John Kotter Force for Change


A prized author (wrote the brilliant ‘Matsushita Leadership’) and a perfect title, there was no way I could resist picking up John P. Kotter’s ‘A Force for Change: How Leadership Differs From Management’ Unfortunately, the material did not live up to the billing, but it still a useful read for serious students of the subject.

The two key weaknesses of the book are that it is (a) dated, and (b) clinical. Kotter distinguishes the two with a catalogue of characteristics and examples.

“They created management to help keep a complex organisation on time and on budget. That has been, and still is, its primary function. Leadership is very different. It does not produce consistency and order, as the word itself implies; it produces movement.”

Throughout the treatment, I think Kotter tries to portray a even-handed balance between the two concepts, but at times I think he himself can’t help but fall into the trap that ensnared Bennis of treating ‘Management’ as the poor step-sibling to vaunted ‘Leadership’…

A good budgeting process does not require Einstein to run it…It’s not exciting or glamorous. But that’s management.” – I have been involved with a number of organisations who could have benefited from an Einstein running its budgeting process and I have know a number of Managers who made grappling with truly management issues both ‘exciting’ and ‘glamorous’.

“As a whole, the data strongly suggests that most firms today have insufficient leadership, and that many corporations are ‘over-managed’ and ‘under-led’” – Unfortunately, this assessment was based on a highly subjective survey simply asking people questions like “How many people does your company have who are strong at management?” When one has to write a book to help understand the difference between two terms, it seems flawed to me that one would then use those terms in question to do research about those terms. All you can really say at the end of such a exercised is that ‘Management’ is something there is too much of ‘Leadership’ is something that people think there is not enough of. You could ask people what the difference between a ‘head cold’ and ‘feeling energetic’ is and you would get a similar response without being taken any closer to understanding what the difference is between the two.

Kotter describes ‘bureaucracy’ as a excess of ‘management’. The term that tends to correspondingly align with ‘leadership’ is ‘entrepreneurship’. The former is largely viewed as pejorative while the latter is quite glorified. What we need is a term to describe an excess of ‘leadership’. Entreprenocracy? Entreaucracy? Speculation-ocracy? Whim-and-hope-ocracy?

Flawed methodology carries through his examination of case studies such as NCR’s Dundee operations. With Dundee, Kotter does post hoc ergo propter hoc analysis with the data collection coming from the highly biased executive being analysed. This methodological flaw is more akin to journalism than rigorous academic research. If you are going to do a dry, boring treatment of a subject, then at least adhere to fundamental principles of scientific method.

Kotter eventually gets into the ‘nature vs, nuture’ debate of leadership, but by that point I found the entire premise of the analysis stood on shaky ground. Without a robust and clear model of what constitutes ‘leadership’, one cannot assess the degree to which it is an inherent or learned attribute. One of the strengths of my ‘approach to risk’ model of Leadership and Management is that one can more readily assess how people approach risk as a discrete attribute. Kotter, like Bennis, enumerates long lists of attributes that he ascribes to one or the other. But long lists do not make a model.