Applying Kotter’s Leading Change against Climate Change

Leading Change” by John Kotter, was written in 1995, but its eight step process for leading change in organizations is so clear and useful, that it is no surprise that three versions of it pop up on the first page of search results on Amazon when searching for books on change management. This blog post holds the efforts to lead change against climate change up against Kotter’s eight-step process.


1. Establishing a sense of urgency

Increasingly, people are convinced of the urgent need to live within the boundaries of our planet’s capacity regarding carbon emissions. Global, regional and local NGOs (like the World Wildlife Fund) have actively campaigned to raise awareness of the threats of climate change. But there are powerful others(in governments, corporate leadership, institutional investors) who are not on board to drive the urgently needed change to halt climate change. Their vested interests lie elsewhere and their short term perspectives and incentives keep them running business as usual, and even working against those creating a sense of urgency around climate change.

2. Creating the guiding coalition

There are many coalitions in place, each driving their members to work together against climate change, such as the UN-led Conference of Parties (COP), the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), CSR Europe, Urgenda and many more. There are so many global, regional and local organizations, that there are also coalitions of such organizations to help them work together like Caring for Climate, Forum Empresa. The question is, are these coalitions powerful enough to lead the change? And can they get their members to really work together? Yes, there are successes, big and small, but the pace of change is not enough to effectively reduce CO2 emissions. In fact, since the first Conference of Parties in 1992, global CO2 emissions have continued to grow substantially. Again, there are so many interests and parties involved, that even these (seemingly powerful) coalitions of nations fail to accelerate change.

3. Developing a Vision and Strategy

The vision of halting climate change seems to unify the many concerned voices out there, and they all agree on the core strategy to reduce CO2 emissions. So far so good, but with so many stakeholders, coalitions and passionate leaders, it’s difficult to get to consensus on how this should be done and what behavioral change and sacrifices will be needed. Although, with something as “tangible” as CO2 reduction, it is perfectly fine to have many projects running in parallel, all working towards that same vision. And we need all those projects to make it happen, as demonstrated in Wedging the Gap, an interesting paper on how many potential reduction projects can add up. So perhaps it doesn’t matter too much that there isn’t one strategy, as long as all projects work towards a common vision.

4. Communicating the Change Vision

As there is no global masterplan supported by all, it cannot be effectively communicated either. However, with so many coalitions in place, each with different plans and (relatively captive) audiences, the communications challenge could actually be manageable. But many questions remain, such as are all coalition leaders are effective communicators, are they genuinely interested in driving change and –returning to step two –are they powerful enough to drive change? Is there enough communications? Or are there conflicting messages, impeding action?

5. Empowering Broad Based Action

Fortunately, the lack of a global coalition or masterplan does not leave all people inactive: select corporate leaders, government officials, NGOs, communities and individuals are making a difference by actively reducing their own (carbon) footprint and helping, inspiring, even mandating others to do the same. But even though there are many great initiatives, “broad-based” certainly does not apply.

6. Generating Short-Term Wins

Despite the dire picture painted above, there are quite some short-term wins to celebrate. Compared to a few decades ago, global NGOs like Greenpeace have actually switched a large part of their communications to celebrating successes. Other parties involved in driving change might get so hung up in their continued need to create a sense of urgency (and other earlier steps in the process), that the short term wins never make it to the top of the communications list.

7. Consolidating Gains and Producing More Change

Short term wins can really help to create change in systems, structures and policies. This is where it can get really tricky in some places, with policy makers sitting on the fence, looking for others to go first, as policy changes are generally faced with resistance. Especially as election dates get closer, politicians can be more concerned with their short term win (i.e. their re-election) than the long term wins for their (and other) citizens. And yet, some countries, like the UK and Germany, are ready to set goals and put energy policies in place to help achieve those goals (even if the German move away from nuclear could lead to a short-term increase in coal-based energy). And in the corporate world? Unilever continues to be the successful posterchild (and could actually serve as an example in many of these steps) – driving change both internally and externally to achieve its ambitious goals.

8. Anchoring New Approaches in the Culture

Nice to see that there are organizations like UNPRE, that strive to inspire our future leaders to act and lead more sustainably, creating a new mindset and culture in future leaders. Will that yield the short-term results needed to halt or reverse global warming? Probably not – so we also need other initiatives at the global, regional and local level to ensure that new behaviors are stimulated and rewarded, to create and support a new culture for successful change.


Having thought through Kotter’s eight steps with the change needed to halt climate change in mind, has shown me that there is a huge gap between the long term process to really drive change and the short term need to effectuate change to halt climate change. That puts us all right back in step one – establishing a sense of urgency. Will COP19 in Warsaw make a difference? Or do we need more climate disasters in vulnerable places – or less likely ones, like New York? Please let me know through your comments below where you believe the leaders of change against climate change will come from.


  1. Hi Marjolein, It was great to read your post on these 5 steps from J. Kotter. I also believe they are incredibly useful. By the way, I wrote my post -graduation paper at University of Cambridge on them.

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