The One Word that Negates What Harvard Professor Says is Leadership’s Central Issue

John Kotter is a legend in the world of leadership and change. A Harvard Business School (HBS) 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 things, to interact in positive ways 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 because they see value in doing them – not because you are lording over them or because of an organizational policy.

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? It’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. You may 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’s behavior? It’s really tough.

Have you ever tried to change the behavior of many people? It’s really, really tough. It’s called being a leader.

So, where do you start?

You start with changing paradigms. People behave differently when they see things from new and different perspectives. If a team member sees the new behavior as more work, useless, or threatening, he’s will resist. If he see it as being done to him or threatening his power, he will definitely resist. 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 can go way up.

Political commentator and author Frank Luntz wrote Words that Work. I remember reading through it years ago and coming across a comment about the importance of visualizing. Luntz explained that the word imagine is one of the most powerful words in the human language. He said that more leaders should put the word to use.

The 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 has 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 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 the challenging and rewarding task of leading others to excellence by helping them to form more effective habits. I can only imagine what you and your team will accomplish together.