Leadership Case Study

US Army Command and General Staff School
Command and General Staff Officer Course (CGSOC) Common Core
L100: Developing Organizations and Leaders
L105: Leading Organizations in Change
Reading: L105RB
Leading Organizational Change: A Leader’s Role
Authors: Billy Miller and Ken Turner
“You can lead change or change will lead you.”
This article is a synopsis of John Kotter’s book, Leading Change, and is not intended to replace the book. It provides a broad overview of Kotter’s key principles to assist organizational leaders in leading change in their organizations.
A fundamental responsibility of a leader is to anticipate and effectively lead change. Change is difficult and research indicates approximately 70 percent of change efforts fail.[1] These failures normally leave crumbled organizations, frustration, and resentment among employees. This paper provides a broad overview of an effective change model to assist organizational leaders in successfully leading change.
Change is necessary for organizations to compete, grow, and improve while operating. How leaders approach the process of leading change often can mean the difference between success and failure. Change is difficult on both the personal and organizational level. Resistance to change is common because fear of uncertainty and the unknown causes angst and apprehension. To some degree, the negative aspects of change are predictable. Members of an organization react to change in both positive and negative ways. While some members of the organization embrace the change or simply accept it as a challenge, other members confront it with open hostility or aggression. Others are less obvious in their response, demonstrating apathy or grudging compliance. Whenever people are forced to change or adjust their routines, procedures, or plans; pain, discomfort, anger, or panic will often occur. However, leaders can mitigate these negative aspects with an effective plan for change, leveraging inherent opportunities while overcoming its challenges.
Successful leaders understand change is inevitable given the ambiguity, uncertainty, and volatility of the operational environment. Former CSA, Eric Shinseki, understood that successful leaders and organizations unwilling to change face uncertain futures. Even before the events of 9-11, he recognized the necessity of changing the Army to meet the challenges and uncertainty of future conflicts. In his address at the Association of the United States Army Convention in October 1999, he demonstrated this awareness when he boldly stated, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”[2]
There are numerous change models available for leaders to use in leading change, and many share the common characteristics of a shared vision, phased approach to achieve the vision, etc. One of the most effective and widely used models is the Kotter model. The Kotter model provides military leaders a straightforward, logical, sequential, and effective model for leading organizational change. This model is well documented, researched, and widely used. Further, it provides a methodology to assist leaders in improving their organizations as they operate.
Many leaders consider John Kotter, a Harvard Business School professor, an authority on leadership and change. In 1996, Kotter published his book “Leading Change” in which he reveals leadership is the real engine driving successful change and, regardless of the quality of people involved, a “managerial mindset” will inevitably fail.[3]
Kotter comments on the differences between leaders and managers….managers operate in the here and now, and leaders focus on improving for the long term; for example managers oversee procedures and activities, leaders provide the inspiration, vision and purpose.
Through his research, Kotter identified eight common errors causing organizations to fail or contribute to their failure.
Why Change Fails: [4]

  1. Allowing too much complacency
  2. Failing to create a sufficiently powerful guiding coalition
  3. Underestimating the power of vision
  4. Under-communicating the vision
  5. Permitting obstacles to block the vision
  6. Failing to create short-term wins
  7. Declaring victory too soon
  8. Neglecting to anchor changes firmly in the corporate culture

While any of these failures could have serious consequences on an organization’s ability to implement change, leaders can prevent these failures by aggressively leading the effort.
Through observation and research into the causes and failures of dozens of organizations, Kotter developed a model for organizational-level leaders to successfully lead change. He proposed an eight-stage model. Each stage directly corresponds to one of the eight common failures mentioned above. Kotter recognizes the leader’s role and posits leaders must actively assess and lead their organizations through the eight-stage model to create successful and enduring change.
Kotter’s “8 stage” model for change employs the following steps:[5] (See figure 1 for details)

  1. Establishing a sense of urgency
  2. Creating the guiding coalition
  3. Developing a vision and strategy
  4. Communicating the change vision
  5. Empowering broad-based action
  6. Generating short-term wins
  7. Consolidating gains and producing more change
  8. Anchoring new approaches in the culture

