Tag Archive for John Kotter

Give People a Chance to Try

I vividly remember one particular day in my 8th grade math class. I don’t remember what concept the teacher was teaching, and I don’t remember many of the details, but I remember the specific experience. The teacher was reviewing concepts from the previous night’s assignment, and called me up to the chalkboard to work out one of the problems. The next few moments were terrifying for me. I was so scared to stand in front of my classmates and demonstrate a math concept that my hands began to visibly shake as I walked to the front of the room, and then . . . I don’t remember anything else until I sat back down. What happened in between standing up and sitting down was and is a complete blank. I knew at that moment that I could never do something that would require me to be in front of people.

So, there is great irony (and providence) in the fact that my career has required extensive interaction with and in front of people. I would never have imagined that I would have had the opportunity and experience of leading organizations, speaking in front of people, and developing other leaders. When I think about this, I can see that there are several important factors that played a role in my development, but one of those was simply the opportunity to try. My church asked me to teach a class, an administrator gave me some responsibilities, a student group asked me to speak at an event, and a variety of other opportunities were provided that helped me to grow as a leader and helped me to develop skills.

You see, leadership development doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It involves both knowledge and practice, both learning and doing. You learn a lot by studying, by having someone teach you, but you also learn a lot by doing. Therefore, a critical component of leadership development takes place when people are given the opportunity to try by getting the chance to do. That’s why John Kotter, when he speaks about creating a culture of leadership, says that “people who provide effective leadership in important jobs always have a chance, before they get into those jobs, to grow beyond the narrow base that characterized most managerial careers. . . . The breadth of knowledge developed in this way seems to be helpful in all aspects of leadership” (What Leaders Really Do, in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership (2011), p. 53). This is why you need to take opportunities that are presented to you, even if it is a little outside of your comfort zone. You need to be willing to overcome your fears and stretch yourself, knowing that you won’t do everything well and you’ll make mistakes, but you will learn and improve.

While this is true for you, it’s also true for those you are leading. George, Sims, McLean, and Mayer, in a article discussing Authentic Leadership, explain that “authentic leaders . . . know the key to a successful organization is having empowered leader at all levels, including those who have no direct reports. They not only inspire those around them, they empower those individuals to step up and lead” (Discovering Your Authentic Leadership, in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership (2011), p. 176). You will be a much better leader if you intentionally look for opportunities for those you lead, opportunities for them to step up and take some leadership, to stretch themselves, and to grow their abilities. Perhaps it involves leading a project or a task; maybe it’s leading a discussion or study or meeting; it could be taking the lead on learning a new concept to share with others. It can be a variety of ways, but regardless of what path you use, be purposeful about providing growth experiences.

The simple truth is that growth and development takes place when you have the opportunity to try. Therefore it makes sense that you must be intentional about taking those opportunities, and it also makes sense that – if you want to be a leader who develops others and you want an organization with a culture of leadership development – you become intentional about giving others those opportunities. Take advantage of experiences that will help you grow, and give your followers a chance to try.

A Leader is a Learner

Years ago, my family was having a get-together at my parents’ home, and while we were sitting around the dinner table, my dad made a comment about someday wanting to build a deck on the back of the house. One of my two brothers suggested that we do it the next day, because there likely would be very few times that we would all be together at the same time again. So, my dad sketched out the plans, and the next morning we went to the lumber store, picked up all the supplies, and then the four of us proceeded to spend the next eight hours building a large deck. What a great memory!

When we were all finished, my dad commented on how he could see certain attributes of each of our personalities throughout the process. One of the observations that he made about me was that I was constantly asking questions, trying to understand why were doing things in a certain way, and learning from the experience. And that observation was an accurate reflection. In fact, on the StrengthsFinder profile, “learner” is one of my top characteristics. As I have continued to study, learn, and grow in my leadership development, I have seen that this is a common characteristic of effective leadership: leaders are learners.

