Change Leaders: Why Should Anyone Trust Your Vision? John Kotter and Harvard Business Review

John Kotter, a change management thought leader of yore and Harvard professor emeritus, has written books that have helped manage change. He reminds us that the following quote underscores the need to lead from the side and the rear as well as from the front.

A leader is most effective when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, his troops will feel they did it themselves.

~ Lao-tzu
John Kotter at the Global change management conference, ACMP, 2011

There are many change management trends from the first decade of the 21st century that I imagine Dr. Kotter has negotiated in his long career. As I prepared for an Association of Change Management Practitioners conference at the time of writing this post, including editing new videos with change leaders, I wanted to share some of John Kotter’s gems. Below is an excerpt, that highlights some common assumptions about how leaders approach change, still as relevant in the second decade, as they were in the first:

The conventional decide-execute model handles large changes very poorly.

~ John Kotter

John Kotter: Recently, an Irish Times reporter interviewed me on the changes currently taking place in Ireland’s finance industry (the nation’s financial regulator had just announced the $39.3 billion price tag of the Anglo Irish Bank bailout). Clearly, much is going to have to change in the banks and how the government deals with them.

But there’s a buy-in problem, as the reporter pointed out. “Why would subordinates trust management to develop a change vision in a situation like this, when management got the company into a mess?

…John Kotter: “But let me address just one issue here. The reporter’s questions were based on an assumption that the way good decisions are made and implemented …

(1) top management analyzes the situation or asks a consultant to;

(2) they create a plan and tell the troops to execute it, or… “sell” it, or at least aggressively communicate it to their troops;

(3) the troops take the direction and execute.

— it’s not close to how the best organizations handle change. Editorial note: then, in the 2010) and even further from reality today, [the Covid pandemic era, 2021.

The conventional decide-execute model handles large changes very poorly.”

Dr. Kotter literally wrote the book, Leading Change, 2007, updated in 2012, and twenty other books.

John Kotter: “but for now let’s just say that success comes from a lot more people getting involved in the decision-making process, and not just by sticking them on a committee — I mean really engaging them so that they are interested and want to be involved.” ~ Harvard Business Review blog post, 2010

I’d say, it is more about to get them involved so they understand and have ownership.

Photo by Artem Podrez on

Not everything is about teamwork and group work, as Western leaning social science and industrial psychology emphasizes. Especially today, there is a dire need for experts and expertise, as well as process that can move rapidly. The age of Covid has shown us this. To get the job done well, the adaptive leader will have to make tough choices as John Kotter’s Step 1: “Create Urgency” meets “Choosing the Important among the Urgent”, especially when it seems the important and the urgent collide.

What’s old is new again, the Eisenhower Grid (choosing the important, not just the urgent) enters the mix, and so does trusting intuition in expert leading when the data cannot be obtained fast enough. It is why experimental treatments have worked and saved many lives, and why intuitive adaptation helps define adaptive change today. This includes the work of changing attitudes, beliefs and the behaviors that go with them.

Take action on your change leader interests. Contact me via if you’d like to know more, especially if you are interested in adaptive change and / or change leadership news and views.

Creative Commons License
This work by Reveln Consulting is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. This post was originally written in 2011. It was updated in 2021 to reflect the new pandemic era approaches of adaptive change.

Published by dnrevel

Change & transition, organization development & team facilitation and retreats. Also REVELN Gardens for flowers and heirloom tomatoes. My LinkedIn profile:

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