The Army adopted this model, incorporating it into its leadership manual in the mid-1990s including it in chapter 12 of FM 6-22 and then in chapter eleven of ADRP 6-22.[6] until 2019. General Shinseki used this or a similar model to lead change and transformation in the upheaval of the post 9-11 Army.
Part of the appeal of Kotter’s change model is its simplicity and straightforwardness. The model provides a foundational approach, with each stage building upon the success of the previous. Having assessed the organization and evaluated the need for change the leader begins the change process. The first four stages assist in overcoming the existing status quo and set the conditions for leading change. Stages five through seven are the action stages that move the change effort from words to action by introducing new or different practices into the organization. Without successfully completing these three stages the effort loses momentum, the sense of urgency dissipates, and the coalition becomes marginalized. Kotter’s final stage is reached when the changes are inculcated into the culture of the organization; the change becomes the status quo, and accepted, as this is “the way we do things here.”[7]
The Kotter Model of Leading Change in Organizations
Stage 1: Establishing a Sense of Urgency
According to Kotter, “People will find a thousand ingenious ways to withhold cooperation from a process that they sincerely think is unnecessary or wrongheaded.” The first step in creating successful change is establishing a sense of urgency by demonstrating the benefits and necessity of change to overcome complacency. A successful leader establishes this sense of urgency by ensuring the members understand why the change is necessary, explaining how it will benefit the organization, and what may happen to the organization if it does not take place. To create a sense of urgency, leaders establish bold goals and objectives, set aggressive timelines, and if necessary, create a crisis for the organization to rally behind. These leader actions increase the dissatisfaction with the status quo, decrease resistance, and set the stage for change.
Members of organizations often become complacent in the conduct of daily duties. Tradition, standing policies, and the status quo are familiar and comfortable ways of operating and thus difficult to change. Change is uncomfortable and there will be resistance if there is not a compelling reason for it. Many members insist they are not the problem and attempt to remain comfortably in their world of complacency. It is difficult for leaders to identify and overcome complacency because member’s complacency is often concealed within the organization’s routines and procedures. With these routines comes predictability. People generally seek stability and, if given the opportunity, remain contentedly within their comfort zone. The further a person moves from their comfort zone, the higher the perceived risk. In times of change, there is little room for complacency. Routines and procedures assist managers in running their operations. However, these same routines and procedures do little to inspire the organization’s members to reach for possibilities outside that comfort zone.
Kotter’s research indicates 75 percent of leaders[8] must believe change is essential and 25 percent[9] of the members of the organization must be willing to go beyond the normal call of duty to produce a significant change. Leaders must internally create this sense of urgency. If the sense of urgency is from an outside source, it is reactive in nature. Leaders must strive to develop a proactive sense of urgency to effectively lead change. Approximately 50 percent of companies fail to establish a sufficient sense of urgency to succeed in their transformation efforts.[10] Organizational leaders often underestimate how difficult it is to move members out of the comfort zones.
Stage 2: Creating the Guiding Coalition
Once a leader establishes that sense of urgency for change, they form a coalition of senior and respected leaders to support the change process. An organizational leader cannot be everywhere; therefore, it is their responsibility to build a coalition that can lead the change as a team. The selection of members of this guiding coalition is critical and requires careful thought. Members must be committed to the change, have shared goals, understand the problems, and recognize the opportunities and the necessity for the change. Members of the coalition should be influential, competent, and trusted by members of organization. A strong coalition of like-minded members goes far in building the trust and mutual understanding necessary to overcome the existing complacency and to propel the change process.
Stage 3: Developing a Vision and Strategy
