No Man is an Iceberg

Thoughts on John P. Kotter’s What Leaders Really Do by Stephen Hudak


“Management is about coping with complexity; Leadership is about coping with change” (Leaders 53).  Harvard Professor John P. Kotter has built a life and career around that concept.  His fifteen books including such titles as Leading Change and The Heart of Change are laden with real life examples and interviews with thousands of corporate leader-mangers.  While his wording becomes a bit labored and overdone in John P. Kotter on What Leaders Really Do his tables and lists more than make up for it.  When an idea becomes muddled in a mountain of words there appears a numbered list that helps to get the reader back on track and understand the topic’s intent.  A little bit of time and patience invested is definitely worth the effort.

Kotter begins this short book with a chapter entitled “Leadership at the Turn of the Century” (it would be interesting to see a revised edition of this volume post September 11)[1].  In it he lists his “Ten Observations About ‘Managerial Behavior.”  This follows on the heels of his premise that leaders manage change and managers manage things (people, schedules, tasks, etc.).  Kotter clearly states “…the point is not that leadership is good and management is bad…they are simply different and serve different purposes” (Leaders 11).  He goes on to indicate that both are necessary and are sometimes found in the same person noting “… the real challenge is to combine strong leadership and strong management and to use each to balance the other” (Leaders 52).  He then confesses “not everyone can be good at both leading and managing…” and that “…smart companies value both kinds of people and work hard to make them part of the team…” (Leaders 52).  Many of Kotter’s observations are along this common-sense line, but he expresses them with examples that give life to his words.

In observation number six Kotter discusses managerial behavior as:

“…those in managerial jobs can be usefully thought of as people who create agendas filled with plans (the management part) and visions (the leadership part), as people who develop implementation capacity networks through a well-organized hierarchy (management) and a complex web of aligned relationships (leadership), and who execute through both controls (management) and inspiration (leadership)” (Leaders 6).


One person is often better at either managing people or things.  The leadership aspects are much more difficult.  People are more varied than production schedules, much more complex, and the consequences of the mismanagement of people are more drastic.  This process of leading people (and change) is the bulk of Kotter’s book.

Kotter divides his book into two distinct parts: Leadership and Change, and Dependency and Networks.  From the first part’s chapters on “Choosing Strategies for Change,” “What Leaders Really Do” and “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail,” and into the second part’s first chapter “Power, Dependence, and Effective Management” much useful insight can be found.  The last two chapters on “Managing Your Boss” and “What Effective General Managers Really Do,” while containing some nuggets of leadership wisdom, are mostly are repetitive and could be best dealt with in the earlier chapters as side notes.  Those concluding “throw-away” chapters first appeared in 1993 and 1982 respectively in the Harvard Business Review and could definitely benefit from updating.


Kotter writes that “…most U.S. corporations today are overmanaged and underled” (Leaders 51).  This is all too true as many companies lack either the willingness or capacity to empower their managers to exercise their leadership skills.  Managers are often put through intensive and expensive training to little or no avail.  This lack of trust in the workplace is one topic that could have been addressed in Kotter’s book beyond four paragraphs headed “Misunderstanding and Lack of Trust.”  In this context trust is attended to regarding people’s resistance to change when people “…do not understand [the implications of the change] and perceive that it might cost them more than they will gain…” when they do not clearly understand the message nor trust its messenger (Leaders 33).  A leader must be trusted and in any relationship trust must be established and maintained.  This goes way beyond Kotter’s few sentences on misunderstanding and would give greater credence to what leaders really do.

This book shines in its many exhibits that summarize and offer easily understood tips that can be flagged and flipped to when needed.  For example, his “Methods for Dealing with Resistance to Change” not only admit that there will be resistance to most change but outlines approaches to use in various situations along with the advantages and drawbacks of that particular approach.  In table format Kotter simply notes:


  Methods for Dealing with Resistance to Change    
Approach Commonly Used in Situations Advantages Drawbacks
Education + Communication Where there is lack of information or inaccurate information and analysis Once persuaded, people will often help with the implementation of the change Can be very time-consuming if lots of people are involved

From Exhibit 2-1 (Leaders 44)[2]


John Kotter’s chapter on “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail” alone is worth the price of the book.  It contains eight common errors that change-leaders too often overlook (or never even consider) before, during, and after the change process.  In his order these include:

Error #1: Not establishing a Great Enough Sense of Urgency

Error #2: Not Providing a Powerful Enough Guiding Coalition

Error #3: Lacking a Vision

Error #4: Under-communicating the Vision by a Factor of Ten

Error #5: Not Removing Obstacles to the New Vision

Error #6: Not Systematically Planning for and Creating Short-Term Wins

Error #7: Declaring Victory Too Soon

Error #8: Not Anchoring Changes in the Corporation’s Culture


Corporate classes on these errors should be conducted with any organization’s leaders prior to attempting even a seemingly small change.  We can all picture error #7 with President George W. Bush standing on the deck of the aircraft carrier under the banner “Mission Accomplished.”  Much discussion has taken place about this scenario ranging from Bush having no idea of the sign prior to his arrival (Republican viewpoint) to just another example of Bush jumping the gun and declaring victory too soon (Democrat stance).  Regardless, whoever was behind that fiasco obviously never heard of Kotter’s Error #7.

Error #8 is where most organizations ultimately fail.  Even if they avoid the first seven, by not ensuring that the new change becomes part of the company culture, it is all too easy for workers to fall back into the mindset of how “it’s always been.”  Complacency means death to any changing and growing business.

John Kotter teamed up with author Holger Rathgeber to create the very entertaining bestseller Our Iceberg is Melting[3].  This leadership-book-as-fable uses Kotter’s eight errors (with the more positive rephrasing “The Eight Step Process of Successful Change”) to tell the story of a colony of penguins who have lived in the same region of Antarctica so long that none of its members can remember otherwise.  Needless to say, complacency has long taken root, and the large birds mostly go about their penguin-lives with blinders on.  Except for one young curious bird, Fred, who notices that one portion of their iceberg seems to be smaller than it was last year.  Fred begins investigating his observation and the book takes the reader through each of the eight error-steps using the interaction of Fred and the penguin leadership team in setting a vision to convince the citizens of the ramifications of doing nothing through to the happy conclusion of making the changes a part of their featherless culture.  “Iceberg” and “Leaders” should be read together – with the penguin-fable studied first (Iceberg).

Both books note that all change is different; that’s why it’s called “change” and not “constant.”  Kotter’s (and Fred’s) methods are to be thoughtfully considered and used as applicable.  He (Kotter, not Fred) knows that one-size change does not exist and could never fit all if it did.  With all the possibilities mentioned in Kotter’s book, if all were attempted, change would never be realized – only a never-ending semi-change process would exist.  His considerable concepts are easily understood and meant to be used in the suitable circumstance.  If applied properly, success should be achieved with minimal interruption to the employee’s psyche or work day.

A major breakdown of Kotter’s book is the concluding chapter (one of the aforementioned throw-aways).  Titled “What General Managers Really Do” this essay from 1982 completes the notion of what the book is – a compilation of previously written material.  Not necessarily a bad thing, but ending a book on “What Leaders Really Do” with pseudo-conversations of GM and employee interactions and MG-agendas does not stress the leadership part.  Instead it serves to weaken the rest of the book and is anticlimactical.  The second half of the book is like a balloon with a steady leak.  It is enjoyable early on, but with continued handling it eventually falls flat.

Read Our Iceberg is Melting for an enjoyable learning experience then John P. Kotter on What Leaders Really Do (part 1 only) for the more instructional how-to aspects of leadership.  For a man who has spent the bulk of his life in academia and very little in the practical world of business (outside of research) he has made quite a successful career of teaching leadership and the change aspects involved.

Take Kotter’s writings in small portions, but do take them and learn from them.

[1] John Kotter, in Harvard Business Review, has published a “cliff-notes” version if you will of this book that boils down the concepts into 11 pages.  I would recommend reading this first before tackling the 171-page book.  His article still does not discuss the post-9/11 world and it is pre-Enron, pre-Adelphia, but condenses the book’s ideas into a quick, easy-to-read format.

[2] This table shows only one example.  Kotter covers six different approaches from when there is sufficient time allowed for a change to occur to when speed is of the utmost concern and includes methods ranging from involving those affected to “explicit and implicit coercion.”

[3] The following description is loosely based on this book.

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