Bennis and Thomas, in an article originally published in the Harvard Business Review, found this to be true in all of their interview subjects for their research. Their interviewees all described opportunities for reinvention that came from transformative experiences, and all of them placed great value on the learning that took place from those experiences. The authors went on to describe this learning by saying, “In the extreme, the capacity for reinvention comes to resemble eternal youth – a kind of vigor, openness, and an enduring capacity for wonder that is the antithesis of stereotyped old age . . . this [is a] quality, a delight in lifelong learning, which every leader displays, regardless of age . . . it’s an appetite for learning and self-development, a curiosity and passion for life” (Bennis & Thomas, Crucibles of Leadership, in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership, p. 106). What they discovered is that leaders are constantly learning, and doing so with passion and enthusiasm.

I have often told my own children that you learn just about everything from experience – either your own experience or someone else’s, but it’s usually far less painful to learn from someone else’s experience. However, the pain (or joy) of learning from your own experience can often be a much more effective teacher. In another article originally published in the Harvard Business Review, John Kotter pointed out that “leaders almost always have had opportunities during their twenties and thirties to actually try to lead, to take a risk, and to learn from both triumphs and failures. Such learning seems essential in developing a wide range of leadership skills and perspectives. These opportunities also teach people something about both the difficulty of leadership and its potential for producing change” (Kotter, What Leaders Really Do, in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership, p.53).   A key word in that last sentence is “potential” – the potential for growth and change is there, but only if the leader learns. Therefore, if the leader is a learner, he or she will learn from every opportunity, and in that process will continually become a more effective leader. But if that person is not a learner, he is destined to repeat the same mistakes and will fail to develop.

In essence, learning needs to be part of the nature of an effective leader. Expanding a broad, general knowledge base; increasing an understanding of human behavior; studying culture and history on both a macro-level (globally and nationally) and a micro-level (organizationally); learning more about leadership; taking up new hobbies and interests; asking questions; exploring, discovering, reading, and engaging the mind; all can be part of the growth and development of a leader. Becoming a learner will stretch your mind, build your knowledge, and open your eyes to new insights. It will help you to make connections between ideas and to understand people. It will help you to be a more effective leader. Leaders are learners. Be a learner.

Look for an article on the value of being a learner of God’s Word in your leadership development, in an upcoming “Leadership Lessons from the Bible” post.

Bennis, W. G., and Thomas, R. J., “Crucibles of Leadership,” in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership (2011). Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, MA.

Kotter, J. P., “What Leaders Really Do,” in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership (2011). Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, MA.

HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership

HBR on Leadership coverI first saw this book, HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership, on a list of recommended leadership books from Amazon.  I scanned the contents, and saw the names of several authors of other books that I have read and enjoyed; in addition, it’s put out by Harvard Business review, which has a strong reputation.  That was enough to convince me to pick up a copy and read it.

It has since become a frequently referenced book by me.  I have found useful thoughts and ideas in most of the chapters, and those thoughts (and quotes) have made their way into a number of posts that have appeared on my blog in the last several months (this month, I referenced one of the articles – The Work of Leadership, by Ronald Heifetz and Donald Laurie – several times). Of course, some have resonated with me more than others, but I think I found the whole book to have value.

The book contains ten chapters; each one is reprint of an article published in the Harvard Business Review sometime in the last 25 years.  The intent is that these ten articles represent some of the most important and influential articles and authors that have shaped leadership theory and practice over the last couple of decades.  It includes articles from authors such as

  • Daniel Goleman (author of Emotional Intelligence), in an article that introduces his thoughts on emotional intelligence
  • Jim Collins (author of Good to Great and Great by Choice), in an article that explains “Level 5 Leadership”
  • John Kotter (author of Leading Change), in an article that examines and presents “What Leaders Really Do”
  • Peter Drucker (author of The Effective Executive), in an article about what makes an effective executive
  • Peter Senge (author of The Fifth Discipline), in an article that explains that the best leaders are the ones who don’t try to be perfect at every skill
  • And several others

I think this is a great resource to have on your leadership bookshelf.  It contains summaries and short discussions of some of the most influential leadership ideas of the last two decades, so it gives you a synopsis of these ideas without having to read the full works of the authors.  As I read through the chapters, I wrote an outline of the main ideas of each article on a separate 4×6 notecard, so that I would have my own personal quick-reference guide for each of the concepts.  Whether or not you do the same, I do think this can be a great resource for you.

Various Authors (2011). HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership. Harvard Business Review Press:  Boston, MA.