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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  • Do you think, with most of the business school students not having work experience, that a leadership course can be taught while they are MBA students or should this be done later in executive development programs?
    I think the answer is both—in the MBA program and in executive programs. You would approach the topic differently depending on whether it is a young man or woman, who had a little or no business experience, or it is a 40- year-old manager. For example, without any leadership experience there are many things that are simply not going to be appreciated and

    understood because students do not have the context to understand what is being taught. Showing them things that they can't quite understand or giving them information that will inevitably go in and out of the short-term memory will obviously be a waste of time. Nevertheless, you can do a few things even with young people. You can help them intellectually understand what leadership is and why is it more important nowadays. You can get them to pay more attention to the development of their own leadership skill in their early careers. In executive education, if it is not just a narrow course on IT, for example, leadership should be much more built into the program. The students can handle more, ask better questions, etc. Give it to them.

  • How should a very successful leader plan for his succession? Should the successor be chosen by the board or the successful leader?
    It has to some degree be both. If someone has been a terrific leader at the top of an organization, and he or she is not insecure, it is only natural that as a part of their legacy that they will want to make sure their organization does not collapse after Interview 5 they leave. If they are insecure, they might like to let the firm collapse to demonstrate to others how great they were. Leaders who have maturity and security will, in their final years, pay a lot of attention to people who might succeed them. They will do so not just as a part of a once-a-quarter succession planning meeting but constantly, every day of the year.

    A board's role is to demand that the CEO put succession on the board agenda not just a year before he/she is going to retire, but starting at least 3 or 4 years before retirement. And a good Board will not have short discussions on succession once a year. Their job is to listen to what the current CEO has to say, ask questions about what he and other people in the firm are doing to develop talent, listen to who he/she thinks is on the long list of people that might be the next CEO, and through those many discussions judge whether sufficient activity is going on in between their infrequent board meetings so that there will not be a problem at the last moment. CEO's and their Boards too often either ignore succession until the last minute or do a poor job of handling this important challenge.

  • What are your comments on succession planning at Nike, Southwest airlines and British petroleum?
    My answers would have to be based on data that I can't have total faith in. I try not to talk about things that I don't clearly understand. That's just the way I look at the world. Although I have some thoughts on all three of these situations, it would be too much speculation and I don't like speculation.

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