Are Leaders Born or Made?

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People often ask, ‘Are leaders born or made?’ It is a classic nature vs. nurture quandary. And, you will find people who are firmly entrenched in one camp or the other. But what does the evidence say?

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Are Leaders Born or Made? The Born Camp

We are not all born with the same ability to lead any more than we can all sing like Luciano Pavarotti or play soccer like David Beckham.

Leaders are not like other people. For example, Richard Branson, Queen Elizabeth I, Napoleon, Steve Jobs and Martin Luther King were naturally gifted leaders.

When asked, many leaders who are valued for their leadership by others, are not able to explain what makes them stand out. Therefore, real leadership depends, for a large part, on one’s natural abilities.

Research1 shows that people with certain traits are more likely to be given leadership roles. And, they tend to be more effective in those roles. Two such traits are:

  • Intelligence
  • Extraversion

And, I am an introvert.

More recent research2 focuses on identical twins. It confirms the important role that genetics play in determining who will become successful leaders.

When it comes to answering the question, ‘Are leaders born or made?’, there is considerable evidence supporting the born camp.

Are Leaders Born or Made? The Made Camp

Other people believe that great leaders are born and not made. They see leadership as a set of behaviors that anyone can learn.

Warren Buffet is a respected CEO and is known as the oracle of Omaha. He firmly believes that leadership consists of learnable behaviors.

Outstanding leaders are the product of hard work and development over time.

There is ample evidence3 that you can learn to be a better leader. And, there is some evidence4 that traits matter less than what most people think.

Furthermore, there is also some research5 which suggests that you can have too much of a good thing. For example, intelligence is helpful, but not when there is a large gap between your intelligence and that of your followers.

Are Leaders Born or Made? The Verdict

So, the question remains, ‘Are leaders born or made?’ The honest answer is both.

We are all born with abilities, traits and inclinations that can help or hinder our leadership. Yet, you can also learn new behaviors, skills and habits that will help you to lead well.

The characteristics described in Qualities of a Good Leader reflect this blend of nature and nurture.


The answer to our original question, ‘Are leaders born or made?’ has one important implication. Learning to lead is challenging.

First, you have large amounts of advice that is not based on any evidence. Then you have research papers that fail to give any practical advice. Hence, practical, evidence-based advice is in demand.

Finally, you not only need to know what to do. You also need to do what you know. And, you need to do so skilfully and habitually. It takes a long time and a lot of practice to master a new skill. And even longer to change your habitual behavior. For example, deliberate practice accounts6 for 80% of the difference between:

  • Elite musicians
  • Talented amateurs


Download the research footnotes for this article.


Top 10 Qualities of a Good Leader

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What are the qualities of a good leader? We all have our opinions. But what does the research say?

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There has been a recent explosion of research exploring the qualities of good leaders. For example, researchers have published more papers in the last 7 years than in the 20 years prior1.

A Snapshot of the Qualities of a Good Leader

Researchers have found that successful leaders:

  • Have A Strong Sense of Purpose
  • Want to Lead
  • Show Integrity
  • Make Intelligent Decisions

Furthermore, good leaders are:

  • Positive & Energetic
  • Driven to Succeed
  • Open
  • Emotionally Mature
  • Good with People
  • Great Communicators

These qualities are a blend of largely inherited traits, conscious choices and learned behaviors.

1 A Strong Sense of Purpose

The best leaders have a strong sense of purpose that underpins everything they do. And, they are willing to make personal sacrifices in service of their cause. For example, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela.

While leadership in organizations is different to leading a social cause, the principle remains the same. You need to know what you care about, especially as it relates to the organization or unit that you lead.

Followers admire leaders with a strong sense of purpose. And, they often view such leaders as being charismatic. In turn, research2 shows that charisma is linked to effective leadership.  Therefore, a strong sense of purpose is the first quality of a good leader.

2 Integrity

Integrity is the foundation of trust. And trust expands your influence beyond your formal authority. So, integrity is one of the key qualities of a good leader. Research3 confirms the critical role that your integrity plays in your success as a leader.

The supreme quality for a leader is unquestionably integrity.
Dwight Eisenhower

But what does integrity mean? People with integrity are honest and open in their dealings with others. Integrity is also linked to a sense of purpose. A sense of purpose helps you know what you stand for. Integrity involves living up to these standards.