When a new leader arrives at an organization, they have a good idea of where they want to take the organization and a visualization of the future becomes the bedrock of the organization’s vision. Once they form their coalition, the leader capitalizes on the strengths, understanding, and tacit knowledge of the members to further develop and refine their change vision. For that vision to be effective, it must clarify the direction of change, motivate others to take action in that direction, align individuals, and coordinate their actions in the specified direction.[11] A feasible vision (and strategy to accomplish the vision) is essential for aligning the actions of the people in the organization to achieve successful change. [12] Kotter identifies six key characteristics of a successful change vision; it must be imaginable, desirable, feasible, focused, flexible and communicable. [13] The leader, with support of the guiding coalition, refines the vision by conceptualizing a realistic and desirable future picture of the organization, along with plans and sequence of events to achieve that future state. An effective vision provides an imaginable picture of the future, a shared sense of purpose, focuses efforts, aligns priorities, and sparks excitement for members of the organization.
Stage 4: Communicating the Change Vision
Clearly communicating the vision throughout the organization is one of the most important stages in the change process. Clearly explaining the necessity for change, how the change benefits the organization and its members, what is planned for the organization, and what may happen if change does not take place is necessary so all members understand what is going on and what is to come in the future.
Leaders often under communicate their change vision. Effective leaders consistently and repetitively communicate their change vision at every opportunity in multiple forums. Kotter’s research reinforces this point when he states, “a leader’s change vision gets lost in the clutter.” His data reveals that in change failures, less than 1 percent of the leader’s communications were about the change, indicating leaders are more apt to “under communicate” than “over communicate” the change vision.[14]
Stage 5: Empowering Broad-Based Action
Empowering others includes establishing decentralized control, training, listening, resourcing, aligning organizational systems to support the changes, and implementing solutions to problems. This also includes trusting others to make decisions and accomplish these tasks. Empowering subordinates engenders commitment and trust in the change process. Even so, several barriers may still exist that prevent leaders from empowering broad-based action. These barriers include formal structures, lack of necessary skills or experience among employees, processes, and activities, dealing with troublesome supervisors, and most importantly, how they inhibit members’ from affecting change.
Another element of empowering broad-based action is removing unnecessary organizational structural barriers and unnecessary interdependencies. A structural barrier could be the actual physical layout of the buildings or the organizational structure. An unnecessary interdependency might be a rigidly structured or outmoded reporting procedure or process. Leaders must be aware of these impediments and remove them to empower broad-based action.
The lack of necessary skill sets among members is yet another barrier to preventing successful change. Leaders must counter this barrier with comprehensive training and a leader-development program. Kotter advises leaders to take advantage of learning opportunities by using one-on-one coaching and counseling sessions to develop and/or empower subordinates to act with confidence.
Supervisors not committed to the change effort also may be a barrier to empowering broad-based action. Leaders must aggressively take action to mitigate their influence. This includes eliminating leaders who are complacent or adamantly opposed to the change effort. Removing change-resistant leaders prevents or circumvents them from possibly sabotaging the change process. While difficult, this extreme personnel action also sends a powerful message to the leaders and members of the organization.
Kotter states these barriers all “box in” members, inhibiting them from accomplishing the changes even after they are committed to them. Removing these barriers allows leaders to tap the enormous potential of the organization’s members. [15]
Stage 6: Generating Short-term Wins
Kotter explains, “Without short-term wins, too many employees give up or actively join the resistance”.[16] Planning, identifying, rewarding, and celebrating accomplishments provides visible short-term successes that hinder cynics and resisters from resisting the vision. Making significant changes in an organization is hard work. Leaders and members of the organization need to see proof their difficult work is worthwhile, and short-term wins provide immediate proof. Additionally, short-term wins provide opportunities to celebrate and enjoy the success. They also provide a gauge for leaders to assess the vision against established goals to determine if the vision needs adjustment and provide evidence of the validity of the organizational vision. Because some organizational changes take years to enact, leaders must capitalize on the successes of short-term wins to maintain the momentum of the change effort. [17]
A good short-term win has at least three characteristics: [18]

