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Man of action: The Professor John Kotter interview


Mike Levy talks to Professor John Kotter, a man recognised as one of the world's top authorities on leadership and change, about building better leaders, and the role of trainers and educators in this.

John Kotter is a man of action. This professor at Harvard Business School, recognised by many as the world’s top authority on leadership and change, is not interested in ideas and information for their own sake. He is passionate about leadership and strives to see his ideas put into practice. Academic theories are not enough for him - “I am not interested in shovelling information for its own sake,” says Kotter.
Kotter is the author of such best sellers as 'Leading Change' (1996) and 'Our Iceberg is Melting' (2006). They are all ‘how to do it’ works exemplified by Kotter’s famous '8-step change model'. The first of his steps, 'create urgency' is the theme of his most recent work, 'A Sense of Urgency', a worldwide best seller.
He is now turning his attention to ‘buy-ins’. Says Kotter: “Good ideas don’t stand up on their own, they need support. We have all experienced great ideas – simple and grand – that have got shot down in public, or behind our backs.” How good ideas get bought in to an organisation is the subject of his next book. It will continue his lifelong theme of how change happens – and how to implement it. “I always want my books to be practical tools to help people and organisations. They are used by people in small businesses to those running armies and even countries. Everyone is interested in doing things in new and better ways.”
Putting ideas about change and leadership into action is clearly close to his heart. It is also close to the heart of his Harvard MBA wife and a former Microsoft executive. They have recently started a company to explore how Kotter’s ideas about leadership (which have been building for 30 or more years) can be spread globally.
“My vision is that millions will be leading and billions will benefit,” says Kotter. This truly grand vision stems from Kotter’s belief that leadership should spread throughout an organisation – it is not just for the people at the top of the pyramid. “There is no question that compared to, say, 25 years ago people at middle and lower levels within organisations regard themselves as providing leadership. It is no longer a question of what those big people in big jobs do. As the rate of change keeps rising and the volatility of events becomes more active, the needs of leadership, the most powerful force in times of change, has risen too.”
A rapidly changing world
There is an urgent need, says Kotter to provide high quality leaders who can meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world – one which has to respond to the volatilities and unstoppable forces brought about by globalisation and technology.
But how do we achieve better leaders at all levels? Kotter is damning about the way some educational institutions respond to the need. “They slap the word ‘leadership’ on every old course they have. So, Marketing becomes Marketing Leadership.” Kotter is clearly impatient with this educational tokenism. “The book I am now working on tells the story of an individual, the hero of my story, who does not think of himself as a leader. Yet he steps up to the plate in his organisation and is just that, without the label.” Kotter’s point is that leadership happens at all levels and the job of trainers and educators is to help them become more aware of their role.
That leadership happens (or should happen) at all levels is one thing, but shouldn’t we focus on the role of followers? Isn’t it still about managing your boss? Kotter is dismissive: “I have listened to the arguments about ‘followership’ but I’m not convinced that good followers are simply passive agents. When you look at the word ‘leader’ what do you think of? Most people when asked that question will think of world leaders or characters from history such as Winston Churchill or the heads of business hierarchies. The number who say that ‘we need more leaders at all levels’ is tiny. We need to convince people that society will not work well in the kind of world now being developed unless more people see it as part of their role in life to be a leader. It is a huge challenge. Talking about ‘followership’ just makes this process more difficult”.
Time for action
Why aren’t people at all levels seeing themselves as leaders within their own context? Kotter believes that people just don’t see leadership as part of their role. He says that the skills we see in many leaders, those that have enabled them to climb the greasy pole of power, are not the ones to emulate. “Many leaders may be wonderful people but the path they have taken is very different to what I mean by leadership,” observes Kotter. “I think we must begin to educate people about leadership roles in schools – well before people go to university or business colleges.” Kotter also believes in a very active role for the training and coaching industry. “Those who know about my view of leadership must make themselves more visible. How many times on business programmes on TV do you hear the arguments we are talking about here? Very rare.”
Kotter is convinced that his ‘how to do it’ ideas in relation to leadership are not difficult to implement. “I know when I’m signing books to large audiences there are so many who say that they used my '8-stage change model' and it has worked," he explains. "These are people who run very small businesses, run schools or churches.”
For Kotter change and leadership are not subjects only for rarefied academic debate – he believes that the tools are out there – proven and practical. In this volatile world, the time for words are over, it is now a time for action.
For more information on Kotter and his work see

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