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Kotter Meets Nehemiah. A critique of John Kotter’s Leading Change. A Perspective from the Royal Navy.

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kotter meets nehemiah

Kotter Meets Nehemiah

A critique of

John Kotter’s Leading Change

a perspective from the royal navy
A Perspective from the Royal Navy

“The greatest enemy to everyone on board was the sea itself and survival depended on teamwork, discipline, and skill. An individual sailor might desert his ship or commit an act deemed mutinous, but when a large part of a crew acted together to commit mutiny or desertion, it was the sign of a badly officered ship…

Oppression and tyranny in an officer might indicate an unbalance mind, or simply a cruel nature, but more often extreme severity was usually a cloak for poor leadership and skill.”

Patrick O’Brien’s Navy

by Richard O’Neill

the eight step process of successful change
The Eight Step Process of Successful Change

One of the prominent names in change management today is John Kotter, author of numerous books including Leading Change and Our Iceberg Is Melting. In the vast majority of the organizations he studied, most people didn’t know what to do, felt threatened, or were convinced top management didn’t want their help.

Set the Stage1. Create a sense of urgencyHelp others see the need for change and the importance of acting immediately.

Nehemiah prayed in chapter 1:

“The remnant there in the province who survived the captivity are in great distress and reproach, and the wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates are burned with fire.” Neh. 1:3 (also, 2:17)


2. Pull together the guiding team.Make sure there is a powerful group guiding the change—one with leadership skills, credibility, communication skills, and a sense of urgency.

In addition to those mentioned in 2:16 (the Jews, the priests, the nobles, and the officials), there is a lengthy and impressive list of leaders in chapter 3.


Decide What to Do.3. Develop the Change Vision and Strategy. Clarify how the future will be different from the past, and how you can make that future a reality.

Nehemiah’s plan for reconstruction makes for an interesting study in the motivation of employees or members of your community. Notice in the chapter 3 the occurrences of phrases related to the workers doing repairs on the wall is sections located next to their own homes.


Make It Happen.4. Communicate for Understanding and Buy In. Make sure as many others as possible understand and accept the vision and the strategy.

Nehemiah and his co-laborers experienced intense opposition from other Jewish and some non-Jewish leaders who tried desperately to paint the re-construction of the wall as a precursor to rebellion against the Persian Empire. (see 2:19; 4:1-3, 12-13)

5. Empower Others to Act. Remove as many barriers as possible so that those who want to make the vision a reality can do so.

Nehemiah stationed men in key positions around the circumference of the wall so that they could oversee the work while providing security for those who were laboring. (4:13)

He empowered each crew to concentrate on their task: Half of my servants carried on the work while half of them held their weapons; the captains were behind the whole house of Judah. (4:16)

6 generating short term wins create some visible unambiguous success as soon as possible
6. Generating Short-Term Wins.Create some visible, unambiguous success as soon as possible.

In the midst of these struggles and the discouragements, one verse jumps out as a short-term win for this odd collection of construction worker: “So we built the wall and the whole wall was joined together to half its height, for the people had a mind to work.” (4:6)


7. Don’t let up.Press harder and faster after the first successes. Be relentless with initiating change after change until the vision is a reality.

Nehemiah recognized in the faces of his team that they were afraid, and he boldly encouraged them in 4:14.

He further challenged them to pull 24/7 shifts of duty as described in 4:21-22.


8. Make it stick: Create a new culture. Hold on to the new ways of behaving, and make sure they succeed, until they become strong enough to replace old traditions.

In just 52 days a miracle occurred—a wall approx. 2.5 miles in circumference and ten feet across had been restored. Under the leadership of Nehemiah and Ezra all of Israel “came together as one man.” (8:1)

follow up activity
Follow up activity.

Having made a careful study of Kotter’s Eight Step Process of Successful Change, compare these leadership concepts to those described in the literature on transformational leadership and the book of Nehemiah. Answer the question,

“What’s missing in Kotter?”

consider these concepts missing in kotter but present in nehemiah
Consider these concepts missing in Kotter but present in Nehemiah:
  • Prayer and patience waiting for God’s provision.
  • Researching the current reality.
  • Communicating the significance of the individual and connecting each follower to the new vision.
  • Providing individualized attention.
  • God-focused celebration.