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Kotter and Bennis on Rethinking Leadership
St. Edward’s University
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Kotter and Bennis on Rethinking Leadership
In Rethinking the Future, Warren Bennis and John Kotter, both world-renowned theorists
in contemporary leadership, discuss the leadership and organizational transformations necessary to meet the challenges of the rapidly changing twenty-first century. Bennis explains his concepts in the article “Becoming a Leader of Leaders,” and John Kotter outlines his theories in “Cultures and Coalitions.” Both authors justify why organizations and corporate cultures must be able to quickly adjust to twenty-first century changes but offer varying approaches to successful adaptation.
According to Bennis, before the twenty-first century and the many advances in technology, organizations were linear and hierarchal, requiring supervisors to manage through control, order and prediction. Continuing with these organizational methods would slow the handling of constant and inevitable change. In addition to past bureaucratic environments, the issues of excess capacity and oversupply pose a threat to change adaptation and may exist until Third World countries develop a consumer-based middle class. These obstacles to change need to be dealt with by successful leaders who possess a strong sense of purpose, an ability to translate their vision and an aptitude for building trust. Bennis’s experience as a higher education administrator influences his organizational theories. He believes companies, like universities, are unstable, full of confusion, surprise and chaos, but also employ well-educated, highly individual and creative people. Harnessing the talent of these individual leaders is essential to organizational success. Leaders must be capable of reinventing the organization to create new opportunities that better generate and utilize an organization’s intellectual capital.
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Kotter discusses how globalization has increased and expanded markets and competition. These fast-paced, volatile business environments must instantly deal with continuous change. Kotter focuses on the culture of an organization and its ability to allow for adaptability. Past corporate cultures created barriers to reengineering, adjustments to market developments, implementation of strategies, and management of new acquisitions. Therefore, leaders must re-think corporate culture to ensure that theirs is not an anchor-to-change but rather a facilitator of change adaptation. Developing this adaptive culture is possible when organizational leaders sincerely value initiative, leadership, and their employees throughout all levels of the company.
Both authors agree that it is vital to address rapid change with new forms of leadership and organizations. Bennis believes addressing twenty-first century change requires reinventing leadership at every organizational level. New leadership must enable the organization to improve productivity and decrease waste. Bennis envisions this happening through the decentralization of collective business units he refers to as federations. Kotter also subscribes to the benefits of smaller, more flexible business units but calls them satellites. However, Kotter believes that it is only through leadership that an adaptive culture can be developed and nurtured. He emphasizes that new leadership coalitions must be the catalyst in transforming corporate cultures. In short, Bennis believes an adaptive organization makes good leaders while Kotter believes good leaders make adaptive cultures.
Throughout the analysis of Bennis and Kotter’s works, four common themes arise in regards to what is necessary in order to achieve success in leadership and in the organization. In the first theme, Bennis and Kotter look at the changes an organization needs to make in its culture, organization and leadership in order to realize future success. Secondly, working to achieve success requires redesigning, recreating and reinventing organizations. Third, both
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authors provide steps and guidance for a redesigned organization achieved through strong leadership. Lastly, Bennis and Kotter outline the attributes of twenty-first century leaders and the environment necessary to cultivate potential leaders.
Changes Needed in Organizations and Leadership
In “Becoming a Leader of Leaders,” Bennis states that companies should constantly reinvent themselves and avoid downsizing. To deal with accelerated change, organizations must concentrate on becoming more productive through creative means. He illustrates this by describing how a sound system company utilizes the cutout wooden circles from speakers to make and sell clocks rather than paying for the disposal of the material and wasting money. By reinventing the use of these materials, the company created a profit-making venture out of a line item expense.
In Bennis’s discussion on leadership, he highlights tow areas upon which leaders should capitalize. The first is personal improvement through the understanding and adoption of technology. However, these technically savvy leaders should not let electronic communication take the place of face to face communication, which is especially important in guiding an organization during turbulent, changing times. He explains that leaders should become comfortable with technology, especially electronic communication such as email, which will further democratize the workforce and enable it to rapidly deal with change. The second is the capitalization on the strengths of women as leaders, which could result as a major competitive advantage for the U.S. The natural abilities women possess provide potential for improving the human condition, which ultimately leads to an improvement in the organization’s condition. Bennis warns that it is time for a corporate culture change where male chauvinist games no longer are prevalent.
