Monday, April 15, 2024

Kotter on leadership and the 8 steps

John Kotter is a professor at Harvard Business School, known for his work on change management and leadership. Best known for his 8-step change management process he also has related views on leadership and the management of change, asserting that management involves dealing with complexity, while leadership is about coping.


Throughout his career, Kotter has written extensively on the topics of leadership and change management. In his articles, What Leaders Really Do (Harvard Business Review (1990), also in Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail (Harvard Business Review, 1995), he explains the differences between leadership and management, arguing that both are necessary but fundamentally different in their functions and purposes within an organisation. Both laid the groundwork for his book Leading Change (1996), where he explains the most common mistakes organisations and leaders make during transformation efforts and provides solutions for overcoming these challenges.

His later book Our Iceberg is Melting (2006) presents his concept of change management in a fable format. Set in a colony of penguins facing a potentially devastating problem, the book simplifies the principles of his change theory, making them accessible and easy to apply. Then in  A Sense of Urgency (2008) he delves deeper into the first step of his 8-Step Process for Leading Change, arguing that establishing a true sense of urgency is crucial for the success of any change effort. He distinguishes between true urgency and complacency or false urgency, offering practical strategies to cultivate and maintain a genuine sense of urgency.

Kotter’s leadership theory primarily focuses on the distinctions between leadership and management. He argues that while both are essential, they serve different purposes. Management is about handling complexity, maintaining order, and delivering consistent results. Leadership, he claims, is about coping with change, setting a direction, and inspiring people to overcome obstacles.

Change Management Theory

In Leading Change (1996), Kotter's most influential book, introduces his famous 8-Step Process for Leading Change, providing a comprehensive approach to managing and leading organizational change. The book emphasizes the need for urgency and a powerful coalition to successfully drive transformations.

Kotter's change management theory is best encapsulated in his 8-Step Process for Leading 

1. Create a Sense of Urgency: Help others see the need for change and the importance of acting immediately.

2. Build a Guiding Coalition: Assemble a group with enough power to lead the change effort.

3. Form a Strategic Vision and Initiatives: Craft a vision to direct the change effort and develop strategic initiatives to achieve that vision.

4. Enlist a Volunteer Army: Encourage a large group of people to spend time and energy making the change happen.

5. Enable Action by Removing Barriers: Remove obstacles to change and empower individuals to execute the vision.

6. Generate Short-term Wins: Plan for visible improvements in performance, or "wins."

7. Sustain Acceleration: Press harder after achieving early changes.

8. Institute Change: Anchor the changes in corporate culture to ensure long-term success.

Views on Training

He emphasises the importance of continuous learning and adaptability in the modern business environment and is an advocate for training that not only develops individual skills but also fosters an organizational culture that is responsive to change and encourages innovation.


While Kotter's ideas are widely respected, some critics argue that his approach to change management may oversimplify complex organisational dynamics. Critics often point out that the ‘linear’ nature of his 8-step process doesn't fully account for the unpredictable and iterative nature of change in real-world scenarios. Additionally, Kotter's focus on top-down leadership in driving change can be seen as limiting in organisations that thrive on decentralized decision-making and employee empowerment. Asa theorist he also misses the considerable role that technology now plays in leadership and change management.


Kotter's legacy in the fields of leadership and change management is significant. His theories have shaped contemporary understanding of how effective leadership differs from management, and his 8-step process for change is a staple in business schools and organisations globally. Kotter’s work has not only influenced how leaders think about and manage change but has also provided a practical framework that many have used to guide successful transformations in various organisational contexts.


Kotter, John P. (2008) A Sense of Urgency. Harvard Business Press.

Kotter, J. P. , (1996) Leading Change. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Kotter, J. P. (1995) Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail. Harvard Business Review,

Kotter, J.P., (1990). What leaders really do. Harvard business review on leadership. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School.

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