3 A Desire to Lead

Renowned psychologist, David McClelland found that successful leaders had what he called a high need for power4. Yet, this name is misleading. It doesn’t refer to a desire to be a self-serving slave-driver who wants to force others into submission. Rather, it refers to a desire to have a positive impact on others and the collective results that you achieve.

Research5 also shows that effective leaders are dominant. Once again, the name may sound ominous. But it generally refers to assertive people who are happy to step up and take charge when needed.

So, the third quality of a good leader is a desire to lead. When this quality leaders let their strong sense of purpose and integrity guide them, the desire to lead can be a potent force for good.

4 Intelligent Decision Making

Leaders often must size up the situation before them and make intelligent decisions about how to best proceed. Hence, intelligent decision making is one of the essential qualities of a good leader.

Intelligence is the bedrock of intelligent decision making. Research6 confirms that successful leaders tend to have above average intelligence.

But the link between intelligence and leadership has its limits. Research7 also shows too much intelligence can hinder your leadership. This happens when a leader is far more intelligent than her followers.

Research8 also shows a strong and direct link between skilful decision-making and effective leadership. Moreover, you can improve your decision making and problem-solving skills.

5 Positive Energy

The best leaders are both positive and energetic. So, positive energy is one of the top 10 qualities of a good leader.

A leader’s mood is contagious, so being positive is paramount. Research9 confirms that being positive is linked to successful leadership.

Energy turns your positive mood into enthusiasm. It also helps you deal with the many demands and challenges you face as a leader. And, there is evidence10 that energetic people make better leaders.

6 Driven to Succeed

A drive to succeed is another one of the qualities of a good leader. Effective leaders want to succeed. So, they set high standards for themselves and those they lead.

Delivering results is a core aspect of leadership. Research11 supports the idea that a desire to succeed motivates effective leaders.

Furthermore, such leaders don’t wait for success to come their way. Instead, they are confident in their own abilities12, they seize the initiative13, and they work hard14 to get the results they desire.

7 Openness

Effective leaders are open and honest, but that is not what openness means here. Rather, openness involves being open to new ideas, new perspectives and new possibilities. Open leaders tend to be informed, creative and imaginative. And, they can see patterns in data and think abstractly.

So, it is not surprising that openness made it into the top 10 qualities of a good leader. Or, that research15 shows that openness is linked to leadership effectiveness.

8 Emotional Maturity

Emotional maturity is another one of the top 10 qualities of a good leader. Emotionally mature leaders are not quick to anger, and they don’t worry over small things. Nor are they moody and they don’t get stressed easily. Instead, they tend to be relaxed and generally happy people.

The evidence supporting emotional maturity mainly comes from research16 showing the negative impact of its opposite – neuroticism.

9 Being Good with People

Leaders achieve many of their results through the impact they have on the people they lead. People are therefore an essential part of a leaders’ work and being good with people is an essential quality of a good leader.

Research17 shows that extraversion is linked with effective leadership. Extraverts are comfortable around people, even larger groups of people they don’t know well. This doesn’t mean that introverts can’t lead well. Rather it simply means the extraverts find the people aspect of leadership easier, less draining and less daunting.

Other research18 shows that learnable interpersonal skills also have a strong link to your effectiveness as a leader.

A third body research19 shows that a lack of interpersonal skills is a common cause of career derailment for many would-be leaders.

10 Being Great Communicators

The most effective leaders are great communicators. They are masters of words and at delivering those words in compelling ways. Therefore, great communication rounds out the top 10 qualities of a good leader.

Research20 confirms that successful leaders have fantastic communication skills – both oral and written.

Qualities of a Good Leader: A Summary

Good leaders are likely to have a range of qualities that help them to lead well. These qualities are a blend of traits, choices and learned skills.

The 10 qualities of a good leader listed above are backed by research. You don’t need to possess them all, but the more you have, the easier you will find it to lead well. And, you can choose to develop qualities that don’t come naturally to you.

There are other qualities that good leaders may possess. Qualities such as self-awareness and humility. However, I found the above 10 to have the most robust and most consistent relationship to effective leadership.

Sample link


Download the research footnotes on Leadership Qualities.

Transformational Leadership

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Transformational leadership is a popular type of leadership. And, it offers you a potent way to go about your work as a leader.

