Book Review: Leading Change



Heraclitus, an ancient Greek philosopher, is credited with originally speaking the idea that “the only constant in life is change.”  Isn’t that true?  Just when we get nice and cozy and settled, something is going to change.  How a leader responds in that situation says a lot about them.  From a biblical worldview, we see where the Bible says in Hebrews 13:21 that “He will equip you with everything good that you may do his will.”  I’m a firm believer that if God has called you to a situation or a set of circumstances, He has equipped you to lead in a way that brings glory to Him while also leading to the good of those involved.

A friend recommended Leading Change by John Kotter several months ago.  This book is a great read and a must for anyone that desires to navigate change in a way that leads to true transformation…not just a short-term shift.  I’ve had the privilege of being a part of several movements of change in my life that have gone really well…and a few that didn’t turn out so great!  This book is a great tool in the toolbox of a leader that desires to build trust with their team and help take them to a new level.  This is a fairly quick read with several engaging business anecdotes sprinkled throughout.

I highlighted several things while reading and have posted those notes below…

  • By far the biggest mistake people make when trying to change organizations is to plug ahead without establishing a high enough sense of urgency in fellow managers and employees.  This error is fatal because transformations always fail to achieve their objectives when complacency levels are high.
  • No matter how capable or dedicated the staff head, guiding coalitions without strong line leadership never seem to achieve the power that is required to overcome what are often massive sources of inertia.
  • A useful rule of thumb: Whenever you cannot describe the vision driving a change initiative in 5 minutes or less and get a reaction that signifies both understanding and interest, you are in for trouble.
  • Whenever smart and well-intentioned people avoid confronting obstacles, they disempower employees and undermine change.
  • Real transformation takes time.  Complex efforts to change strategies or restructure businesses risk losing momentum if there are no short-term goals to meet and celebrate.
  • In the final analysis, change sticks only when it becomes “the way we do things around here,” when it seems into the very bloodstream of the work unit or corporate body.  Until new behaviors are rooted in social norms and shared values, they are always subject to degradation as soon as the pressures associated with a change effort are removed.
  • Transformation requires sacrifice, dedication, and creativity, none of which usually comes with coercion.
  • Establishing a sense of urgency is crucial to gaining needed cooperation.
  • A good rule of thumb in a major change effort is: Never underestimate the magnitude of the forces that reinforce complacency and that help maintain the status quo.
  • Talk to others who know your firm or even to people who seem to be at odds with your organization.  And, most important, muster up the courage to listen carefully.
  • Teamwork on a guiding change coalition can be created in many different ways.  But regardless of the process used, one component is necessary: trust.  When trust is present, you will usually be able to create teamwork.  When it is missing, you won’t.
  • Well-chosen words can make a message memorable, even if it has to compete with hundreds of other communications for people’s attention.
  • Words are cheap, but action is not.
  • Nothing undermines the communication of a change vision more than behavior on the part of key players that seems inconsistent with the vision.
  • Whenever structural barriers are not removed in a timely way, the risk is that employees will become so frustrated that they will sour on the entire transformational effort.  If that happens, even if you eventually reorganize correctly, you’ve lost the energy needed to use the new structure to make the vision a reality.
  • Discouraged and disempowered employees never make enterprises winners in a globalizing economic environment.
  • Running a transformation effort without serious attention to short-term wins is extremely risky.
  • A good short-term win has at least these three characteristics:
    1.  It’s visible; large numbers of people can see for themselves whether the result is real or just hype.
    2.  It’s unambiguous; there can be little argument over the call.
    3.  It’s clearly related to the change effort.
  • All organizations are made up of interdependent parts.
  • Major change is never successful unless the complacency level is low.
  • Successful organizations in the twenty-first century will have to become more like incubators of leadership.  Wasting talent will become increasingly costly in a world of rapid change.  Developing that leadership will, in turn, demand flatter and leaner structures along with less controlling and more risk-taking cultures.
  • Lifelong learners take risks.  Much more than others, these men and women push themselves out of their comfort zones and try new ideas.  While most of us become set in our ways, they keep experimenting.
  • And those people at the top of enterprises today who encourage others to leap into the future, who help them overcome natural fears, and who thus expand the leadership capacity in their organizations—those people provide a profoundly important service for the entire human community.

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