Business Case Studies, Executive Interviews, John P Kotter on Leadership

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Executive Interviews: Interview with John P Kotter on Leadership
October 2006 - By Dr. Nagendra V Chowdary


John P Kotter
Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership,
Emeritus at Harvard Business School.


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  • What is the difference between leaders and managers or leadership and management?
    First, management basically runs existing systems of people and technology. It does so with processes we associate with planning andbudgeting, organizing and staffing,controlling and problem solving.Leadership is very different. Leadership creates those systems that managers manage and it helps them to adapt to new opportunities that emerge and to avoid hazards that can hurt an organization. So, the heart of leadership is all associated with change, and not incremental changes but significant

    change.Second, leadership tends to be involved more with disrupting the status quo by helping people develop some vision of a new future, a vision that has a market-oriented logic to it,and a strategy for actually achieving that vision.It involves communicating that information to relevant people so that they actually believe it and want to make it a reality. Third, it involves motivating and inspiring, empowering and helping people actually make the vision a reality, despite the obstacles. In a stable world, management is much more important than leadership. As the rate of change goes up, or as our aspirations go up in ways that demand change, leadership becomes increasingly important.

  • Should leadership be looked at as a science or an art? If it is a science, what are the universal principles of leadership? If it is to be believed as an art, what does it take to nurture and develop leadership?
    At this point it's hard to either study or to teach leadership as a science. It is an art form—a complex set of behaviors that don't easily reduce themselves to something that can be studied with scientific methods or taught in the same way as you can teach management. Now, having said that, you can help people in formal educational settings, and by mentoring, books, etc., to see the growing importance of leadership. You can help people understand what leadership is and how it is different from management. You can help people see the relationship of leadership to change, and how technology and globalization will only bring us more and more change. There are universal principles that can be taught: about vision and strategy, about communication for buy-in, about empowerment and inspiration. I have written much about this in four books, and I have another coming out soon. The new book is called Our Iceberg is Melting. You can also help people assess their own behavior against what leadership is, and you can help motivate them to want to find opportunities to develop whatever potential they have.

  • Are leadership styles influenced by national cultures?
    If one defines styles as some of the more very specific ways in which people act—how they dress, structure some aspects of their days, have lunch—those areas are clearly influenced by national culture. If a leader simply ignores them, if you drop a Canadian into India, for example, and she acts exactly as she does in Canada, you can have difficulties. The Canadian style could get in the way of that person's actually helping others to create the right vision, getting people to work together to create the right strategy, etc. So the answer to your question is ‘yes', national culture is important. But there are those who believe that leadership is entirely dependent on the local culture and that is not true. From all the work I have done the evidence is overwhelming on this point. For years now I have been dealing with executives in our senior executive program at Harvard who come from dozens and dozens of countries, a program which now has about 320 people in it every year. Seventy percent of these executives are non US. I have told them about effective leaders in the US, the UK, South Africa, Japan, China, etc. I have shown them the critical similarities. What is interest ing is that before I talk, before I spend a day with these executives, many ask me if I am only going to talk about American leadership—the implication being that American leaders are not relevant or have marginal relevance to them back in Russia (or wherever they are from). Yet, at the end of the day with me, no one raises the question again. They conclude that core aspects of leadership are not culture-specific. And I have seen this for 12 years or more with that executive group at Harvard, at least that long with more junior executive groups at Harvard, as well as when talking to top management at international corporations which have a third of their executives from outside the US.

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