45 pages 1 hour read

John P. Kotter

Leading Change

Nonfiction | Reference/Text Book | Adult | Published in 1988

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Summary and Study Guide


Leading Change by John P. Kotter is a nonfiction book outlining Kotter’s eight-stage process for effecting change in a business. Kotter is the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership Emeritus at Harvard Business School. He is also the founder of Kotter International, a consulting firm that provides training, certification, and consulting services in leadership and change in business. The book relies on his personal experience as an educator and consultant; rather than using formal citations, Kotter uses hypothetical examples and real-world scenarios to support his arguments. The eight-stage process aims to address the critical errors that businesses face when trying to enact change, providing a means of overcoming or mitigating barriers.

Kotter’s articles in the Harvard Business Review have attained records for reprints and sales. Leading Change, which was originally published in 1996, developed out of a 1995 article by Kotter in the Harvard Business Review. Twelve of Kotter’s books, including Leading Change, are business bestsellers, with many subsequent works also addressing the eight-stage process. In discussing the process, Kotter covers the themes of The Nature and Challenges of Change, The Difference Between Leadership and Management, and The Impact of Vision and Direction on Organizational Dynamics.

This guide refers to the 1996 Harvard Business School Press edition of the text.


Kotter begins by emphasizing the need for change in modern organizations. Increased globalization and advances in technology have broadened the opportunities for businesses. As a result, organizations need to adapt to modern methods of operation to keep pace with competition. Essentially, change is both necessary to avoid falling behind in most industries and provides the incentive of increased possibilities for expansion and profit. Kotter lists eight errors that companies usually encounter in effecting change: complacency, lack of coalition, underestimating the importance of vision, under-communicating vision, allowing obstacles to block the vision, failing to generate short-term wins, declaring victory too soon, and failing to cement changes in company culture.

The eight-stage process aims to overcome these errors and accomplish effective change in eight progressive stages: creating a sense of urgency to counter complacency, forming a strong guiding coalition to push the change forward, developing a feasible and easy-to-understand vision, communicating that vision across the company, empowering employees to take action in line with the vision, highlighting short-term wins, building momentum and consolidating gains, and establishing the vision in the company culture to replace the old company culture. Kotter emphasizes that the stages need to be addressed in order, as each subsequent stage usually depends on the previous one to succeed. He begins his discussion of management and leadership as separate but necessary components of a successful change process.

Chapters 3-10 cover the eight stages individually, detailing the criteria of each stage and illustrating its importance to the change process overall. The first four chapters describe the “defrosting” stages, in which the company prepares for a change initiative. Building a sense of urgency may involve creating a planned disaster if complacency is high, and over time, urgency remains important to avoid regression. The guiding coalition needs to include both leaders and managers, and though the coalition will likely expand, the initial coalition needs to create the vision that will guide the change process. Vision is challenging to develop, and Kotter notes how the vision needs to be comprehensive enough to avoid conflicts and simple enough to allow for easy communication. If the vision is feasible, desirable, and communicable, it will save time and increase the efficiency of the change effort. The final “defrosting” stage is to communicate the vision to the now mobilized workforce, allowing for major changes to begin.

Stages 5-8 involve implementing actual change in the organization. Empowering employees often requires changes in systems, removal of interdependencies, and streamlining of the company hierarchy to allow for more sweeping actions from local managers and employees. With empowered employees, short-term wins need to be celebrated, but only those that are visible, undeniable, and significant to the change process. Too much celebration could diminish urgency and lead to regression. With short-term wins, the coalition needs to capitalize on optimism to build momentum and consolidate gains. Multiple projects should begin contributing to the overall change effort, and Kotter emphasizes that this process could extend over many years. The final stage, and possibly the hardest, is to overhaul the company culture to remove traditions and values that do not serve the new vision while instilling norms and functions that promote the change effort. Once change is established in the company culture, the vision will become an element of the company overall, allowing for future projects relating to the change to function more smoothly.

Kotter concludes by looking to the future, noting that most industries will need to undergo a change process of this kind entering the 21st century. Globalization and technology push the need for change, and Kotter asserts the importance of leadership and lifelong learning. Businesses will need more leaders who are capable of pushing forward and sustaining change efforts, so he reiterates the possibility of developing leadership skills through dedicated learning and listening.