Transformational leaders influence their followers to:

  • Put self-interests aside in service of a noble cause
  • Go beyond what their job requires and realise their full potential

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A Brief History of Transformational Leadership

James Downton first coined the term transformational leadership in 1973.

Then James MacGregor Burns 1978 wrote a book on political leadership. It was this book that brought the idea more widespread attention. Burns separated:

Then, in 1985, Bernard Bass, published a book that turned leadership on its head. In the book, Bass expanded on Burns’ ideas. And, he described the first model of transformational leadership. Like Burns, Bass separated:

Though, unlike Burns, Bass believed that you should use both types of leadership. He later called this the full range leadership® model.

The Bass model of transformational leadership dominates the field. But, it is not the only model. Other models include the:

Bass Model of Transformational Leadership

According to Bernard Bass, transformational leaders motivate followers by:

  • Making them aware of the importance of a cause
  • Getting them to go above and beyond in service of that cause
  • Helping them meet their own, higher-order needs

Bernard Bass first shared his model of transformational leadership in 1985. Since then, he has made several refinements.

His original model included 3 types of transformational behavior:

  • Charisma
  • Intellectual stimulation
  • Individual consideration

In 19901, Bass, and his colleague, Bruce Avolio, added a new behavior to the model. They called this behavior inspirational motivation. At the same time, they changed the term charisma to idealized influence.

In 19992, Bernard Bass and Paul Steidmeier made a distinction between:

  • Authentic transformational leaders
  • Pseudo-transformational leaders

To be an authentic transformational leader, you must act ethically. This distinction helps to separate:

Moreover, it laid one of the foundations for Authentic Leadership.

Transformational Leadership Part 1: Idealized Influence

Transformational leaders use what Bass calls idealized influence to motivate their followers. As a result, followers go above and beyond what is normally expected of them.

Followers do so willingly because they admire and respect their leader and what she is trying to do. It is this respect and admiration that allows you to influence those you lead.

How do transformational leaders gain such influence?

First, they have a strong sense of purpose that their followers can identify with. Secondly, they hold values that their followers can relate to. And, their behavior genuinely reflects both these points.

For example, transformational leaders make personal sacrifices to serve a noble cause.

As a result, followers respect and admire their leader.

Transformational Leadership Part 2: Inspirational Motivation

Transformational leadership also involves what Bass calls inspirational motivation.

They do this by rallying followers behind a compelling vision and shared goals. Furthermore, they nurture a mutual understanding of:

  • What is right
  • What is wrong 
  • What is important

At the same time, transformational leaders are optimistic about the future. And, they are enthusiastic about creating it.

They also express confidence in their followers. Specifically, in their followers’ capacity to turn their ideas into reality.

In one sense, idealized influence and inspirational motivation achieve the same ends. But idealized influence works because your followers respect and admire you. While inspirational motivation relies on the appeal of your vision.

Transformational Leadership Part 3: Intellectual Stimulation

The third part of the Bass model of transformational leadership involves intellectual stimulation. Put another way, if you want to be a transformational leader, you must harness the potent power of your followers’ minds.

You do this by:

  • Encouraging your followers to think things through on their own
  • Seeking differing perspectives from those you lead
  • Helping your followers to look at problems in new ways
  • Inviting your followers to challenge their existing beliefs
  • Nurturing creativity and innovation
  • Empowering followers to solve problems themselves

Transformational Leadership Part 4: Individualized Consideration

The final part of the Bass model of transformational leadership is individual consideration.

Such consideration starts by viewing your followers as individuals. In turn, you treat people in an individualized way. For example, you can offer direction and structure to those who need it, while offering more autonomy to those who want and deserve it.

Secondly, you expect each of your staff to deliver results. This taps into their subconscious need for achievement.

Individualized consideration also involves coaching, mentoring and developing your staff. You need to help your followers recognise and harness their unique strengths. This taps into their subconscious need for growth.

Finally, you must help your followers connect:

  • Their individual aspirations, needs and development
  • To the aspirations of the organization

Measuring Yourself Against the Bass Transformational Leadership Model

Bernard Bass and his colleagues developed the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire™ (MLQ). It measures your leadership against the 4 parts of Bass model. The MLQ also measures:

  • Aspects of transactional leadership
  • Outcomes such as satisfaction and extra effort

The MLQ involves you taking a self-assessment. It also involves gathering the perceptions of others, such as your followers.

