John Kotter has been the go-to guy on the subject of change leadership longer than most of us have been working. For the past 35 years or so, he has been making the compelling argument that the essential role of leaders lies in their ability to achieve change — to shepherd their organizations to new and better places. The fast-paced and fundamental disruptions caused by advances in digital technologies make his work more relevant than ever.
Kotter codified his findings in an eight-step change leadership process in the mid-1990s, while at Harvard Business School. He taught there full time from 1972 (when he earned his doctorate) to 2001, when he retired as the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership. In 2008, he cofounded Kotter International, a consultancy that helps sitting leaders at large companies apply his ideas. Among many other honors, he is a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from American Society for Training and Development.
A prolific writer, Kotter has authored 19 books. Leading Change (Harvard Business School Press, 1996), which Time selected as one of the 25 most influential business management books ever written, The Heart of Change (with Dan S. Cohen; Harvard Business School Press, 2002), and A Sense of Urgency (Harvard Business Press, 2008) detail and explore his change leadership process. To spread the word still further, Kotter teamed up with Holger Rathgeber and wrote a business parable featuring penguins, Our Iceberg Is Melting (St. Martin’s Press, 2005), which also landed on the New York Times’ bestseller list.
Kotter’s latest book, That’s Not How We Do It Here! (Penguin, 2016), is another parable written with Rathgeber. This time, the main characters are African meerkats, whose struggle to cope with a drought illuminates the obstacles organizations face in disruptive conditions.
I asked Kotter about the books that had most influenced him in his work. He offered up the following titles, calling them “the big three that helped lead me where I am today.”
Organizational Psychology, by Edgar H. Schein (Prentice-Hall, 1965). “I was a senior at MIT and president of my fraternity when I discovered Edgar Schein’s Organizational Psychology. Schein was describing how organizations work — or don’t — and I found myself saying, ‘He’s got it!’ The book was useful to me in trying to run an organization. How interesting! It woke me up to the idea that running organizations could be a whole area of study, and my experience applying Schein’s ideas made me want to do that. And, as my own company grows and evolves, I often find myself going back to the fundamentals Schein was able to distill.”
The Interpretation of Dreams, by Sigmund Freud (1900). “I read The Interpretation of Dreams when I was in graduate school. It was mind-boggling for me — here’s a guy turning clinical observations into interpretations, and then showing evidence that they are fundamental to how humans behave. Freud’s notion that the brain is, for the most part, outside of our conscious control — an idea that we too often find convenient to ignore — was critical to how I researched and thought about how people respond within organizations. Applying that concept to the topic of leadership, I found that the best leaders intuitively sense that a whole lot of stuff is going on in addition to the exchange of information based on data, and it’s that other stuff that has always fascinated me.”
“When I have information that I think is particularly important that lots of people understand, I try to tell it in the form of a story.”
In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies, by Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. (Harper & Row, 1982). “I was an assistant professor when In Search of Excellence came out. I thought the way Peters and Waterman had gone about this research was interesting: Look for the extreme cases and try to see the patterns that relate to performance over time. Just as important for my own direction were the stories that Peters and Waterman told in the book. I realized that I could frame what I learned in terms of data, and that’s important to appeal to the head, but it’s our stories that appeal to the heart. So, when I have information that I think is particularly important that lots of people understand, I try to tell it in the form of a story. Which will you remember?”