  1. It’s visible; large numbers of people can see for themselves whether the result is real or just hype.
  2. It’s unambiguous; there can be little argument over the call.
  3. It’s clearly related to the change effort.

Stage 7: Consolidating Gains and Producing More Change
Leaders must capitalize on the successes garnered from short-term wins. Consolidating the effects of these successes allow leaders to maintain momentum and produces unforeseen opportunities for change in other areas of the organization. Leaders must work diligently to prevent the organization from regressing to its old ways. Maintaining the momentum of the change effort is essential because major change or transformation takes a long time, sometimes many years in large organizations. Consolidation of short-term wins also increases credibility and reinvigorates the process for more change by other members in the organization. The effect of change on interdependent systems in large organizations creates impetus for more change. This helps to consolidate and reinforce gains.
To prevent regression to the old ways, senior leaders should continuously communicate the importance of the change and motivate subordinates to keep the urgency levels high. The combination of the short-term wins, empowerment of members, and the leader’s focus on change will eventually permeate the entire organization, resulting in additional changes that build on the foundations of the earlier successful changes. For example, other members of the organization will see the positive aspects of the changes and initiate changes on their own. This results in continued change throughout the organization, preventing regression while maintaining the momentum for further change. [19]
By stage 7, in a successful major change initiative, you will begin to see: [20]

  • More projects added
  • Additional people brought in to help with the changes
  • Leadership focused on giving clarity to an aligned vision and shared purpose
  • Employees empowered to lead projects
  • Reduced interdependencies between areas
  • Constant effort to keep urgency high
  • Consistent proof the new way is working

Stage 8: Anchoring New Approaches in the Culture
This stage links the organization’s successes, the newly learned behaviors, and the perpetuation of those practices into the future. The importance of organizational culture cannot be overstated. Kotter defines culture as “norms of behavior and shared values among a group of people.”[21]
Dr. Edgar Schein, Professor Emeritus, MIT, defines culture as:
“basic assumptions held and shared by groups and learned through experience. A pattern of shared basic assumptions that was learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaption and internal integration, which has worked well enough to be considered valid, and therefore to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.”[22]
A critical point in Schein’s theory is the statement “which has worked well enough to be considered valid and therefore taught to new members.” Kotter refers to this as anchoring new approaches into the culture.
Anchoring the change in the organization’s culture is necessary for long-lasting and permanent change. Change is rooted in the organizational culture when people believe, “this is the way we do things here.” The changes become the accepted way of doing business because it provides value to the organization. Failure to anchor the changes may lead to a regression to the old ways because these new approaches are not firmly anchored into the beliefs, values, norms, and practices of the organizational members. If the leader successfully anchors these changes, they will survive long after the leader departs.
Kotter provides an effective model to assist organizational leaders in successfully leading change. Often each stage takes a considerable amount of time to complete. Skipping a stage, making a critical mistake within a stage, or jumping ahead prematurely can have a crippling effect on the success of the change initiative. Leaders can become impatient and skip a stage or move to the next stage prematurely, creating a false sense of success. This never produces a satisfying result. Each successive stage relies upon the successful completion of the preceding stage for real and lasting change. Additionally, mistakes in any of the stages can slow momentum and negate hard-won gains.[23] If executed out of sequence, it is difficult for leaders to build sufficient momentum to overcome the inertia of the status quo.[24]
Change will occur regardless of the leader’s action. Successful leaders actively lead change with a comprehensive plan. Creating and leading lasting change in large organizations continues to be a major challenge for leaders. Leaders must be aware of the complexities of change, its challenges, and what it takes to successfully lead change in large organizations. The Kotter model is a great tool for leaders to use to make lasting organizational change. Using the model does not guarantee success, but the lack of a coherent and well-thought-out plan will most certainly guarantee failure.

If you foresee change in the future of your organization or if you are interested in change, consider enrolling in the elective course A716: Leadership a Force for Change.

