Twentieth Century Leadership Approach to Change Versus the Twenty-first Century Approach

As I look back to my early years when I was much younger, I have observed a marked difference in how organizations did business and ran the institution of that era, which was slower and relatively predictable. It was easy to make short-term, medium-term, and long-term organizational plans back then. However, in the twenty-first century, with the advent of the internet and other disruptive technological innovations doing so is synonymous with committing suicide. To understand what I am saying, you only need to look at thriving businesses of that era (Kodak, Worldcom Inc., Enron, Conseco, etc.) that could not survive the complexities of modern-day enterprises. Sadly, such organizations have been left behind while celebrating yesterday’s success in today’s highly volatile and unpredictable business environment.
“Change,” in most cultures, is commonly accepted as inevitable. When an organization refuses to change, they are replaced by other more vibrant businesses that are amenable to change. The point I am making is leading a change in any organization in the twentieth century was dramatically different from how a change is being conducted today in this twenty-first century. This understanding was brought to the fore by my comparative analysis of how John Kotter’s book, Leading Change, which emphasized the transformation of an organization in deep trouble and at the brink of collapse. And Ronald Heifetz’s book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, here the author alluded to the practice of medicine, which involves the idea of diagnosis and prescription. According to Heifetz, the diagnostic stage requires metaphorically the idea of “getting on the balcony” above the ‘dance floor’ for a leader to get a fresh perspective about what is currently happening within one’s organization. The main argument of Heifetz is that doing so will allow the leader to make a mid-course adjustment to the happenings within the organization rather than wait until there’s a major crisis.
Kotter proposed that leaders must ask themselves honest questions about why the organization is failing for a transformational change to occur in an organization. Then, Kotter believes that providing straightforward answers to the reasons for failure is the main secret behind initiating a real and lasting transformative change. This notion was predicated on the tremendous stability many organizations enjoyed throughout the twentieth century because of slow organizational change. I will argue that the major drawback of Kotter’s understanding of leading a change is entrenched in his worldview of the twentieth century, marked by stability. A significant point to note here was that the book was written in 1996, shortly before the new millennium. He was, however, hopeful that for future organizations to thrive, they must embrace lifelong learning as a lifestyle to be quicker and more competent in their decision-making choices.
Kotter’s framework of leading change contrasts what Ronald Heifetz proposes in his book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, written more than a decade later. I will like to highlight the similarities and the differences that marked these two great books. Firstly, Kotter’s book Leading change, written in the twentieth century, assumed that organizational changes are only necessary when an organization is on the brink of collapse.
In contrast, Heifetz’s book, written almost a decade into the twenty-first century, understood the dynamism that now exists in an organization. He proposed adaptive changes and leadership styles. As a leader, he stated that you should occasionally step onto the balcony to observe what is going on in your organization and then design an intervention plan which you can administer mid-course of the organization’s life. Kotter and Heifetz both emphasize transformational change but obviously from a different socio-cultural context. For Kotter, the watchword of the twentieth century was “stability.” Therefore, the organization’s stability must be seriously threatened for a transformational act to occur. This is quite different from how Heifetz conceives transformational change in the twenty-first century. Heifetz argues that it is a myth that an organization has to be broken before management leadership can initiate a change or fix it. He played around with the idea of adaptive leadership by asking leaders to try different experiments on how they conduct their businesses in modern-day practice. This concept is now popularly called design thinking which does not promote rigidity in implementing a single business idea in an organization but is willing to adapt, readjust, and continuously change business plans until success is attained.

Olusegun Osineye
Author: Olusegun Osineye

Olusegun Osineye earned his Doctor of Ministry (DMin) in Transformational Leadership from Boston University. He's passionate about creatively adding value to the black race by utilizing life's simple philosophy for their flourishing.

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