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 according to you should be the role of an organization in nurturing and developing the leadership talent within the company? GE has always been known as a factory of CEOs. What should other companies do to produce the high quality leadership?
    All the evidences I have is that the best organizations which is to say those organizations that not only perform well today but are able to sustain that performance over time, growing great returns to investors, great products and services for people, etc.—either explicitly or a bit intuitively try to nurture the future leadership potential they have.

    Somebody, sometimes a CEO, understands this and watches over Interview 4 managers personally as well as encourages others to do. More often I think it is intuitive that senior people just know that at a gut level this is important. So they conduct themselves accordingly. In the very best organizations, they focus on the leadership potential of a few people at the top but to middle management and sometimes all the way down to the supervisors and those people who do not have individuals officially reporting to them. They say that leadership is a part of your job. Your said career will not blossom unless you pay attention to that part of the job. Staff can play an explicit role here, usually but not entirely, as a part of the training function, where the training people understand that they have to focus explicitly on leadership. Also, whoever has responsibility for performance appraisal and succession planning can help too. They can make sure that leadership is not ignored, make sure that more than managerial behaviors are built into performance appraisal or into the evaluation of whether people have potential for moving into higher positions. They can make sure that management is not mistaken for leadership. And I think role modeling is especially important. Leaders make themselves visible to others. They don't just hide in their offices talking to other executives. They make sure that as many employees as possible can see somebody who is not just a good manager or a good technical person in the sense of being great at marketing or manufacturing, but someone who demonstrates what leadership is all about. Anyway, explicitly or implicitly, one would largely conclude that these efforts at nurturing leadership talent will even be more important in the future. We can no longer afford organizational cultures that send off signals that leadership is only the role of the person at the top of hierarchy, and that leadership is not my job.

  • In most MBA curricula, leadership may be just one of the many courses offered. Should a course in leadership be made mandatory at business schools?
    The answer is clearly ‘Yes'. If you have only one or two elective courses in leadership and all of the rest of the curriculum plus all other activities that happen around, and students in an MBA program fundamentally ignore the leadership issues, then you have a problem. I think MBA programs need to think clearly about what they are trying to do. What is their vision of their graduates 5 or10 or 20 or 30 years after graduation? What are they trying to do to help influence students in terms of the development of their own careers, in terms of skills that they can immediately apply, in terms of the skills they tell them that they must develop later? If the program honestly thinks leadership has very little to do with this, then I think maybe having a single course might be adequate. But how can that be true? There must be more activities going on that at least implicitly encourage people to start developing their own leadership potential, that give students the opportunity to see good leadership, for example, by bringing in speakers from the outside that are not just good managers but clearly know something about leadership. Outsiders don't even need to talk directly of leadership if they demonstrate in their behavior what the business of leadership is. So, to summarize, there is no question that leadership needs to be an important part of an MBA curriculum, and I think it needs to be infused into the culture of MBA program as well.

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