Kotter What Leaders Really Do Summary Essays

The article by John Kotter entitled, “What Leaders Really Do” is one of the most effective pieces of writing for determining where you stand in terms of your role as a leader or manager of an organization and offers suggestions about what elements of leadership you can further develop to make yourself more beneficial to your organization. As this summary and analysis of “What Leaders Really Do” by John Kotter suggests, one aspect of leadership is to first demystify the differences and similarities between leaders and managers and indicates that leaders are not rare people with exceptional charisma necessarily and that there is no hierarchy that exists where one is more important than the other.

Instead, he states that these two roles should compliment one another in their focus and that they are different entities with differing roles in an organization that are interdependent. While many people can play roles as leaders in an organization, it is the duty of management to help guide the group through rough patches and while this involves leadership skills, leading can come from beyond this managerial role from within members of the organization who can be leaders in the sense that they are open to changes and can adapt and help others do the same while management works in terms of organizing and leader work “aligning" people with new directions. Since constant change and evolution are such important parts of the success of an organization, having a balance between the aligning influences of the leaders in the organization and the management-based duties of organization and assistance with stability through the change, is vital. With over-management, the “human" side of the equation is lost, which is just as important as all of the planning, charting, and organization involved on the management side. Near the beginning of the article “What Leaders Really Do”, John Kotter states that most corporations in the United States are “overmanaged and underled." This idea underscores many of the main ideas since, if this assessment is correct, it means that many organizations are not allowing managers and leaders to work together, instead favoring a less suitable arrangement where it is the responsibility of management to handle all of the tasks of organization and aligning people. Interestingly, not only does Kotter point out that one is not better than the other (management versus leadership) but that without the equal input and contributions of both sides, change, which is an important and vital element of any organization, is not as accepted as the managers are not able to manage the “human" side of the equation in addition to their organizational duties. Related to this is the important idea that many people in the organization can assume leadership roles and in fact, by having more than one official leadership position, change can be more readily accepted and implemented.

If this is the case as Kotter suggests in “What Leaders Really Do” then there is no “over-management" because they are committed simply to organization and the more general implementation of coming changes on a technical level while the other side of change; acceptance of it and the moving forward end, can be left to those in the organization who are leaders and can assist others through the time of evolution. This is certainly a different version of management and leadership than one encounters in many theories because it excludes management’s roles in some arenas by shifting the responsibility of certain duties to those in the organization who may not hold official titles, but who demonstrate an ability to accept and assist others with change.

HBR's 10 Must Reads on Leadership

ISBN: 978-1422157978
READ: Jan 15, 2015

Critical Summary

HBR's 10 Must Reads on Leadership is a collection of ten HBR essays on leadership. Every article essentially tries to answer the same question: "What are the qualities of a great leader, and how does one gain those qualities?".

More specifically, the essays cover the following questions:

  • What does a leader need to do? ("What Makes an Effective Executive?", "What Leaders Really Do", "The Work of Leadership")
  • What is the ideal personality of a leader? ("What Makes a Good Leader?", "Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?", "Level 5 Leadership")
  • What are the various competencies of leadership and how can they be distributed across different people? ("In Praise of the Incomplete Leader", "Seven Transformations of Leadership")

While reading, it's impossible not to notice the fact that while many of the articles attempt to answer same questions, they arrive at a very different conclusions. Several of the articles openly admit that while thousands of scholars have attempted to produce a cookie-cutter leadership profile, none has emerged. Successful leadership is highly circumstantial, and its effectiveness in of itself is difficult to measure or compare.

Overall, I walked away with greatly improved perspective and understanding of what it takes to be an effective leader, as well as tools to help me grow and handle various situational challenges.

Below are reviews of each article:

"What Makes a Good Leader?"

Daniel Goleman's article describes emotional intelligence as one of the keys to being an effective leader. For someone already familiar with Goleman's work or emotional intelligence, the concepts in his article won't be new. Nonetheless it is helpful to see them described within the context of leadership.

"What Makes an Effective Executive?"