The MLQ is a reliable and valid measure of transformational leadership3.

Yet, some academics4 question the validity of the 4 subscales.

Kouzes & Posner Model of Transformational Leadership

In 1987 Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner published their book, The Leadership Challenge. In it, they describe a slightly different model of transformational leadership.

Kouzes and Posner looked at thousands of interviews and case studies. And, they identified 5 key things that transformational leaders do.

1 Model the Way

Transformational leaders are clear about their personal values. They also know how their personal values align with the shared values of their followers.

Most importantly, they act in ways that honor those values.

The first part of this transformational leadership model is like the idea of idealized influence in the Bass model.

2 Inspire A Shared Vision

Transformational leaders create a compelling vision of a desirable future. They then rally their followers behind this vision.

This part of Kouzes & Posner model is like the idea of inspirational motivation in the Bass model.

3 Challenge the Process

Transformational leaders are committed to improvement and growth. They challenge the way things are done, and the beliefs that underpin the status quo.

Such leaders are like pioneers stepping into the unknown. They are willing to take risks, to experiment and to learn as they go.

This third aspect of the Kouzes & Posner transformational leadership model shares some similarities with intellectual stimulation in the Bass model.

4 Enable Others to Act

Transformational leaders harness the abilities of their followers. They consult and collaborate with their followers. And, they often let their followers make decisions for themselves.

Transformational leaders harness the abilities of their followers. They consult and collaborate with their followers. And, they often let their followers make decisions for themselves.

This aspect of Kouzes and Posner’s model shares some similarities with the Bass model. Specifically, with:

5 Encourage the Heart

Transformational leaders need to encourage the hearts of their followers. They do this by providing praise and recognition for a job well done. This includes personal comments as well as public celebrations.

This aspect of transformational leadership does not appear in the Bass model.

Measuring Yourself Against the Kouzes & Posner Transformational Leadership Model

Kouzes and Posner developed the Leadership Practices Inventory®(LPI®). It assesses you against their version of transformational leadership.

Like the MLQ, the LPI is a 360-degree assessment. It has been a popular part of leadership development centered on the above 5 aspects of transformational leadership.


The validation results reported on the LPI are not impressive and there has been very little research on the psychometric properties of this model.
John Antonakis5


Podsakoff’s Transformational Leadership Model

In 1990 Philip Podsakoff and his colleagues reviewed published work on transformational leadership. They identified 6 specific behaviors associated with transformational leadership.

  1. Inspiring followers with their vision for the future. This is like the inspirational motivation aspect of the Bass model. It is also the same as the second behavior in the Kouzes & Posner model.
  2. Acting in ways that reflect their espoused values. This is like the idealized influence aspect of the Bass model. It is also the same as the first leadership behavior in the Kouzes & Posner model.
  3. Getting people to work together to achieve group goals. This is also part of the inspirational motivation aspect of the Bass model.
  4. Holding high expectations of their staff. This is part of the individualized consideration aspect of the Bass model. It is also part of encouraging the heart in the Kouzes & Posner model.
  5. Providing individualized support. This sounds like the individualized consideration aspect of the Bass model. But, Podsakoff focuses on showing respect and consideration for followers’ feelings. In contrast, Bass focused on meeting staff’s individual needs and nurturing personal growth.
  6. Offering intellectual stimulation. This is the same as intellectual stimulation in the Bass model. It also covers Kouzes & Posner’s idea of challenging the process.

Measuring Yourself Against the Podsakoff’s Transformational Leadership Model

Podsakoff and his colleagues developed the Tranformational Leadership Inventory (TLI). It measures your behavior against their model of transformational leadership.

Like the MLQ and the LPI, the TLI is a 360-degree assessment.

The LPI only measures transformational leadership. In contrast, the TLI and the MLQ measure aspects of both:

Unlike the MLQ and the LPI, the TLI is not a propriety instrument. This has made it popular amongst researchers. In fact, the TLI is the second most popular measure of transformational leadership.

Comparing the 3 Models of Transformational Leadership

Bass Kouzes & Posner Podsakoff
Idealized Influence Model the Way Values-Driven Behavior
Inspirational Motivation Shared Vision Inspirational Vision
Group Goals
Intellectual Stimulation Challenge the Process
Enable Others to Act
Intellectual Stimulation
Individualized Consideration Enable Others to Act
Encourage the Heart
Individualized Support
High Expectations
Encourage the Heart High Expectations

As you can see, there is considerable agreement between the 3 models of transformational leadership.

