cover of the book leading change by john p. kotter on leadership

John P. Kotter hit a home run with his book, Leading Change. The book was initially published in 1996, and was then republished with updates in 2012. Kotter is well known for his work in change management and the field of leadership, and he has authored 18 books throughout his career. He is a co-founder of Kotter International and is a Professor Emeritus at Harvard’s Business School.

Leading Change is not just a step-by-step guide to tell you how to institute change. It is also a text that teaches the teacher. Kotter describes change as a useful process, but he also details the emotions behind change. The book also dives into the key differences between management and leadership. Management is a function of making systems work, while leadership is what is necessary to build the systems, or change existing ones.

Eight Mistakes

Kotter begins by describing why companies or organizations fail. He calls these his “eight mistakes.” They are:

  • Too much complacency or lack of urgency
  • Failure to create a guiding coalition with enough power and available resources
  • The lack of a clear vision
  • Not communicating that vision (or getting others to buy into that vision)
  • Allowing roadblocks to block the vision
  • Not recognizing short term, or smaller, wins
  • Declaring success too soon
  • Failure to fully establish changes within the organizational culture

He further suggests that the best process to enact productive and lasting change is to correct these 8 mistakes, in this order. Kotter states that, “skipping a single step or getting too far ahead without a solid base almost always creates problems.”

Management vs Leadership

This may be my favorite section of Leading Change. Kotter describes management as a process of keeping systems and people operating smoothly. He recognizes key terms and processes used by managers, which include:  budgets, staffing, problem-solving and controlling. In other words, management is used to “produce a degree of predictability.”

Leadership, on the other hand, is a process of creating a picture of the future. This picture requires the alignment of the forces that are necessary to create that future. It is about communicating that vision, then providing the inspiration, rather than motivation, to gain alignment with the vision. Leadership produces change!

Part ll:  The How to Section

This section of the text that describes the processes he utilizes to develop and implement his 8-stage process. It is the “how-to” portion of the book, and should be read with your own organization in mind. It is well written, and detailed enough to allow the reader to apply the process to their own unique circumstances. This section identifies the order, the process, and the purpose of each step.

Leadership and Lifelong Learning

The final chapter is devoted to the implications of change, and the process of change in the 21st century. Kotter states without equivocation that LEADERSHIP is the key to developing and sustaining successful organizations in the future. It’s also crucial that leadership come from throughout the organization, and not just from the top of the hierarchy. This is because there are leaders at every level of the organization, and these individuals must be nurtured and developed.

The creation of a learning organization is key to ensuring the development of leadership. A learning organization is one in which members learn and grow constantly, and at every level. To create a learning organization, those at the top must listen to the ideas of those doing the work. Leaders must begin by learning about their workers’ personal histories and skill capacities. This background, combined with their drive, leads to lifelong learning. In turn, lifelong learning increases workers’ skills and abilities, and builds the organization’s competitive capacity.


Kotter has definitely earned his reputation as a thought leader. His shared knowledge provides the basis for the transformation from management to leadership. Leading Change gives insight into the psychology behind change, and then provides guidance on the process of making changes. It also explains why structure is vitally important for organizations. I found the book to be clear, concise, and very useful. I highly recommend Leading Change to anyone who runs, or even works within, an organization.