Peter Drucker's "What Makes an Effective Executive?" was one of my favorite. It lays out a simple set of actionable leadership tasks for people in both new and existing leadership roles. As someone who's recently taken on a new leadership role at my company, this article was immensely helpful to me in clarifying what I should be doing. I believe notes from this article should be reviewed regularly.

"What Leaders Really Do"

This article is a great complement to Drucker's "What Makes an Effective Executive?". Kotter describes how to set business "vision" and direction and what a leader must do to successfully move an organization toward achieving it. Kotter also breaks down differences between management and leadership to frame differences as well as the importance of both.

"The Work of Leadership"

This article centers around the concept of "adaptive challenges", which are described as "murky, systemic problems with no easy answers" such as increasing competition in an industry.

The authors argue that such challenges require an entire organization to adapt and change, and that the role of leadership is not to set the direction or develop solutions, but rather to frame questions and issues and create an environment for people across the organization to achieve solutions.

While I found the overall points helpful, I found the article verbose and confusing at times. Even the word "adaptive challenge" is abstract to the point where I constantly had to review what it was referring to.

"Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?"

This article suggests four personality traits needed to inspire others and retain committed followers. I found it to be a simple and actionable set of qualities that a leader should try to embody in their presentation and interactions with others.

"Crucibles of Leadership"

This article describes how many successful leaders have gone through "crucibles", or life experiences where they faced adversity and emerged transformed. The article identifies the specific skills and traits needed to overcome and emerge positively from these experiences, and argues that they are the same skills and trains needed for successful leadership.

"Level 5 Leadership"

Jim Collins describes "level 5 leaders" (the highest level of leadership) as embodying the dualistic personality traits of personal humility and fearless professional will. While emphasizing the critical importance of "level 5 leadership", the article also describes other leadership strategies that turn good companies into great ones.

"Seven Transformations of Leadership"

This article describes a hierarchy of leadership styles, ranging from ineffective to highly effective. The purpose of this hierarchy is to be able to identify someone's (or your own) leadership style, and figure out how to grow to the next level. While I was able to identify with some of the styles listed and found the breakdown helpful as a whole, I'm not sure if I walked away with much benefit from this article.

"Discovering Your Authentic Leadership"

This article argues that no cookie-cutter leadership formula exists, and that you cannot become a trusted leader by trying to imitate someone else. You can and should learn from others' experiences, but the only way to become an authentic leader is to be you and commit yourself to lifelong learning and self-development

"In Praise of the Incomplete Leader"

This article highlights the danger of assuming that leaders should do and be everything. The article breaks down leadership into four distinct competencies that can be developed or distributed, depending on the strengths and weaknesses of a leader and the needs of an organization.

"What Makes a Good Leader?"

by Daniel Goleman

Most effective leaders have a high degree of emotional intelligence, which include self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill.

  • Self-Awareness: self-confidence, ability to assess oneself realistically, self-deprecating sense of humor, thirst for constructive criticism, frank in telling of past failures.
  • Self-Regulation: propensity for reflection and thoughtfulness, comfort with ambiguity and change, and integrity—an ability to say no to impulsive urges.
  • Motivation: Great leaders are motivated by a deeply embedded desire to achieve for the sake of achievement (not external factors). They love their jobs for the work itself, and have an insatiable appetite for surpassing goals and keeping score (their own, their team's, and their company's). Their upbeat attitude is contagious and inspires others to follow.

Signs of intrinsic motivation = seek out challenges, love to learn, take great pride in a job well done; unflagging energy to do things better, restless with the status quo, persistent with their questions about why things are done one way rather than the other; eager to explore new approaches to their work.

People with high motivation also have strong optimism, even in the face of failure.

  • Empathy: thoughtfully considering employees feelings—along with other factors—in the process of making decisions. Sense and understand viewpoints of everyone around the table, and treat people according to their emotional reactions.

  • Social Skill: friendliness with a purpose; managing relationships to move people in desired directions (eg. an agreement on a new strategy or enthusiasm about a new product)

Socially skilled people do not arbitrarily limit the scope of their relationship. They build bonds widely because they know they may need help someday from people they are just getting to know today.

