Leading Change by James O'Toole - Book Review

Leading Change – Overcoming the Ideology of Comfort and the Tyranny of Custom – Book Review

2.1 min read

Greg L. Thomas

Author James O’Toole is definitely not afraid of creating controversy. His book is a refreshing approach to leadership in many ways. Stylistically and philosophically, Leading Change is a different kind of book about leaders and the natural resistance of the change process. O’Toole left a comfortable 20 year university chair in academia to begin working with the Aspen Institute. This experience was a major inspiration in writing this enterprising book.

Perhaps the most daring aspect of Leading Change is O’Toole’s clear repudiation of the contingency theories so prevalent today in leadership research and coaching programs. He obviously did not come to this conclusion frivolously. This work includes his observations and experience from over two decades of working with both corporate leaders and with respected mentors such as Bennis, Drucker, Gardner, DePree and others! O’Toole loudly proclaims that the contingency theories so revered today simply don’t work in the long run. He maintains that by their very design they typically destroy trust between leaders and followers. He then offers a values-based alternative, which is a primary focus of the book.

Leading Change begins with O’Toole drawing a number of deep analogies from a painting by James Ensor. He immediately draws you into the books theme by probing a number of profound leadership questions and scenarios analogous to paintings theme. As an author, he seeks to answer three related questions:

1. What are the major causes of resistance to change?

2. How can leaders effectively and morally overcome that resistance?

3. Why is the dominant philosophy of leadership, based on contingency theory, neither an effective nor a moral guide for people who wish to lead change?

To answer these questions O’Toole divides the book into two halves. The first half deals with leaders and the second half with followers. The main theme of his work is to seriously question the validity of contingency theory and propose the alternative of value-based leadership behavior. O’Toole writes, “Instead, values-based leadership is an attitude about people, philosophy, and process. To overcome the resistance to change, one must be willing, for starters, to change oneself. In essence, then, values-based leadership is “unnatural.””

If you want to read and digest a book that will challenge both you and much present thinking about leadership, this book is definitely for you!

Leading Change – Overcoming the Ideology of Comfort and the Tyranny of Custom

Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1995 (282 pages in hardback)

Author James O’Toole

ISBN 1-55542-608-5

weLEAD rating: highly recommended

  • Quote of the Day

    “Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.”

    — Sam Walton