HBS Professor Identifies the Central Issue of Leadership – One Word to Help You Address the Challenge

John Kotter is a legend in the world of leadership and change. A Harvard Business School Professor Emeritus, author of numerous business articles, and consultant to Global 5000 organizations, Kotter is, “internationally known and widely regarded as the foremost speaker on the topics of Leadership and Change.” (Harvard Business School)

I’ve never met Kotter; however, I have followed his work for years.

I first became interested in Kotter when I read his seminal book, Leading Change. My interest continues today. As a professor, who also teaches and consults on strategy, I’ve often reflected on Kotter’s words in working with my students and clients.

One particular thought of his stands out to me above all others. According to Kotter, “The central issue [of leadership] is never strategy, structure, culture, or systems. The core of the matter is always about changing the behavior of people.”

That’s a profound statement.

As a leader, you want your people to choose to do the right thing, to interact in a positive way with your customers, and to apply best practices. You want them to act in the best interest of the organization and take on new, more effective behaviors. And, you want them to choose to do these things – not because you are lording over them or because of an organizational policy, but because they see value in doing them.

The problem with changing behavior

For the most part we (this includes you, me, and pretty much everyone who surrounds us) are really poor at changing our behavior.

Have you ever tried to change your own behavior? That’s tough.

Consider the last time you tried to change your own behavior. Maybe it went well and you forged a new habit, but more often then not, that diet, exercise routine, time management skill, email inbox cleansing approach, or other desired behavior change is in the “rearview mirror”. True, you may try to circle around in a month or two and try it again, but odds are it won’t stick.

Have you ever tried to change someone else behavior? That’s really tough.

Trust me. I’ve been married for nearly 27 years. Despite what my wife thinks (and hopes), I’m about as good as I’m going to get.

Have you ever tried to change the behavior of many people? That’s really, really tough. We call it leadership.

So, where do you start?

You start with changing paradigms. People behave differently when they see things differently. If a team member sees the new behavior as more work, useless, or threatening, he’s going to resist doing it. If he see it as being done to him or threatening his power. He’s never going to do it. However, if he sees the change as a short-term sacrifice for a long-term gain, if he understands why the change is happening, and if he is given a voice in the process, his willingness to change goes up considerably.

Political commentator and author Frank Luntz wrote a book a few years ago called Words that Work. I remember flipping through it one time and coing across a comment from Luntz about the importance of visualizing. Luntz explained that the word “imagine” is one of the most powerful words in the human language.

That idea stuck with me.

When a leader harnesses the power of the word “imagine” she can help people see what’s possible, how they can overcome an obstacle, or what things can look like in the future if they go a new direction. Arguably, this one word, might have the power to help you accomplish the biggest leadership challenge you face – changing the behavior of others.

Here’s some language to try the next time you are encouraging people to change behavior:

  • “When you imagine a more effective way to interact with our customers, what do you see us doing?”
  • “How might we be able to create a more desirable future through the actions we take?”
  • “What might we be able to do next month, week, or year, if we find a better way to do things today?”

I wish you all the best as you work to tackle this challenging and rewarding task – leading others to excellence by helping them to form more effective habits!

Best- Patrick