Never judge a book by its cover, Leading Change by John P. Kotter

Of the 34 books I’ve read this year, I did not think that Leading Change by John P. Kotter would resonate with me the most. I was a little cautious of this book when I got it — it was published in 1996 and the cover reminds me of a high school project cover page that uses WordArt and ClipArt. 

Over the summer I made a shift in my career and I’m now working in organizational design, change management, and workplace structure. It’s quite different from marketing, but the strategic principles are closely aligned. Having lived experience in organizations that are not operating effectively also helps too. In an effort to learn more about the industry I’m working in, I picked up Leading Change, a book that was recommended to me by my colleagues.

Kotter wrote Leading Change as a follow up to his successful 1995 Harvard Business Review article, Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail. Here are my key takeaways from this book: 

Managers vs. Leaders 

Managers are hired to lead people, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are leaders. Kotter outlines the following: 

  • Managers create predictability — they keep a business running through planning, budgeting, organizing, staffing, controlling, and problem solving. 
  • Leaders inspire change — they create organizations in the first place or adapt them to significantly changing circumstances. This goes beyond tactics or simple processes —  their leadership is visionary and forward-thinking. 

Managers may have the education and experience, but they are not fully developed as leaders. You need to have both management and leadership in your organization for it to be successful. Leaders have the potential that will give your business the edge to continue to succeed. When leaders are not given room to grow and be bold, they become complacent, one of the biggest risks for a business. 

Importance of Vision 

Developing a vision is one of the most difficult parts of transformation — a vision needs consensus and buy-in from leaders. Leaders must be able to articulate the vision in a way that is clear, concise, and memorable to employees. But more importantly, they need to truly believe in the vision and all decisions must complement it. In my experience, this is where change and transformation can stall. Inconsistencies from the vision create confusion and diminish credibility of it. Behaviours and actions that are misaligned need to be corrected and addressed right away or else the vision can become “open to interpretation”. 

Leaders are Lifelong Learners 

In a twenty-year study of 115 students that graduated from Harvard Business School in 1974, research showed that competitive drive and lifelong learning were the two factors that contributed to success over others. Lifelong learning is essential in our ever-changing world. Within learning, the willingness to reflect honestly on success and failures sets apart transformative leaders from regular ones. Leaders with big egos will never transform their organizations because they are unwilling to listen and reflect on what has worked and what hasn’t. I think many people have experienced leaders like this throughout their careers. Employees that have potential to be leaders will be turned off by this and will look elsewhere for work. 

The original Leading Change article was written when I was 4 years old, but the lessons are still valuable today. I could write much more on what I’ve learned from this book — the need for urgency, the negative impacts of complacency, the importance of having empowered employees, etc. 
I highly recommend this book if you are looking to grow your career as a leader.

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