A leader's task is to get work done through other people.

"What Makes an Effective Executive?"

by Peter F Drucker

Effective leaders get the right things done, in the right ways—by following eight simple rules:

  1. Ask "what needs to be done?" Not "what do I want to do?"
  2. Ask "what's right for the enterprise?" Although owners, investors, employees, and customers are important constituencies — don't antagonize over what's best for them. Decisions that are right for your enterprise are ultimately right for all stakeholders. Failure to ask this question virtually guarantees the wrong decision.
  3. Develop action plans - Knowledge is useless until it has been translated into deeds. Begin with desired outcomes and develop action plans that anticipate the need for flexibility and include a way to check results against desired outcomes and expectations.

Napolean allegedly said that no successful battle ever followed its plan. Yet Napoleon also planned every one of his battles meticulously.

  • Take responsibility for decisions See section below on "decision-making"
  • Take responsibility for communicating.
  • Focus on opportunities, not problems. Identify changes inside and outside your organization, asking "How can we exploit this change to benefit our enterprise?" Then match your best people with the best opportunities.
  • Run productive meetings
  • Think and say "We," not "I". Authority comes from trust from the organization. Think of the needs and the opportunities of the organization before your own needs and opportunities.
  • Listen first, speak last.


A decision has not been made until people know:

  • the name of the person accountable for carrying it out
  • the deadline
  • the names of the people who will be affected by the decision and therefore have to know about, understand, and approve it—or at least not oppose it
  • the names of people who have to be informed of the decision

Employee Performance

Executives owe it to the organization and to their fellow workers not to tolerate nonperforming individuals in important jobs.

Allocating the best people to the right positions is a crucial, tough job. Very often, decisions do not produce results because the right people are not put on the job.

People who have failed in a new job should be given the chance to go back to a job at their former level and salary. Organizations that offer this option can encourage people to leave safe, comfortable jobs and take risky new assignments.


Types of opportunities to look out for:

  • an unexpected success or failure in their own enterprise, in a competing enterprise, or in the industry;
  • a gap between what is and what could be in a market, process, product, or service
  • innovation in a process, product, or service, whether inside or outside the enterprise or its industry;
  • changes in industry structure and market structure;
  • changes in mind-set, values, perception, mode, or meaning;
  • new knowledge or a new technology

One way to staff opportunities is to ask each member of management to prepare two lists every six months—a list of opportunities for the entire enterprise and a list of best-performing people throughout the enterprise. These are discussed and melded into two master lists, and the best people are matched with the best opportunities.

"What Leaders Really Do"

by John P. Kotter

Leader is different from management — they are two distinctive, complementary roles. Most U.S. corporations today are over-managed and underled.

Management = coping with complexity and carrying out plans in an efficient, predictable manner

Leadership = setting direction and producing change

I. Set the direction

Leadership's function is to produce change, and set the direction of that change.

The aim of management is predictability—orderly results.

For example, companies manage complexity first by planning and budgeting–setting targets or goals for the future, establishing steps for achieving those targets, and then allocating resources to accomplish those plans.

By contrast, leading change begins by setting a direction–gathering a broad range of data to look for patterns, relationships, and linkages; and develop a vision of the future along with strategies for producing the changes needed to achieve that vision.

Coming up with a "vision"

Most discussions of "vision" have a tendency to degenerate into the mystical. But in reality, setting good business direction is a process of gathering and analyzing information.

A successful direction-setting process provides a focus in which planning can then be realistically carried out. It helps clarify what kind of planning is essential and what kind is irrelevant.

Visions do not have to be brilliantly innovative; in fact, effective business visions regularly have an almost mundane quality, usually consisting of ideas that are already well-known. The particular combination or patterning of the ideas may be new, but sometimes even that is not the case.


CEO of Scandinavian Airlines's vision was to be the best airline in the world for frequent business travelers. The ideas behind this were simple, but in an industry known for bureaucracy, no company had ever put these simple ideas together and dedicated itself to implementing them. SAS did, and it worked.

