Can A Leader Change People?

by Ken Vincent, Featured Contributor

I HAD A young person ask that of me a few days ago.  Well, at first blush that seemed like a pretty straight forward question.  The obvious answers were: yes, no, maybe, sometimes.  But, none of those felt right, so I said let me think about that and get back to you.  So, here is where I came out after pondering the question.

Opinion Yours CountsYes you can change some aspects of outward appearance.  You can change how they do a given task.  You can change how they talk or write.  You can sometimes change their opinions.  You can even change some of their habits.  But, is that changing the person?  I don’t think it is.

It seems to me that changing a person is an entirely different issue.  It isn’t a matter of changing their outward aspects, but one of changing the core individual.  Their innate abilities, their core beliefs, their personality, and emotional composition.  Can that core be changed?  I’m not sure it can be.  I believe the leader has to work within those constraints and use them to get the desired end results.  But, change them?  I doubt it, and time spent trying will be time wasted and create a great deal of frustration for both parties.

What do you think?  Is changing how people act, or how they perform, the same as changing the person?


Ken Vincent
Ken Vincent
KEN is a 46 year veteran hotelier and entrepreneur. Formerly owned two hotels, an advertising agency, a wholesale tour company, a POS company, a leasing company, and a hotel management company. The hotels included chain owned, franchises, and independents. They ranged in type from small luxury inns, to limited service properties, to large convention hotels and resorts. After retiring he authored a book, “So Many Hotels, So Little Time” in which he relates what life is like behind the scenes for a hotel manager. Ken operated more that 100 hotels and resorts in the US and Caribbean and formed eight companies. He is a firm believer that senior management should share their knowledge and experience with the next generation of management.

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  1. Thank you Ken. In my experience, you can improve people… you can influence them… as Dennis said, in order (in my view) to be the best “they can be” on the basis of their levels of inwardness, objective capability, depth of thought, and their natural inclination, – but you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear… ’cause there are genetic and environmental variants. People are the result of what they “really” have inside them… how they were raised… quality and type of their own experiences… – Then… sometimes… some people change deep inside… only when faced with traumatic experiences… or when they want it bad enough… So I fully agree with the remarks that were made previously by Robert and Jane. Thank you.

    • Massimo, the time and money that would be saved if hiring managers were to hire only successful employees each a new employee was hired is staggering. Too few know how to do it so they just complain about their new hires.

  2. Well stated Robert. Seems to me we cannot change people – but rather we can do our best to “influence” their behavior over time, in hope that the “influenced” behavior catches on as the “new norm” over time.

  3. “Is changing how people act, or how they perform, the same as changing the person?”


    It is far easier to change our own behaviors than to change other people’s behaviors and changing our own behaviors is nearly impossible for most of us without wanting to change and without help. Telling and insisting that others change is a fools errand.

    All hiring managers hire for knowledge, skills, and abilities only and too few hire for knowledge, skills, abilities and behaviors. The following is from the book “First Break All the Rules, what the world’s greatest managers do differently” by Buckingham and Coffman. The authors’ define a “talent “, (page 71) as “a recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied…The emphasis here is on the word ‘recurring.’ Great managers say ‘Your talents are the behaviors you find yourself doing often.’ ”

    The authors repeat the following four lines several times in the book (pages 57, 67, 79). 

    · People don’t change much. 

    · Don’t waste time trying to put in what was left out. 

    · Try to draw out what was left in. 

    · That is hard enough. 

    When hiring, Conventional Wisdom says (page 66)… 

    1. select a person…based on his experience, intelligence and determination. 

    2. set expectations…by defining the right steps. 

    3. motivate the person…by helping him identify and overcome his weaknesses. 

    4. develop the person…by helping him learn and get promoted. 

    When hiring, Great Managers say… 

    1. select for talent…not just experience, intelligence or determination.
    2. define the outcomes…not the right steps 

    3. focus on strengths…not weaknesses 

    4. help find the right fit…not the next promotion 

    Conventional Wisdom says… 

    1. Experience makes the difference. 

    2. Brainpower makes the difference.
    3. Willpower makes the difference. 

    Great managers agree with the three items above but great managers label willpower a talent and it is almost impossible to teach (page 72). Only the presence of talents can explain why, all other factors being equal, some people excel in the role and some struggle (page 73).

    As manager you need to know exactly which talents you want. (page 101) Great talents need great managers if they are to be turned into performance. (page 102) 

Each employee breathes different psychological oxygen. (page 151) 

    You cannot learn very much about excellence by studying failure…Excellence is not the opposite of failure. (page 157)

    Whereas conventional wisdom views individual specialization as the antithesis of teamwork, great managers see it as the founding principle (page 173). In the minds of great managers, consistent poor performance is not primarily a matter of weakness, stupidity disobedience, or disrespect. It is a matter of miscasting (page 209).

  4. You can not change a person. Changing their appearance will make them look different: hair color, glasses, apparel. Or for a more dramatic change, send them to the plastic surgeon for a full makeover. I’d even sign up for that one. 🙂 Change can also alter the way a person talks and expresses themselves. We have an entire industry that works with individuals to upgrade their natural tendencies to be introverted or extroverted and settle on something in between. If you want to change a personal characteristic or trait, there are ways to get it done. But change the person from who they are born to be? Regardless of the extreme changes to the exterior there will always be interior that can only be changed by the person themselves – an it is the hardest thing they will ever do. I think of it this way – the person is born to form fit a mold. It takes a lot more effort to recast the mold than to just refill it and trim away the things that don’t fit. If that makes sense.