Key similarities:

  • All 3 models involve leaders is being a positive role model
  • All 3 models involve using an inspirational vision
  • Bass & Podsakoff both use group goals
  • All 3 models involve empowering staff
  • All 3 models include holding high expectations of staff

Key differences:

  • Kouzes & Posner do not use group goals
  • Within individualized considerationBass focuses on developing followers, while Podsakoff fouses on supporting followers

And, Kouzes & Posner’s idea of encouraging the heart focuses on recognising and celebrating good work. Neither Bass nor Podsakoff include this in their models of transformational leadership. Yet, they do include it in their models of transactional leadership.

The Impact of Transformational Leadership

On the plus side, research shows that transformational leadership has several benefits.

Benefit Set 1

Transformational leaders have a positive impact6 on staff:

  • Satisfaction
  • Motivation
  • Performance

Benefit Set 2

Transformational leadership leads to lower rates of staff9:

  • Turnover
  • Stress
  • Burnout

Benefit 3

Transformational CEOs improve innovation at the organizational level10.

Note 1

This positive impact relates to leaders at all levels of leadership7.

Note 2

Improvements in performance include 8:

  • Individual performance
  • Team performance
  • Organizational performance

Note 3

There are positive impacts in different types of organization7. For example, public and private organizations. Yet, leaders in public organizations tend to show more transformational behaviors7.

Note 4

Performance measures include both:

  • Subjective perceptions
  • Objective criteria

Performance levels rose despite the measure being used7. But, followers’ opinions of their performance were higher than objective measures7.

The Downside

On the downside:

  • A more recent meta-analysis11 showed the effect was less than impact in the above studies. Yet, the impact was still positive.
  • Contingent reward behavior is part of transactional leadership. Yet, it has a positive impact equal to the effect of transformational leadership11.
  • Some researchers believe that charisma (aka idealized influence) is distinct from transformational leadership. As a result, they think it should not be part of the transformational leadership model12.
  • There is only limited support for separating the 4 factors in the Bass model. There is also some support for combining them into 1 global factor13.
  • Some academics believe that transformational leadership focuses too much on the leader. The danger is that other factors related to performance may be ignored14. For example, follower contribution and contextual factors may be overlooked.


And some interesting findings:

  • Women tend to show more transformational behaviors than men. But the differences are small15.
  • Contingent reward behavior had more impact in business settings than it did in other settings. These other settings include military, educational and public organizations16.
  • Overall, there is only a weak link between personality (Big 5) and transformational leadership17. Yet, different aspects of personality were linked to different parts of transformational leadership18. First, extraversion and agreeableness were the 2 strongest aspects of personality related to idealized influence. Secondly, extraversion, openness and agreeableness had the strongest impact on inspirational motivation. Thirdly, openness had the largest impact on intellectual stimulation. Finally, openness and agreeableness had the largest effect on individual consideration.
  • The MBTI is a different way of measuring personality. Some leaders are Extroverted, iNtuitive and/or P These leaders saw themselves as more transformational than other types. Followers agreed that Extroverted leaders were more transformational than Introverted leaders. But followers also saw Feeling and Sensing leaders as being more transformational than Thinking and iNtuitive types19.



Leadership and Performance Beyond Expectations. by Bernard Bass.

Multifactor Leadership Questionaire Manual by Bernard Bass and Bruce Avolio

Transformational Leadership (2nd ed.) by Bernard Bass & Ronald Riggio

Leadership by James Macgregor Burns, J. M. (1978)

Rebel Leadership: Commitment and Charisma in the Revolutionary Process by James Downton

The Leadership Challenge by Jim Kouzes & Barry Posner


Download a pdf of the Research Footnote References here.


Full Range Leadership® is a registered trademark of Bernard Bass and Bruce J. Avolio.

The Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire™ is a trademark of Mind Garden, Inc.

The Leadership Practices Inventory® and the LPI® are registered trademarks of John Wiley & Sons.

The MBTI® is a registered trademark of the Myers & Briggs Foundation.

The Kotter Change Model

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In 1994 John Paul Kotter, a Harvard Business School professor, penned an article called Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail. Then, in 1995 the Harvard Business Review (HBR) published the article. As a result, the Kotter Change Model was born.