What's crucial about a vision is not its originality, but how well it serves the interest of customers, stockholders, and employees, and how easily it can be translated into a realistic competitive strategy. Bad visions tend to ignore the legitimate needs and rights of certain constituencies.

II. Align

Managers organize to create human systems that can implement plans as precisely and efficiently as possible.

Leaders align people—getting people to get behind a shared vision and take initiative based on it.

Aligning people is a big communication challenge. The targets are not only a manager's subordinates, but also bosses, peers, staff in other parts of the organization, as well as partners, customers, and anyone who can help implement the vision and strategies or who can block implementation is relevant.

Trying to get people to comprehend and believe a vision is a big communications challenge. It's the difference between a football quarterback attempting to describe the next two or three plays versus his trying to explain a totally new approach to the game to be used in the second half of the season.

Alignment helps empower people in at least two ways:

  1. When a clear sense of direction has been communicated throughout an organization, lower-level employees can initiate actions without the same degree of vulnerability or hesitance
  2. Because everyone will be aiming at the same target, the probability is less that one person's initiative will be stalled when it comes into conflict with someone else's.

III. Motivate

Managerial processes must be as close as possible to fail-safe and risk free. Motivation and inspiration is almost irrelevant.

Leadership is different. Achieving grand visions always requires a burst of energy. Motivation and inspiration energizes people and helps them overcome inevitable barriers to change.

Good leaders motivate people by:

  1. Articulating the organizations vision in a manner that stresses the values of the audience they are addressing, in order to make the work feel important
  2. Involving people in deciding how to achieve the organizations vision, giving people a sense of control
  3. Supporting employee efforts to realize the vision by providing coaching, feedback, and role modeling—helping them grow professionally and enhancing their self-esteem
  4. Recognizing and rewarding success—not only gives people a sense of accomplishment but also makes them feel like they belong to an organization that cares about them

Creating a culture of leadership

Companies can create more leaders by providing people an opportunity to lead; and then making these people visible to senior management so they can judge for themselves who has potential and what the development needs of those people are.

Career patterns of effective leaders:

  1. Significant challenge early in a career—leaders almost always have had opportunities during their twenties and thirties to actually try to lead, to take a risk, and to learn from both trumps and failures. These opportunities are essential in developing a wide range of leadership skills and perspectives. These opportunities also teach people something about both the difficulty of leadership and its potential for producing change.
  2. Lateral career moves and breadth of knowledge/experience

"The Work of Leadership"

by Ronald A. Heifetz and Donald L. Laurie

"Adaptive challenges" = murky, systemic problems with no easy answers. eg. stiffening competition, teams that aren't executing effectively.

The six principles for leading adaptive work:

  1. Get on the balcony. Move back and forth between the "action" and the "balcony". This high-level perspective helps you spot trends and prevents you from unwittingly becoming a prisoner of the system.
  • Identify the adaptive challenge. Technical challenges require adjustments within basic routines. Adaptive challenges require people throughout the company to learn different ways of doing business, develop new competencies, and work collectively. eg. teams that aren't executing effectively, marketing having difficulty working with operations.
  • Regulate Distress. Leaders must strike a balance between having people feel the need to change and having them feel overwhelmed by change.

    • Protect people by controlling the rate of change so people don't become overwhelmed and disoriented. Sequence and pace the work.
    • Orient people to new roles and responsibilities by clarifying business realities and key values.
    • Raise tough questions without exhibiting anxiety. Communicate with confidence and poise.
  • Maintain disciplined attention. Confront issues and deepen the debate to get to the heart of issues. Lead collaboration to solve problems.

  • Give the work back to employees Instill confidence in people. Encourage risk-taking and responsibility. Help people recognize that they contain the solutions.

"The key is to let them discover the problem. You won't be successful if people aren't carrying the recognition of the problem and the solution within themselves."

