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Leading a revolution

Updated Thursday, 19th October 2006

What makes a good leader? And how do leaders and managers work together to bring change in a large organisation?

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Has Kim Winser identified a new direction for Aquascutum? Relying on its traditional lines and existing customers is unlikely to change the fortunes of this troubled retailer.

When a new leader joins a company in turmoil, everyone looks to them to establish a renewed sense of direction and purpose. Carlos Ghosn, Chief Executive of Renault-Nissan, is celebrated as a “rock star” of the car industry. He's credited with rapidly transforming Nissan's financial fortunes. The Japanese carmaker was losing six billion dollars in 1999, but has earned at least four billion dollars every year since 2003. Ghosn's vision of profitability at Nissan was supported by plans to:

  • enter new markets
  • bring out new models
  • boost sales in the US

A favourite question for debate in this area is, of course, are great leaders born or made? Is leadership all about having charisma, or other exotic personality traits?

No, says John Kotter, an expert on leadership and change. Kotter draws a clear distinction between leadership and management, which he sees as two distinctive and complementary systems of action. So what's the difference?

Kotter argues that while managers cope with complexity, leaders cope with change. Leaders set out a vision for the future and the strategies that will move the company in the right direction.

Above all, successful leaders never underestimate the need to get people behind the vision - or the effort and energy required at this stage. A leader needs to communicate his or her vision widely to staff, and ensure that people are committed to it.

"Great leaders keep people motivated"

Great leaders keep people motivated, inspired, and moving in the right direction! This is no mean feat, particularly in a large organisation. In a recent interview, Idris Jala, currently attempting a business turnaround at the struggling Malaysia Airlines (MAS), wondered how “you go about influencing over 20,000 people”.

This brings us to the crucial role played by the managers who support visionary leaders like Ghosn, Jala or Winser, and help to implement the changes required throughout the organisation. A manager (in contrast to a leader) should be concerned with developing the organisation's capacity to action the plan that the leader's setting out. So the management task is all about activities such as organising and staffing, planning and budgeting, controlling and problem-solving.

So Winser needs to set out her vision, and surround herself with a strong management team to help her achieve it. But what obstacles might still be lying in wait for her?

Perhaps we should leave the final word to Idris Jala, still wrestling with a dire financial situation at Malaysian Airlines. One of his principles of business turnaround, he says, is “divine intervention”. In other words, a large number of the things that happen to us in life are beyond our control. So maybe Kim Winser should simply be praying for rain?

Further reading

  • Transforming Aquascutum – will Kim Winser be able to transform Aquascutum into a profitable fashion brand?
  • Women as leaders – discover how discrimination led to a leadership revolution
  • Manager at Work: Remaking MAS
  • “What Leaders Really Do” by John Kotter, in Harvard Business Review, May 1990
  • What Leaders Really Do by John Kotter, published by Harvard Business School Press
  • Turnaround: How Carlos Ghosn Rescued Nissan by David Magee, published by HarperCollins




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