Change Leadership – Our Continuing Review of Leadership Traits

More models leading to the FIVE “Cs” of Leadership; An overview of the attributes of leadership

In my last posting, I described several more approaches to leadership and leadership paradigms, as described by writers and scholars such as Mark Sanborn and Malcolm Gladwell.  This posting describes yet another and somewhat more complex model, focusing on change leadership.

John Kotter’s Leading Change

John Kotter is a Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership, Emeritus, at the Harvard Business School.  In his 1996 book, Leading Change, he describes an eight-stage process for change leadership.

The eight stages he discusses are:

1. Creating a sense of urgency

Kotter explains that a major barrier to implementing change is complacency.  He gives examples of organizations, which even in the face of collapsing profits maintained a leisurely pace and focused on marginally relevant issues, while ignoring the many indexes of poor performance or downright failure. The sources of complacency, Kotter explains, are many and complex. Kotter believes that organizations caught in this syndrome, can rarely break the complacency cycle, unless individuals within the organization raise the level of urgency relative to necessary change – even to the point of driving the situation to crisis in order to generate support for change.

2. Building a coalition

Because major change is difficult to sustain, Kotter, believes that driving it through the energies of one dynamic leader, can be create a tenuous situation.  To sustain change, Kotter recommends building a guiding coalition composed of the right balance of power, expertise, influence, credibility and Leadership.  He describes pitfalls to building this coalition and cautions that there are types of individuals who are not good fits – principally those with large egos, and those who create mistrust through their behaviors.

3. Developing vision & strategy

Vision is essential to change; yet an ill-crafted, poorly communicated vision is less likely to motivate support. Kotter explains that, to be most effective, the vision shared can’t not come across as autocratic or highly authoritarian.  Neither can it come across as mind-bogglingly detailed or micro-managing.  The most effective change visions are clear, simple, and the advantages are communicated simply, and directly.  Likewise they are easy for others to see.

4. Communicating the change vision

Kotter explains that the real power of a vision comes when most of those involved have a clear understanding of the goals and directions. Thus, an effective approach to communicating the goals and directions is essential. Kotter describes what he sees as the key elements of effective communication of vision:

  • Simplicity;
  • Effective use of metaphor and analogy;
  • Multiple approaches and forums;
  • Repetition;
  • Leadership by example;
  • Clarification; and,
  • Reasonable give and take in the communication.

5. Empowering broad-based action

For change to take root, broad support is required.  People must be empowered to act. Barriers to empowerment should be identified and eliminated. Assuming that employees understand the vision and are committed to it, barriers such as structural impediments, lack of necessary skills, lack of staff or information, and resistance from senior personnel must be addressed.

6. Generating success

Change builds momentum when its supporters can demonstrate tangible advantages, real improvement, and measurable gains. These gains demonstrate that the discomfort of change is work it and it undermines resistance and critics.

7. Consolidating gains and building on them

Kotter explains that resistance is always waiting to reassert itself, and that change must be consolidated. The real challenge comes when trying to implement change in highly interdependent systems. It pays to eliminate unnecessary interdependencies and to constantly reinforce the improvements.

8. Anchoring the approaches in the culture

Anchoring the changes deeply into the organizations culture is critical.  If the change process rests on a current group of individuals, and is not integrated into the norms of the organization, it is highly likely that, when key players depart the organization, others will revert to the old and the familiar. Key to sustaining the change is understanding, as Kotter puts it, that culture change comes last, not first. Sustainability also depends on demonstrated results, constant reinforcement, potential removal of key change resisters, and succession planning that anticipates the need for sustaining the change momentum through staff transitions.


The challenges of the 21st Century will require adaptability to a rapidly changing environment brought on by technology and volatile social conditions.  The organizations that are most effective at responding to change and, in fact, inducing it and capitalizing on it, will be the organizations to thrive.

Bruce MacAllister, May 2011

About Bruce MacAllister

Bruce MacAllister is the founder and Executive Director of Business Excellence Solutions. He holds a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Chemistry and Biology and a Juris Doctorate degree. He has over thirty years of experience working with people in conflict, and training and coaching people through conflict situations. He works nationally and internationally with a wide variety of clients, including national departments, research and development organizations, institutions of higher education, non-profits, and individual businesspeople. He has been an ombudsman, executive level manager, project and program manager, trainer, and attorney. Click the "About Us" page to see his full biography. (
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