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Since then:

  • The article has jumped to number 1 on HBR’s reprint list
  • John has expanded his insights his book Leading Change
  • He has extended his thoughts even further in a range of other books (see references below)

Yet, John remains convinced that leaders still make the mistakes that he described in his original article. And, he believes that ‘among the general population of leaders and managers, the basics are still very poorly understood’.

The Kotter Change Model in a Nutshell

According to John Kotter:

  • Management and leadership are two different things. Management is about dealing with the complexity of the here and now. In contrast, leadership is about adapting to and creating change.
  • Change is a process that takes a considerable amount of time. This process has several stages. Skipping stages to save time may lead to an illusion of change, but it is not sustained. In a similar vein, mistakes in any of the phases can doom your change initiative to failure.
  • There are 8 critical mistakes leaders tend to make, one for each phase of change. The Kotter Change Model involves avoiding these mistakes and replacing them with better decisions.

kotter change model 8 steps

stage 1Mistake 1: Allowing People to Remain Complacent with the Way Things Are

The first mistake outlined in the Kotter Model of change involves allowing people to remain complacent with the ways things are already.

The problem is that if they don’t genuinely see and feel there is a need to change, they are unlikely to invest the effort needed to achieve and sustain significant change.

You need to help people see that things can’t stay as they are, and according to Kotter, you do this by creating a sense of urgency that change is needed.

Generating a sense of urgency includes but goes beyond making a rational business case for change. You need to win people’s hearts and minds. They need to both see and feel the need for change.

Kotter recommends 4 specific tactics to create a sense of urgency:

  • Bringing the outside, inside. For example, you can use outside consultants to challenge the status quo.
  • Behaving with urgency every day. For example, you should be visibly energetic and decisive in your actions.
  • Harnessing crises. For example, you can use and even create a crisis to springboard people into seeing the need for change.
  • Dealing with NoNos. For example, moving them on or distracting them with special projects.

stage 2 Mistake 2: Trying to Lead Change Without Other Committed & Powerful People

According to the Kotter Change Model, the second mistake leaders make is trying to lead change alone.

Significant and sustained change is incredibly difficult to achieve. As a result, even those armed with a magnetic charisma cannot do it alone.

Nor can you achieve it through weak committees or task forces. Yes, you need to enlist the help of others, but your choice of whom to involve matters too. You need strong, powerful people to help you achieve lasting success. Kotter refers to this as forming a powerful coalition to guide the change.

Your coalition should include some senior leaders and managers with line authority, but it does not have to include them all. Why? Basically, you don’t include those who don’t buy-in – at least initially.

3-5 people can be enough to initiate a change, but in large organizations, this will need to grow to 20-50 people.

Your guiding coalition should include people with power outside of managerial authority. For example, you can enlist a prominent board member, a star performer and a union representative. Yet, it is not their titles that matter, but rather the sway they hold over others.

step 3 Mistake 3: Nurturing Misaligned Projects & Initiatives

Successful change involves empowering people. However, this can often lead to a range of uncoordinated projects. Such misalignment can waste precious resources. Worst of all, it can pull the organization in different directions.

The solution, according to the Kotter Change Model, is to create a clear and compelling vision. Such vision provides both motivation and direction. This direction allows people to work on different things. Yet they do so in a way that complements the efforts of others.

A vision provides a picture of the future along with a broad idea of how to get there. It is often reinforced, with a brief reminder of why you need to move there in the first place.

If you are the leader of the change, the initial development of this vision falls squarely in your lap. However, you need to involve your guiding coalition in shaping and adding clarity to your initial ideas. In large organizations, this can take up to 12 months.

You can read more about John’s views on what makes a good vision here.

In John’s book, Leading Change, he adds the need for strategies in this step. Vision tells people where they are headed, while strategies offer a broad sense of how to get there.  By including broad strategies, you also help people to see that your vision is feasible.

kotter change model step 4Mistake 4: Allowing Staff to Believe That Change Isn’t Possible or Desirable

People won’t change unless they believe that change is both desirable and possible. A compelling vision is essential for this to happen. Yet, a well-crafted vision is not enough on its own.

According to the Kotter Change Model, people won’t believe the vision is possible or desirable unless you overcommunicate the vision. So, the answer to mistake 4, is to communicate, communicate and communicate.