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Bennis also discusses organizational modifications of both big and small companies. He states that small businesses must operate using the same methods as large companies by utilizing the advantages of networks and technology. Large companies should draw from the behavior of smaller companies by being nimble, efficient and quick. Both large and small organizations must maintain porous, permeable boundaries to address customers and the outside world effectively.
In “Cultures and Coalitions,” Kotter discusses the importance of focusing on employees, customers, shareholders and suppliers, rather than focusing inward on management and self-interest. He cautions that leaders of organizations must avoid arrogance, the biggest anchor to change, and instead embrace the facilitation of change. Kotter suggests organizations develop a change-adaptive culture by focusing outward and combining the value of leadership and initiative at every level of the organization. He explains that companies need this outward focus on people, not management expertise, in order to spot issues quickly. Empowered employees can handle problems responsively and efficiently. Kotter stresses the necessity of developing this ability to deal with difficulties as they arise.
The transformation to an adaptive culture requires that organizations develop a high sense of urgency, a tendency toward teamwork, a willingness to delegate management duties to lower levels, a belief in true simplicity and a minimal level of hierarchy and bureaucracy. Kotter adamantly believes corporate culture cannot be ignored, but instead must be nurtured by new leadership to become adaptive to change.
Bennis and Kotter agree that leadership and initiative must exist through all levels of decentralized organizations. Both also agree companies must maintain an outward focus, in order to be prepared to adapt and embrace the opportunities created from rapid change.
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Rethinking Organizations to Handle Rapid Change in the Twenty-first Century
Bennis suggests that successful organizations will combine the best of both big and small companies, resulting in federations. Bennis defines federations as “semi-autonomous units,
collaborating together and joined by a common vision.” Federations provide larger companies the speed, flexibility and efficiency of small businesses. Bennis outlines the major characteristics of a business federation, which he bases on Madison’s principles from the
; Federation units are parts of a decentralized organization that have the power to
organize and work within their own unit.
; The units share decision making with the centralized authority. The units are semi-
autonomous, but they must work within some sort of written constitution that
provides clarity on the overall company vision and principles.
; The units must know their boundaries, whether by product, business or geographic
; The Federation must provide a balance of power among the separate units and
between the units and centralized authority.
; These units must self-govern within the guidelines of the Federation. The creation of a federation requires a new kind of leader able to provide this essential balance of power. The leader of a federation does not employ a hierarchal chain of command, but instead works to become a leader of leaders.
As stated before, Kotter believes organizations of the twenty-first century must stop being anchors to change and instead become adaptive to change. He outlines steps to move towards this ideal culture, a culture where leaders empower their people to accept and adapt to
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change. In “Culture and Coalitions,” Kotter provides eight steps to transform an organization. (pp. 170-171) In his article, “Winning at Change,” he provides further detail on these eight steps. (1998, Eight Steps section)
1. A leader must establish a sense of urgency by understanding the market and relaying
potential opportunities or problems.
2. A leader must form a powerful guiding coalition capable of initiating change.
3. Create a vision to guide this change.
4. Communicate this vision and change through every possible vehicle.
5. Empower others to act on the vision by removing roadblocks and revamping those
processes that weaken the vision.
6. The leader must plan for short-term wins in order to show performance improvements.
7. Consolidate those improvements and produce more change.
8. Institutionalize new approaches by making the changes an inherent part of the new
culture to ensure success and leadership development.
Kotter emphasizes the importance of leadership coalitions over one charismatic leader to guide the culture change. With this in place, culture change is stronger and longer lasting. Those cultures that thrive in changing environments create and nurture an abundance of leadership up and down the organization, promote conditions that empower people, and have strong leadership at the top to prevent chaos.
Diversity is a natural part of a changing culture. Kotter suggests handling diversity in terms of a common human element, human nature or shared DNA, rather than in terms of national culture. He describes a changing culture in new organizations much like Bennis described a federation corporation. Kotter comments that this new organization is “a collection
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of satellites, boundaryless, distributed and networked, with a group of people at each satellite who is sensitive to culture.”
