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Summary of:

What leaders really do ​(pp. 85-96)


Best of HBR – breakthrough leadership,.Harvard Business Review (December 2001).

Author: John P. Kotter

This article builds on a debate that started in 1977 on the differences between managing and
leading. Kotter’s thesis concludes that both sets of skills are both necessary and
complementary in order for a firm to succeed. The problem in most firms is that they are
unbalanced with too many managers and not enough leaders. Furthermore, the people who
excel at management of complex situations are often not the same people who lead through
change periods or processes. The mistake many firms make is to try to create what Kotter
terms ‘leader-managers’ instead of grooming two sets of people with distinct and
complementary skill sets.

Kotter problematizes the difference between managers and leaders while affirming the unique
roles of each

Managers Leaders
Key functions Brings order & consistency to Helps organisations respond
the quality and profitability of to change in order to
products and services compete and survive in new
operating environments
Cope with complexity Planning and budgeting, Sets a direction in line with a
establishing procedural vision for the future.
protocols to achieve targets, Chooses strategies for
and allocating resources to producing change needed to
accomplish goals. achieve the vision.
Improve capacity Improves capacity to achieve Aligns people through
by implementing systems for forming coalitions and
organising and staffing. alliances committed to
fulfilling a vision.

Accomplishes goals Monitors and controls results Keeps people motivated and
and initiates problem solving inspired in the direction of the
strategies when necessary. vision despite any obstacles
by harnessing untapped
values, needs and emotions.

The take-away summary is that inductive leadership activities related to setting a vision or a
direction for an organisation are not the same thing as deductive long-term planning, a
management process. Even more succinctly, operational plans do not equal vision and
strategies. Few organisations are clear on this distinction.

Kotter is clear that Leaders are not magicians with superhuman, charisma and skills that
ordinary people lack. On the contrary, Leaders have fairly ordinary skills such as taking well
known ideas and putting them together in new combinations or applying them in new situations
based on careful analysis. The key to developing a successful vision is to be able to interpret it
for the full range of organisational stakeholders (e.g., customers, employees, and

Again, the process of developing strategic vision is not the equivalent to time-consuming,
long-term planning which often ends up being an excess of management over leadership.
Long-term planning is rarely nimble and dynamic enough to incorporate real-time changes in
the business operating environment. Each time change occurs, the long-term planning
process almost needs to start all over again. Whereas, leadership makes strategic leaps in
direction based on a vision rather than seeking consensus for action or making more and more
contingency plans during draining, increasingly politicised meetings. Planning is useful for
erecting scaffolding around a leadership vision and its strategies, not as a substitute for
direction setting.

Another way to distinguish between successful management practice and effective leadership
​ ​
is to compare the difference between ​exercising control and ​problem solving.

Controlling Problem solving

Key function Comparing actual system behaviour Harnessing bursts of energy by

with a production plan or targets and regularly linking them to basic
taking timely action when a human needs for achievement, a
deviation occurs, rather than 30 or sense of belonging, recognition, a
60 days later. Suppressing sense of agency or self-control and
spontaneous innovation and the ability to live a value-driven
focusing on being risk-free in purpose. Leaders help work occur
ordinary or routine situations. from intrinsically motivated reasons.

Management Skilling people to do their roles as Demonstrating that the organisation

style designed. Removing obstacles for cares for the workers, empowering
routine and normal business and balancing teams of leaders to
process to proceed as designed. work together to achieve visonal
Reliance on formal networks and goals. Reliance on strengthening
structured bureaucracies. and exploiting informal networks.

People suited to management and leadership roles have different kinds of backgrounds and
each career trajectory needs to be carefully supported in distinct ways. Successful leaders
often have key early-career experiences in common most notably a failed leadership
experience early on followed by a subsequent experience of having their knowledge-base
broadened in some way through either a lateral career move or a diversity of job assignments.
Corporations seeking to build a leadership team will create challenging opportunities for
relatively junior employees through creating multiple challenging roles at lower levels or by
developing new product or service lines. This is a good start, but then talented junior
employees need to be paired with appropriate senior mentors who continue to spot the right
growth opportunities for them.

In order to facilitate this development, corporations need to encourage a culture of leadership

development. They need to create opportunities for talented junior employees to be visible to
senior management who can then spot and select the candidates with whom they want to
work. Senior managers are then rewarded for developing leadership potential and skill sets of
junior staff. Kotter concludes that the creation of a culture of leadership is itself an act of