  • Protect leadership voices from below. Don't silence whistle-blowers, creative deviants, and others exposing contradictions within your company. Their perspectives can provoke fresh thinking. Ask: "What is this guy really talking about? Have we missed something?"

"Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?"

by Robert Goffee and Gareth Jone

There are four core qualities that make a leader inspirational. These qualities cannot be learnt and used formulaically—they must be a part of an executive's personality. Come up with a personal style.

  1. Selectively reveal weaknesses. Show you're human.. Whether it's admitting that you're irritable on Monday mornings, or somewhat disorganized, exposing weakness makes you more genuine, trustworthy, and relatable.

    If you don't show some weakness, then observers may invent one for you. Celebrities and politicians intentionally give the public something to talk about so that they don't come up with something worse.

    If you communicate that you're perfect at everything, there's no need for anyone to help you with anything.

    Tip: Don't pick a flaw that jeopardizes central aspects of your professional role—pick a tangential one (this also diverts attention from major weaknesses). And pick a flaw that others consider a strength.

  2. Become a sensor. Collect and interpret subtle interpersonal cues so you can sensitive in how you interact with people. Know how far you can push the limits of your leadership without losing followers.

  3. Manage employees with tough empathy. Empathize passionately with your followers–care intensely about their work. Practice tough love–give them only what they need.

  4. Be different. Capitalizing on what's unique about yourself lets you signal your separateness as a leader and keep a social distance.

    Inspirational leaders use separateness to motivate others to perform better. They recognize instinctively that followers will push themselves if their leader is just a little aloof.

    Be careful not to over differentiate yourself and lose contact with your followers or stop being a good sensor.

"Crucibles of Leadership"

by Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas

One of the most reliable indicator and predictors of true leadership is an individuals ability to find meaning in negative events and to learn from even the most trying circumstances.

The skills required to transcend adversity through creative interpretation and hardiness are the same ones that make for extraordinary leaders.

In interviewing more than 40 top leaders, the authors found that all of them were able to point to intense, often traumatic, always unplanned experiences that had transformed them and become the sources of their distinctive leadership abilities.

These "crucible" experiences were a trial and a test, and a point of deep self-reflection that forced them to question who they were and what mattered to them. It required them to examine their values, question their assumptions, hone their judgement, and emerge stronger and more sure of themselves and their purpose, changed in some fundamental way.

A crucible is, by definition, a transformative experience through which an individual comes to a new or altered sense of identity.

"Level 5 Leadership"

by Jim Collins

Level 5 Leadership = humility + fearless will

Personal humility: Modest, shuns public adulation, never boastful. Credits others, luck, and external factors to success.

Professional will: Does whatever must be done to produce the best long-term results.

Level 5 leaders + the following drivers turn good companies into great ones:

  • First who, then what. Attend to people first, strategy second. Get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off, ushered the right people to the right seats—then drove the bus.
  • Stockdale paradox. Deal with the brutal facts of you current reality–while maintaing absolute faith that you'll prevail.
  • Buildup-breakthrough flywheel. Good to great does not happen over night. Keep pushing your organizational flywheel. With consistent effort, momentum kicks in. Maintaining that momentum is everything.
  • Hedgehog concept. Think of your company as three intersecting circles: what it can be best at, how its economics work best, and what ignites its peoples passions. Eliminate everything else.
  • Technology accelerators. Good-to-great companies avoided jumping on new technology bandwagons, but were pioneers in carefully applying technology to boost their momentum.
  • A culture of discipline. When you have disciplined people, you don't need hierarchy. When you have disciplined thought, you don't need bureaucracy. When you have disciplined action, you don't need excessive controls. When you combine a culture of discipline with an ethic of entrepreneurship, you get the magic alchemy of great performance.

There's no "ten steps to Level 5 Leadership". Best advice is to practice the other good-to-great disciplines.

"Seven Transformations of Leadership"

by David Rooke and William R Torbert

Leadership persona ladder:

Least effective

  • Opportunist - Wins in any way possible; self-oriented. Good in emergencies and pursuing sales, but treats other people as objects and loses followers quickly.