Redesigning, Reinventing, and Recreating Leadership
According to Bennis and Kotter, new leadership in twenty-first century organizations should guide change. Bennis conveys that leaders must embrace change as an opportunity and possess diagnostic abilities and foresight as well as knowledge of what should be unlearned and flexibility to change, even if this means sharing leadership responsibilities with others. In an interview with Martin Useem, the director of Wharton School’s Center for Leadership and Change Management, Bennis describes situations where organizations may begin forming teams of leaders instead of having only one CEO (Useem, 2002). As larger companies begin to merge with one another, leaders must continually reinvent themselves to stay current with changing companies, even if this means partnering to achieve dual benefits.
Bennis also states that new leaders are confident in their purpose, continually move towards action and have the ability to create and articulate their vision. Leaders must be able to communicate this vision to an entire organization and develop an environment where everyone understands the importance of their role. New leaders need to balance units and authority within federations, be a leader of leaders who empowers others, develop and nurture leadership throughout the organization and involve people in a shared sense of purpose. Characteristics of twenty-first century leaders include being caring, candid, trustworthy, competent and consistent. These new leaders live their declared vision daily and understand the value of risk taking and its ability to empower people.
Kotter follows a similar line of thought when describing his idea of the twenty-first century leader. Kotter focuses more on the leader as a catalyst for change, rather than someone
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able to deftly deal with structure and process. His ideal manager truly has an instinct for culture and is able to influence it through effective communication. Kotter’s ideal leader challenges the status quo. Like Bennis, he expects the leader of the twenty-first century to develop a vision and the necessary strategy to achieve it. This leader compulsively communicates to ensure people understand the vision and empowers those people to change and improve it.
Creating Potential Leaders
Bennis feels that twenty-first century organizations must have the faith in people at all levels to make effective decisions and solve problems. There must exist a common vision of globalization, excellence and the development of leaders. Kotter suggests potential leaders be encouraged to act like leaders through three guiding actions. Potential leaders should work to clarify what they believe leadership is and its importance to them. They should constantly remind themselves of unreached potential by looking in the mirror. Leaders can guide emerging leaders by providing them evidence of their leadership potential. He states that twenty-first century organizations must reform from leadership-killing agencies to become leadership-incubating organisms. One way to begin this reform is to stop placing people in narrowly defined jobs where they are micro-managed. Instead, Kotter believes organizations should be motivators and cultivators of leadership potential.
John Kotter in “Cultures and Coalitions” and Warren Bennis in “Becoming a Leader of Leaders” both reveal that organizations must change in order to address the opportunities resulting from rapid change in accelerated business environments by cultivating leadership and empowering people at every level, utilizing decentralized business units and focusing outward on people and society. Both believe that twenty-first century organizational leaders must be
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visionary, excellent communicators, risk-takers, and exceptional at empowering people. Kotter believes that the way to update organizations is by having guided leadership coalitions that reform the change-anchor culture into an adaptive culture, facilitating change throughout all satellites. He states that leaders must understand the importance of culture on a gut level and be able to influence it. Bennis believes that recreating the methods of doing business by maximizing intellectual capital and leadership throughout federations is the way to modernize organizations. Bennis asserts that leaders must learn to balance the units and authority within federations while spending a significant portion of their time nurturing potential leaders.
The authors make a convincing argument for the empowerment of all people as leaders at every level of the organization. In order for these organizational changes to occur, managers and executives must lose their egos and embrace the empowering of their other leaders, rather than feel threatened. Wide adoption requires the theories and concepts become well known. Bennis and Kotter both have extremely academic backgrounds, which makes their theories a bit idealistic. Adopting these unproven theories within an organization could actually be seen as a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal). The university setting, with its very individual leaders and often egocentric faculty members, might be the right place for beginning to experiment with the leadership concepts in these articles rather than risking productivity in Corporate America. On the other hand, if given the opportunity, these ideas may very well change the currently accepted practices of leadership.
As with any cultural change or management system directive, it must come with a wholesale mandate from the executive level before implementation and adoption begin. Both philosophies would require the recruitment of employees with the stated leadership qualities and the availability of opportunities at all levels to cultivate their leadership skills. Those without