A scattering of speeches and presentations is not enough. You need to embed communicating the vision into your day-to-day activities.

When talking about problems, outline how proposed solutions fit or don’t fit with the vision. When reprimanding a staff member, talk about how their behaviour is not consistent with the vision. And when doing a Q&A session, tie your answers back to the vision.

You also need to use all modes of communication available to you. Use meetings, newsletters, training sessions, email, video and more. And you need to speak to people’s hearts, not just their minds.

Kotter also recommends that you:

  • Keep your communication simple
  • Make use of metaphors, analogies and examples
  • Allow for two-way communication

Finally, and most importantly, you need to communicate through your actions, not just your words. You need to model what you expect of others. And, you need your guiding coalition to do the same.

step 5 Mistake 5: Failing to Remove or Decrease Blockers of Change

There are always forces at play that serve to block or hinder people’s attempts to change. This is true even if they have bought into the change and they are trying to make it happen. Some of these blockers are soft people issues, while others are hard structural forces.

The idea that change is personal is one of the essential change management principles. So, it is not surprising that many of these forces exist inside of people. Knowledge, skill levels, beliefs and habits can all hinder people’s efforts to change. Such is the case with other forms of personal change including New Year’s resolutions and dieting.

Other barriers can take the form of hard organizational factors. These include existing structures, systems and ways of working. By their very nature, these factors nurture stability, not change. However, you can adjust them to work in your favour.

You and your guiding coalition need to take action that addresses these barriers. Yet, you can’t do it all at once. Start with foreseeable blockers that could have a large and detrimental impact on the success of your change initiative. Then address others as they emerge and as time allows.

step 6 kotter change modelMistake 6: Allowing Momentum to Be Lost

Significant change takes time. So, it is understandable that even your most committed staff can lose their initial motivation. Once again, a personal analogy captures this point quite nicely. Think about people’s commitment to go walking each day, to go to the gym, or do some other form of daily exercise. Yes, some people do manage it. But, many don’t, especially over an extended timeframe.

The answer, according to Kotter’s Change Model, is to plan for and celebrate short-term wins.

In addition to helping sustain momentum, short-term wins: 

  • Provide evidence that people’s sacrifices and hard work are worth it
  • Reward people who embraced the change with a pat on the back
  • Reduce resistance from remaining cynics
  • Reassure board members and shareholders

Merely hoping for short-term wins is not enough. You (and your guiding coalition) need to identify real opportunities to make this happen. Then, you need to plan to make it so (specific goals, action steps, milestones, and alike). Sprinkle these planned achievements over a 1-3-year period.

You also need to closely monitor activity in these areas so that you can adjust as necessary.

Then, once your short-term wins come to fruition, make sure that you:

  • Take the time to acknowledge them
  • Recognise the people behind them
  • Celebrate the success publicly


step 7Mistake 7: Declaring Victory Too Soon

In mistake 6, Kotter acknowledged that change takes time and that you need to plan short-term wins to sustain momentum.

Mistake 7, in the Kotter Change Model, happens because leaders fail to appreciate just how long significant change takes. Kotter estimates that in large, complex organizations transformational change can take 10+ years.

Of course, the number is not definitive, as it is dependent on the scope and scale of the change, as well as the size and nature of your organization. However, Kotter’s estimate helps to open people’s eyes to how long change can take.

Yet, even leader’s whose eyes are open can unintentionally declare victory too soon. They tend to do this in two ways. First, they acknowledge and celebrate short-term wins (a good thing). Second, they do it in a way that implicitly says the hard work is over and its time to relax – and there lies the problem.

Kotter’s answer involves you in sending a clear message, ‘yes we are progressing well, but we still have more to do.’ Rather than allowing staff to rest on their laurels, you need to use the achievement of early milestones as proof that change is possible, and to push for further change.

You continue to communicate a strong vision, while also:

  • Empowering those below to initiate and manage aligned change projects
  • Identify and reduce unnecessary interdependencies

step 9 in the kotter change modelMistake 8: Not Sustaining Change

Accomplishing change is a hard and lengthy process. But, sustaining change is even more challenging.

Mistake 8 in the Kotter Change Model involves failing to plan for sustained change. To put it more bluntly, not planning for what will happen when you leave.

