Don’t Make These Leadership Mistakes

Mark J. Komen, President

Kodyne, Inc.

Plymouth, MN

In another article, I discussed the Two Critical Roles of the CEO where organization leaders are chartered with setting the organization’s vision and communicating it.  Where the vision has changed (or never existed previously), leaders have to ensure that every person, department, and function align with the future direction of the organization.  This usually requires giving up old ways of doing things and replacing them with perhaps new processes and behaviors.

This is no easy task – especially where the old ways have been in place for many years or have been accepted as, “that’s the way we’ve always done it so don’t rock the boat!”

John Kotter of Harvard University’s graduate school of business is one of my favorite authors on leadership.  As reported in a Harvard Business Review article Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail, he studied over 100 companies trying to remake themselves in order to better compete in the marketplace.  He found some success stories but more failures than successes.  His study included large corporations and small ones, domestic and international, companies in trouble and those making money.   I will summarize his findings below as they are important for anyone leading change in their organization and will perhaps enable them to avoid making these crucial errors.

Error #1 – Not establishing a great enough sense of urgency

There needs to be a reason or set of reasons to motivate people to accept and support change.  Even in a small, privately held company, it can be difficult for the owner to get staff to adopt changes and stay with them over time.  Kotter says where management teams are involved, you need about 75% of the managers to be totally convinced that conducting business as usual is completely unacceptable.

Sometimes, compelling presentation of facts and data supporting the reasons for change get people’s attention (such as new market trends or new competitors) but not everyone connects with this approach.  Executives need to make an emotional connection with their staffs to get them on board.  Some people will just go with the flow and do what’s asked of them but other may need more convincing

Error #2 – Not creating a guiding coalition

You need a critical mass early on that grows with time to achieve a successful transformation.  If it doesn’t grow, opposition to change will grow and stop or stifle the process.  On the surface, it may look easy for the owner of a small business to effect change by merely mandating it but in small organizations with fewer staff members and everyone serving in key roles the organization can’t do without, one un-cooperative member can kill off the entire initiative.  So gaining the commitment of key staff to support the changes is still the way to go to build the momentum you need.

Error #3 – Lacking vision

Plans and directives must tie to the organization’s vision of the future.  These must be clear, concise, and compelling so everyone knows where the organization is heading.  Kotter recommends the five minute rule – if you can’t communication your vision to someone in five minutes  or less AND get their feedback that they understand it and are interested in it, it’s back to the drawing board.

Error #4 – Under-communicating the vision by 10x

Say it

Say it again and again and again

Use every channel you have to communicate and reinforce the vision – brochures, newsletters, web sites, plaques, talks, performance reviews, job descriptions, meetings.  Oh and be consistent – leaders whose behaviors don’t support the vision will give others license to not support it either.

Error #5 – Not removing obstacles

Leaders need to determine the barriers to achieving the new vision.  Some considerations:

  • Does the organizational structure need to change?
  • Do policies and procedures need to change?
  • Do compensation systems, performance reviews, promotion and job assignment protocols need to change?
  • Who plays the role of the “Central Negative” in the organization – the person who voices criticism and questions the purpose behind about anything and has to be won over?  This person often has lots of influence in how things get done.
  • How are you going to deal with people who have risk tolerance and willingness to change issues
  • Who are the people who will only pay lip service to the vision and how to manage them?
  • How will you deal with those who actively oppose change?  Not addressing this gives the message that leaders aren’t serious about implementing them.

Error #6 – Not systematically creating short-term wins

Transformation takes time and leaders need to actively and continuously point out successes and celebrate them publicly.  Temporary improvements count but are they sustainable?  The doubters are waiting to see.

Kotter recommends creating short-term wins rather than hoping for them.  Look for ways to create successes that support the path you’re on.

Error #7 – Declaring victory too soon

It’s OK to celebrate wins but declaring victory in the war can be a calamity.  Newer approaches have to be ingrained in the culture to avoid regression.  People may rally to the new vision for a while, especially if it requires a lot of effort to do so and sustain, but then they tire and get lazy and the old ways return.

Error #8 – Not anchoring changes in the culture

Changes stick when “the way we do things around here” support the new business as usual.  This occurs when the new norms and behavior continue on in force after the pressure for change hoes away.

What’s needed here?

  • Conscious attempts to show people what’s expected of them in terms of behaviors, attitudes and approaches and to show how these changes have helped the organization’s performance.
  • Making sure that all new managers support and embody the new approaches.  Promotions should be to those who reflect the new norms and behaviors.  All it takes is one bad succession (or hire), especially at the top of the organization, to unravel all the positive change accomplished so far.

Guiding an organization through a transformation is much like navigating your way across town in heavy traffic.  Having a clear destination (vision) in mind of where you’re going is critical to your successful arrival.  With all the distractions on the road such as merging vehicles, lane changes, stop and go traffic, accidents and the like, there’s a lot to keep track of and many opportunities to lose focus and get frustrated.

Being patient and consistent and being able to recognize and deal with the myriad impediments to progress will help you on your journey.


Kotter, John P.  Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail.  Harvard Business Review, 1995.  Reprinted in IEEE Engineering Management Review. Vol 37, No. 3, September 2009.

Copyright 2009.  Kodyne, Inc.  All rights reserved worldwide