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Penguins Learn to Stick Their Heads in the Ice Beneath Them
am 14. April 2007
My favorite part of John Kotter's classic, Leading Change, is the cover image of a penguin leaping across a space between two blocks of ice while 10 other penguins look on from the side the penguin leaped from. Here is one case where you can tell the book by its cover.
Obviously, that wonderful image penetrated deeply into the consciousness of Holger Rathgeber in designing this penguin-based version of how a leader might deal with the problem in Who Moved My Cheese? (changing conditions affect survival)? If you miss that connection to Who Moved My Cheese? there's a foreword by Spencer Johnson to make it clearer.
The Emperor Penguins have lived on an iceberg in Antarctica for many years. They planned to always live there. But Fred had a different idea: The iceberg was melting in a way that meant the possibility of a catastrophic collapse in mid-Winter. The rest of the book explores how Fred's knowledge is translated into useful action for the 268 penguins that lived in the colony.
The fable naturally draws on John Kotter's famous eight steps for leading change which I have paraphrased below into seven to make them easier to understand:
1. Get peoples' attention.
2. Establish a change-leading team.
3. Agree on the results you want.
4. Allow needed changes.
5. Show regular progress.
6. Stay focused.
7. Build new habits that will serve you well after the change is done.
Fables are difficult to write. I admire John Kotter and Holger Rathgeber for taking a crack at it.
But if you pay attention to the facts, you'll find that their story doesn't quite make sense. Emperor Penguins live on the pack ice that forms seasonally. As the pack ice retreats, they simply move to the edge. Seldom would they stay on an iceberg. Why? Because the ice breaks up when the youngsters are old enough to swim to the main ice pack. If you read science articles, you'll also learn that what is more likely to threaten a penguin community is that their iceberg drifts into an area where the winter freeze isolates the colony too far from the open sea. The penguins have to walk to the sea rather than dive in to get food.
Also, most icebergs are going to eventually release into warmer seas and melt that way rather than be split by freezing water as described in this book.
If you look at the leadership, it's also very male dominated. The story would be more realistic if it included more male-female interaction.
The problem of survival in the face of the environment seems more akin to what a town council might face in deciding to relocate away from a leaking dam that what a business organization might face.
I could go on, but I'm sure you see the point: A better fable could have been written (even if it had to involve penguins).
I also compared the book to Leading Change and The Heart of Change. Unless you are only able to learn by reading fables, both of those books are much better on this subject.
My suggestion is that you let the iceberg melt and read about how people lead instead in Dr. Kotter's other excellent books.