According to Kotter, you do this through anchoring your change in the corporate culture. Put another way; you need to make new behaviors the norm for the way we do things around here.

How do you do this? First, it is not easy. Second, unlike other change theorists, Kotter believes it is the last part of change – not the first.

Moreover, in his initial article on leading change, John talks about two specific strategies.

The first of these involved helping people make explicit links between improved performance and new ways of working. Talk about it a lot and never assume people will make these links themselves.

The second involves succession planning. You need to put a plan in place for hiring your replacement. This plan must involve hiring someone who values what you have created. And it must avoid hiring someone whose values mirror the old culture in your organization.

He outlines more strategies in his book, Leading Change. However, changing organizational culture is a complex topic in and of itself. You can read more about organizational culture and how to change it here.

Evaluation of the Kotter Change Model


The Kotter Change Model is well-known and popular. John’s book, Leading Change is a bestseller.


It is also broadly compatible with other process models of change.

For example, Kurt Lewin’s 3 stages of change, include:

  • Helping people see the need to change (incorporated in Step 1 of the Kotter Model)
  • Removing or reducing blockages to change (see Step 5 of the Kotter Model)
  • Anchoring changes as the new normal (part of Step 8 of the Kotter Model)

Gerard Egan (1996) added visioning and strategy to the mix (see Step 3 of the Kotter Model).


However, the Kotter Change Model is also unique.

First, it focuses on transformational, strategic change led by the CEOs of large, complex organizations. For example, IBM, Ford and Walmart. So, not all the advice is relevant to leaders of:

  • Smaller organizations or smaller units within a larger organization
  • More minor changes within an organization
  • Bottom-up, emergent changes within an organization

Second, it adds some unique steps, and some unique takes on other steps. For example:

  • Step 1 in the Kotter Change model involves helping people see the need for change (a similarity to other models). Yet, it focuses on using urgency to drive people into change (unique to Kotter’s model).
  • Step 2 (guiding coalition), Step 6 (short-term wins) and Step 7 (not declaring victory too soon) are all unique to Kotter’s model.
  • Step 8 (anchoring change) is like Kurt Lewin’s refreezing stage but is unique in its use of establishing a new culture as the means of doing this.

Evidence Supporting Aspects of the Kotter Change Model

John provides many case studies to support his advice. But he fails to offer any empirical research to back his claims.

Since John published his article in 1995, researchers have conducted just one review of the model in its entirety. And they didn’t do this until 2012.

Still, there is research that supports some aspects of the model. For example, research supports the idea that:

  • People are more likely to embrace change when they see a need for change1. And, more specifically it supports2 the use of outsiders (e.g. consultants) to reinforce this message.
  • People expect leaders to have a vision3. Vision is an integral part of transformational leadership. And, transformational leadership has a positive impact on follower motivation and performance4.
  • Effectively communicating your vision is essential for it to have any impact5. Having senior leaders model the changes they want to see in others is a potent form of communication6.
  • Barriers to change do exist. These include soft factors7, such as skill levels and beliefs. They also include hard elements8 such as the centralization of decision making.
  • Making visible progress is motivating, and it helps build a belief that further change is possible9. Moreover, it helps doubters believe that change is feasible and that they too can succeed in this new system.
  • Leaders of change need to balance a focus on both short-term and long-term results10.

Evidence Challenging Aspects of the Kotter Change Model

There is also a lack of evidence supporting some aspects of the Kotter Change Model. This doesn’t mean that such elements are wrong or that they won’t work. Rather, it means that they haven’t been proven to work.

  • Research supports the idea that followers must see a need for change. Yet, there is no research supporting John’s notion of behaving with urgency every day.
  • Logic suggests that having powerful others helps to guide the change. But there is no research supporting John’s idea of a guiding coalition.
  • Transformational leadership is linked to follower motivation. Yet, prominent academics note11 that there is no research showing that transformational leadership leads to large-scale, organizational
  • Mature organizational cultures are difficult if not impossible to change12. Yet, simple changes to procedures13 (e.g. selection, performance appraisal, project reviews) can help sustain new initiatives. So too can feedback. Behavior that you reinforce is likely to be repeated14.


Kotter, J. P. (1995). Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail. Harvard Business Review, 73(2), 59-67.

Kotter, J. P. (1996). Leading Change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Research Footnote References

Download research references supporting and challenging aspects of the Kotter Change Model.