession. In Massachusetts the average superintendency tenure was closing in on three years because a single-issue school board member could be elected and if you didn't fit that issue, the board just buys your contract out and starts over.

Kotter: That's not good. And that means part of the challenge is to figure out how do you create a milieu in either working with the school board or your own people that helps them to understand that. That this thing isn't just normal, it's not just inevitable. It's very, very bad. And that if we care about educating the children, we just can't do it.

Jack Welsh, who is retiring from running General Electric, was asked recently about his tenure. There are a lot of CEOs out there who come and go in three years and he said something such as "This is insane! This is insane. It cannot possibly work.” Welsh had 20 years, and he picked a 44-year-old to replace him, which means he's thinking about another 20 years.

Q: How do you factor in the fact that schools are de facto in the political arena, that their funding comes from outside their own control at the federal, state and local levels. Your leader has to bring political skills.

Kotter: That's correct and more so than we see in business, although increasingly CEOs would say that they have to have more political skills than the person who held the job 20 years ago.

But there's other stuff that's important too, not the least of which is that there's politics and there's politics. In a sense, the great politicians what they're greatest at is not just politics. It is almost a subset of the broader genius of leadership in which they kind of help people to figure where they have to drive this thing even if it's going to require some short-term sacrifices. It gets them out of their complacency and gets together the leadership teams that can make things happen and drive it through.

Pushing Oneself

Q: What recommendations would you have for school leaders to make the "pain of learning" and the "pain of continuing to push oneself to learn"—to quote from your writings—more bearable?

Kotter: I think the more that people have a deeply meaningful sense of purpose in life, that they translate into a deeply meaningful sense of purpose for their organization, the more they're willing to go through some painful times to grow and also to fight the bullets and arrows. It's the lack of that that wears you down very quickly.

Q: You've written: "Nobody grows old by merely a number of years. We grow old by deserting our ideas." Would you on a scale of 0 to 10 (10 being certitude) say that superintendents are really in the idealism business because their custodianship on so many levels ultimately is for our children and the people who work with our children? Whether it's leadership versus management, they have to live their ideals?

Kotter: I think that's true for everybody. I think some business people would say it's easier for the superintendents for the reason you're suggesting because their whole caste has a more idealistic tinge to it, you know, preparing our children for tomorrow, as opposed to making ball-bearings. I suspect in that sense they have an advantage.

Q: You say, "For most people there's a gap between the leadership they supply and the leadership that's possible." What does a superintendent do to deal with that gap in his or her own professional life?

Kotter: I suppose step one is always to recognize it and to admit it. I've got both potential and skills that are not being used right now and it's smart, right and just, and everything else to start developing and using those. It's easy enough to go into denial on this. “No, no, I'm doing everything I can.” That's a comfortable stance and I don't mean that in a nasty way against anybody. People do that.

So it takes self-insight and a little bit of courage to get going for yourself and then it's a matter of helping other people do the same thing.

Certainly, a lot of the stretching is on the job. It's not going off to Harvard for two weeks. Even if you're lucky enough to do that, that will happen once every 10 years. It going to happen every day as you try something and then pay attention to how it's working and try a little thing there, and notice what the guy over there is doing that you've never tried before, and you just grow and grow and grow.

Role of Mentors

Q: I may have missed it, but I didn't see the word “mentor” used much in your book.

Kotter: I think most people who are any good have one or more people early in their careers who play a particularly important role, either in maneuvering them around or showing them the way. But I don't think it takes very long before people run out of that. I'm too old for mentoring. I'm a father now. I can't be looking for more fathers. If anything, it's my job now to find those 25-year-olds to help them along. I think by the time you're at 35 to 55 it's less a mentor out there as it is the capacity to look at and constantly scan for people like yourself. And try to figure out who's doing something that you're not doing that's really effective.

Q: Here's one of the areas that some superintendents have asked for more elaboration: Planning for visible improvements and performance, or wins. How do you create those wins and visibly recognize and reward people who made the wins possible and then develop a way to ensure they continue?

Kotter: Whenever you find some institution or organization taking significant leaps into the future, you find the kind of change process or some close variation to what I've identified. We talk about the eight steps (see related story). Step one is to get the urgency up among enough people and put the right group together that can do it and get divisional strategy straight.

Well, somewhere in there, step six I think, short-term wins become enormously important in building momentum in proving to yourself that you're on the right track in diffusing the cynics, the pessimists who are anchors on the whole thing, but play an important role. And what you find in successful cases is they don't just say, “Well obviously we're on the right track, we'll get some wins.” They say, “No, we have to very carefully think about how do we produce a string of those that are visible enough, unambiguous enough, meaningful enough to the people we are dealing with.” And carefully manage that process and if they don't, they can get themselves into trouble.

Even if the vision is right, even if they're marching along basically well, because people start to get impatient or they wear down, everybody that's grumpy kind of jumps in and says this is going nowhere, etc. etc. So the short-term win is huge. It fits into a certain place in the process.

Q: Certification or licensing requirements in most states means someone like you can't be a superintendent. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Kotter: It's nuts. Not for me. I'd probably be a terrible superintendent. Now we're back to forces that are kind of monopoly forces. What you want is the largest pool you can get of talented people that you can draw on for what are incredibly important but difficult jobs. No business in the world would ever say, “No, there is no equivalent. Unless you have an MBA from Stanford, you can't be a CEO.” I mean everyone would just laugh at that. But in this sector, it's not quite that, but silly things like that happen again the more protected the sector is.

Ducking for Cover

Q: How high do you put your head above the ramparts?

Kotter: Hiding? It's not only not good for the school system, it's not good for you. There's no evidence that people who hide at age 65 say: “Boy, am I proud of that. Do I feel good about my life. I hid.” It doesn't happen.

I think this is a big deal, because people who want to try to provide leadership in superintendent and principal jobs have as important a job as any job in the U.S. today. I think in a lot of cases they are much more important jobs than CEOs. Because if we can't bring everybody up in an increasingly technologically sophisticated society, you start getting this growing gap between the technologically well-educated and the “other.” It undermines democracy.

So I think again and this isn't because I'm an educator. I'm a different sort of educator. I think much more like the college president. When they do things right, when they help their own systems to take a leap into the future, they make a contribution that is as large as you'll find anywhere.

Q: The mission statement starts out at the highest possible level. But the fact is if you have 2½ to 3 million teachers. You're going to have the average. You're going to have, well, mediocrity.

Kotter: I remember talking to a 23- or 24-year-old a couple of years ago who was teaching. I think it was 4th or 5th grade. I asked him, “Is the system perfect?” He answers no. So I say to him, “If you were king and you had ultimate power, what would you do to change your school or the district to make it better? You have total power.” What I got is total silence. I couldn't believe it. I expected this kid, who was pretty bright, would say “OK, here are the first 10 things.” And I thought, “Wow, if this is the 24-year-old, what is the 44-year-old thinking?” I cannot believe under the right circumstances, somebody, some principal or superintendent, couldn't open him up and start getting ideas and effort behind those ideas.

Jim Bencivenga is editor of the Ideas section at The Christian Science Monitor. E-mail: bencivengaj@csmonitor.com