  • Diplomat - Works to please others and helps bring people together. Initiating change represents a grave thread to the Diplomat, and he will avoid it if at all possible, to the point of self-destruction.

Mildly effective

  • Expert - (most common) Leads with logic and expertise. Great individual contributors because of their pursuit of continuous improvement, efficiency and perfection. Emotional intelligence is not appreciated.

  • Achiever - (2nd most common) Effectively achieves goals through teams; juggles managerial duties and market demands.

Most effective

  • Individualist - Greater self-awareness than the Achiever. Views everything through a highly self-aware and abstract lens. Has the tendency to ignore rules they regard irrelevant, which makes them a source of irritation to both colleagues and bosses.

  • Strategists - Is able to balance their individuality with organizational constraints and perceptions. Believes that every aspect of their organization is open to discussion and transformation. Adept at creating shared visions that encourage both personal and organizational transformations. Believes organizational and social change is an iterative development process that requires awareness and close leadership attention.

  • Alchemist - Ability to reinvent themselves and their organizations in historically significant ways. Engages in peer-mentoring with other leadership. Can talk with both kings and commoners. Can deal with immediate priorities yet never lose sight of long-term goals.

How to help others grow:

I want to talk with you about your future here at our company. Your completion of the Czech project under budget and ahead of time is one more sign that you have the initiative, creativity, and determination to make the senior team here. At the same time, I've had to pick up a number of pieces after you that I shouldn't have had to I'd like to brainstorm together about how you can approach future projects in a way that eliminates this hassle and gets key players on your side. Then, we can chat several times over the next year as you begin to apply whatever new principles we come up with. Does this seem like a good use of our time, or do you have a different perspective on the issue?

^ Clear praise, clear description of a limitation, a proposed path forward, and inquiry that empowers the recipient to reframe the dilemma if he wishes.

"Discovering Your Authentic Leadership"

by Bill George, Peter Sims. Andrew N. Mclean, and Dianna Mayer

No one can be a trusted leader by trying to imitate someone else. You can learn from others’ experiences, but there is no way you can be successful when you are trying to be like them.

“How can people become and remain authentic leaders?”

Analyzing 3,000 pages of transcripts, our team was startled to see you do not have to be born with specific characteristics or traits of a leader. Leadership emerges from your life story.

Genuine and authentic leaders demonstrate a passion for their purpose, practice their values consistently, and lead with their hearts as well as their minds.

Discovering your authentic leadership requires a commitment to self-teaching and self-development. Like musicians and athletes, you must devote yourself to a lifetime of reaching your potential.

"In Praise of the Incomplete Leader"

by Deborah Ancona, Thomas W. Malone, Wonda J. Orlikowski, and Peter M. Senge

Leaders are expected to be and do everything. This is a myth that needs to end.

Leaders should find and work with others who can provide the capabilities they're missing.

Four competencies that make up the model of distributed leadership:

  1. Sensemaking - Understanding your company and how external changes in the business environment affect your industry and company. Look for help in this capability if you are at risk of getting blindsided by changes in your industry or are not in touch with your customers.
  2. Relating - Building trusting relationships and cultivating networks of supportive confidants. Look for help if you feel others are to blame for failed projects or that they are constantly letting you down and can't be trusted.
  3. Visioning - Creating and communicating a compelling vision of the future and rallying the company around it. Look for help if you often wondering "why are we doing this?" or "does it really matter?", feeling a lack of excitement about work, or are missing a sense of larger purpose.
  4. Inventing - Coming up with new and better ways of doing things, and overcoming seemingly insurmountable problems. Look for help if you have difficulty relating the company's vision to what you're doing today, or notice gaps between your firm's aspirations and the way work is happening.

Rarely will someone be equally skilled in all four domains. Incomplete leaders differ from incompetent leaders in that they recognize what they're good at and what they're not, and work with others to build on their strengths and offset limitations.

Sometimes, a leader needs to develop the capabilities they are weak in. Other times, its better for a leader to find others to compensate for their weaknesses.

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