Monday, August 01, 2005

[interview] A Brief Q&A with John Kotter

Leadership: Facing Your Fears… and the Internet

Link&Learn: What is necessary for true leadership?

John Kotter: One, leaders must understand that leadership is not just a job of the person above them in hierarchy. Two, they need to understand what leadership means in their position. Three, they need to draw on their own self-confidence to actually lead. And four, they need to constantly learn from their own experiences what works and what doesn't, and grow as leaders. You can have people in executive positions who know nothing about leadership and do not behave as leaders. Certainly, people in executive positions who do not listen to people below them in the hierarchy-the ones who are closely connected to customers-are increasingly getting themselves into trouble. Good leaders listen very carefully to everything that's happening around them. They never lock themselves in their offices, where they're removed from people and where they just rely on reports and small meetings to know what the heck is going on.

L&L: Tell me more about the characteristics that are necessary for true leadership.

JK: The most common sort of leadership that you see today that is useful are people who challenge the status quo, vacuum up information from all directions, establish-by themselves or with others-a sense of direction, vision, for their little piece of the action, and then create some strategies for making the vision a reality. They communicate that strategy relentlessly to the relevant people around them, both with words and, maybe more importantly, with deeds. They make sure that enough people understand the vision, but more importantly, that they buy into it. Then they do whatever possible to create conditions that will motivate folks to act on that vision. That can be a long list of things, from helping people see the connection between their own aspirations and the vision, to getting rid of things that block action in the organization, etc. That is the most common form of very good leadership that you see today.

L&L: What are the first steps leaders can take to overcome their own natural fears so that they can then create the conditions that encourage the people they're leading to do the same?

JK: That's an excellent question. Let's see. In a funny way, what gets in our way is what Roosevelt said, in the early 1930s: "The only said we really have to fear is fear itself." What that means is, what really scares us is the fear. We fear the fear. And I think, once you get that insight, it helps a lot. A second thought is: I think the more that you get in touch with your own hopes and dreams and ideals, the more that you see the difference or the gap between your dreams and the current reality, the more you're propelled, regardless of fear, to do something.

L&L: That's a tough leap.

JK: Yes. But the bigger the gap, the more people want to do something. It's uncomfortable, not to do something about it. I think a third way you deal with your fears is by testing them against reality. That is to say, looking around, in your own history and others, to see how realistic they really are, and how much you're just conjuring them up, based on a few cases that were very difficult, versus what's rational. And a fourth is, the more that you can see how letting fears run your life does not lead to the life you want, the more you're able to face them and do something about them.

L&L: Has there been a time in your life that you've had to overcome a fear in order to get to where you wanted to go?

JK: Oh, yeah! Not only one time. Good heavens! At one point, I had an extraordinarily difficult boss, who could literally drive you into tears. And it was easy to convince yourself to allow the fear that naturally arose to, if not paralyze you, certainly greatly restrict what you did, and the risks you were willing to take. And I think coming to grips with that was not an easy one.

L&L: Were you able to face your fear?

JK: I decided life was too short to hide in the corner and worry about this guy. And I also decided that I was right, and he wasn't.

L&L: Did you tell him that?

JK: Did I ever tell him that? I may not have. I may have just done what was right. I don't think he would ever admit that he intimidated in a bad way, but he respects me now.

L&L: The arrival of the Internet has greatly accelerated what was an already accelerated rate of change. How can leaders keep up with the change?

JK: Well, you've got to rely increasingly on people other than yourself, and the challenge then is to help everybody collectively move fast enough--and if the organization is larger-- be maneuverable enough. If the organization has more than about 100 employees, much less 50,000, getting the speed and maneuverability is tough. And I think the most fundamental challenge is unleashing the energy potential in enough people to create the power, if you will, to make organizations leap and dodge. We've said for years that the average company gets about 10 to 20% out of its people. Well, that's fine, if you've got 50% of the market and things are moving at 20 miles an hour. It's no good when competition increases, the barriers to entry are smaller, and you're trying to move at 150 miles an hour. Drawing that out of people--or maybe a better way to say it is, helping them to draw it out of themselves--and using that to help organizations leap and maneuver, I think is going to be the critical leadership challenge.