Figure 1
The Eight-Stage Process of Creating Major Change[25]

  1. Establishing a sense of urgency
  • Examining the market and competitive realities
  • Identifying and discussing crises, potential crises, or major opportunities
  1. Creating the Guiding Coalition
  • Putting together a group with enough power to lead the change
  • Getting the group to work together like a team
  1. Developing a vision and strategy
  • Creating a vision to help direct the change effort
  • Developing strategies for achieving the vision
  1. Communicating the change vision
  • Using every vehicle possible to constantly communicate the new vision and strategies.
  • Having the guiding coalition role model the behavior expected of employees.
  1. Empowering broad-based action
  • Getting rid of obstacles
  • Changing systems or structures that undermine the change vision
  • Encouraging risk-taking and nontraditional ideas, activities, and actions
  1. Generating short-term wins
  • Planning for visible improvements in performance, or “wins”
  • Creating those wins
  • Visibly recognizing and rewarding people who made the wins possible
  1. Consolidating gains and producing more changes
  • Using increased credibility to change all systems, structures, and policies that don’t fit together and don’t fill the transformation vision
  • Hiring, promoting, and developing people who can implement the change vision
  • Reinvigorating the process with new projects, themes, and change agents
  1. Anchoring new approaches in the culture
  • Creating better performance through customer and productivity-oriented behavior, more and better leadership, and more efficient management
  • Articulating the connections between new behaviors and organizational success
  • Developing means to ensure leadership development and succession

Blanchard, Ken; Britt, John; Hoekstra; and Zigarmi, Pat. Who Killed Change? :Solving the Mystery of Leading People Through Change. New York: Polvera Publishing and John Britt, 2009.
Headquarter Department of the Army, Field Manuel 6-22, Army Leadership: Competent, Confident and Agile. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 12 October 2006.
Kotter, John P. Leading Change. Boston Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press, 1996.
——Leading Change: Why Transformational Efforts Fail” Harvard Business Review March-April 1995. 59-67.
—— Kotter International 2011, Accessed 20 April 2012, http://www.kotterinternational.com/kotterprinciples/changesteps/step7.
Schein, Edgar. H. Organizational Culture and Leadership (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1992.
Shinseki, Eric. K. Address to the Eisenhower Luncheon at the 45th Meeting of the Association of the United States Army. October 1999. Retrieved on February 24, 2008 from http://www.army.mil/leaders/csa/speeches/991012.htm

  1. Ken; Blanchard, Britt, John; Hoekstra; and Zigarmi, Pat, Who Killed Change?: Solving the Mystery of Leading People Through Change. New York: Polvera Publishing and John Britt, 2009, XX
  2. Eric K. Shinseki Address to the Eisenhower Luncheon at the 45th Meeting of the Association of the United States Army. October 1999. Retrieved on February 24, 2008 from http://www.army.mil/leaders/csa/speeches/991012.htm1999.
  3. John P. Kotter, Leading Change, (Boston Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press, 1996), x.
  4. Kotter, 1996, 16.
  5. Kotter, 1996, 21.
  6. Headquarter Department of the Army, Field Manuel 6-22, Army Leadership: Competent, Confident and Agile, (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 12 October 2006), 12-7, and Headquarter Department of the Army, ADRP 6-22, Army Leadership, (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1 August 2012), 11-5.
  7. Kotter, 1996 23.
  8. Kotter, 1996, 48.
  9. Kotter, 1996, 35.
  10. John P. Kotter, “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail”, (Harvard Business Review: March-April, 1995), 60.
  11. Kotter, 1996, 68-70.
  12. Kotter, 1996, 68-69.
  13. Kotter, 1996, 72.
  14. Kotter, 1996, 89.
  15. Kotter, 1996, 101-115.
  16. Kotter, 1996, 11.
  17. Kotter, 1996, 117-130.
  18. Kotter, 1996, 121-122.
  19. Kotter, 1996, 131-144.
  20. John P. Kotter, Kotter International 2011, Accessed 20 April 2012, http://www.kotterinternational.com/kotterprinciples/changesteps/step7.
  21. Kotter, 1996, 148.
  22. Edgar H. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership (2nd ed.). (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1992), 18.
  23. Kotter, 1995, 59-60.
  24. Kotter, 1996, 23.
  25. Kotter, 1996, 21.