Power and Influence by John Kotter

Had I read Power and Influence:  Beyond Formal Authority by John Kotter, published in 1985, sooner, perhaps I might have avoided some of the pitfalls and frustrations that I have encountered in my career.  Kotter offers many helpful observations and theories.  There are three, in particular, on which I want to focus:  the importance of lateral relationships, the power gap that may exist between a manager’s formal authority and the power subordinates have, and Kotter’s advice for building a power base.  Kotter offers many other insights in his book including the rising effect of diversity and interdependence in organizations and how to let go gracefully late in one’s career – the chapter that I confess I skipped because I don’t consider myself late in my career and I haven’t yet decided if I want to let go gracefully.  For today, I am focusing on three key concepts.

The Importance of Lateral Relationships

Lateral relationships are relationships with people in an organization who are neither people who report to you nor people to whom you report.  Kotter points out that many initiatives require information or cooperation from others over whom one has no formal authority.  Projects have a large number of dependencies on other departments and success depends on understanding the dependencies and having good relationships with people in lateral positions.  People in other departments have different sources of stress, different priorities and different agendas.  Getting others to share information, cooperate, and not derail an initiative requires one to have a good relationship with those people and to communicate effectively with them.  Kotter writes:

Over the years, I have encountered literally hundreds of examples of capable people underestimating, to their detriment and the detriment of their organizations, how much others they depended on in lateral relationships would resist cooperating with them on something or how able they would be to resist. And in the process, I’ve seen new product development efforts, quality-of-work-life programs, new MIS systems, structural reorganizations, merger and acquisition efforts, and much more, simply fail. At the same time, I have also seen similar efforts successfully implemented, despite a lot of initial resistance from powerful interest groups, simply because the people leading the efforts correctly anticipated where the biggest problems are likely to be. Likely resistance from powerful individuals or groups does not have to kill innovative new products or programs. But it must be correctly anticipated in advance.

Bingo.  The struggles of so many initiatives is explained by “capable people underestimating” how much others would resist cooperating.  Kotter succinctly describes the importance of developing, maintaining and communicating with people in lateral positions.  Many people have written about the importance of networking – but Kotter adds a specific reason why networking within an organization (building lateral relationships) is critical to the success of many initiatives.

The Power Gap

Kotter observes the common situation in which a manager is put in charge of part of an organization and has formal authority – the ability to hire, fire, and reward employees – and yet the manager has less power over his/her subordinates than they, as a group,  have over him/her.   He describes this situation as a power gap – the gap between the power the manager has and the power his/her subordinates have.  Kotter says the amount of power subordinates have as a group is routinely ignored.  He notes that subordinate power frequently comes from the following:

  • skills that are difficult to replace quickly or easily
  • important information or knowledge
  • good personal relationships with others in the organization
  • the role of the subordinate – the more important the subordinate’s role to the manager’s agenda, the greater the effect of his performance on the evaluation of the manager

For these reasons and others, subordinates, as a group, can have power with respect to the manager and the subordinates’ power is often overlooked.  To counteract the subordinates’ power, Kotter advises:

 One must bring to the job relevant personal skills and abilities, good working relationships, information, and other tangible resources, and a strong track record to supplement the power sources the come automatically with the job. And during the first few months in a new assignment, it is necessary to develop even more countervailing power over the many job-related dependencies, often by developing additional relationships in obtaining additional relevant information.

 The days in which a manager says “jump” and the employees say “how high?” on the way up and “when can I come down” are long gone.  Successful managers overcome the power gap by building a power base.

Building a Power Base

Throughout the book, Kotter tells stories and provides advice on how to build a power base.  Some of the best advice is to:

  1. Build strong upward and lateral relationships.  Much has been written about “managing up” and Kotter offers advice on this as well – including learning your boss’s goals, pressures, strengths, weaknesses, and working style; behaving honestly and dependably; and using your manager’s time selectively.  And he recommends building strong lateral relationships because of the importance of lateral relationships in the success of many initiatives.
  2. Develop detailed knowledge.  Become an expert.  Learn about products or services, the markets, the technologies and the people in the organization and in the industry.
  3. Build a track record and reputation.  Nurture and guard your reputation.
  4. Develop new analytic or interpersonal skills.
  5. Develop strong relationships with employees, especially those in key jobs.  Kotter remarks that effective managers have strong relationships with employees based on the employees’ (a) a sense of obligation to or dependence on the manager; (b) perception of the manager’s expertise; or (c) identification with the manager or with the goals the manager supports.

John Kotter’s Power and Influence is a good book despite being written 25 years ago.  Its lessons and an advice are still applicable and as I said, I wish I had read it sooner.


  • Nathan S. Gibson

    Nathan S. Gibson is an independent worker compliance business partner who provides expertise and creative solutions to enhance workforce flexibility and maintain compliance. He helps mitigate the risks associated with the misclassification of self-employed consultants, freelancers and independent contractors.

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