Tipping Point Leadership

For Managers

Leading in today’s business environment is not easy, and creating change is even harder. William Bratton understood that. In 1994, Bratton pioneered what has now come to be known as tipping point leadership, an unconventional method for approaching large-scale organizational change. Bratton is a former New York City Police Commissioner who took the reins of the New York Police Department in 1994. In under two years, he turned the city from one of the most dangerous to one of the safest large cities in the nation. We’ll go deeper into his tipping point leadership example in a minute. It was Bratton’s example that led business researchers W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne to define the concept of tipping point leadership. They analyzed his work and created a process that can easily be put into action by organizations in need of large-scale change.

Tipping Point Leadership

What is Tipping Point Leadership?

The question is, what is tipping point leadership? Let’s compare it with the more conventional change model. The traditional model focuses on the leader’s ability to bring transformation to the organization by addressing the majority of the organization. This can take an extended amount of time and steep resources. Tipping point leadership takes a different look at the situation by focusing on transforming the extremes – the people, perspectives and exercises – within the organization that exert the most influence. By changing the most powerful pieces, tipping point leaders are able to “infect” the rest of the organization with the desired change. Tipping point leadership focuses on changing the core at a low cost with rapid implementation. Let’s take a look at four hurdles all leaders committed to change will face.

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Four Hurdles to Tipping Point Leadership

Most managers presented with the task of organizational turnaround usually cite some variation of these 4 reasons why change isn’t possible:

  1. Teams don’t want change and are married to the status quo
  2. Limited resources
  3. A demotivated staff
  4. Opposition from strong influencers, either inside or outside of the organization

These present unique challenges for leaders. Here’s where the strategy that Kim and Mauborgne extracted from Bratton’s example in New York comes into play.

Break Through the Cognitive Hurdle

Traditionally, leaders signal the need for change by inundating the masses with poor performance numbers to paint a picture. The simple truth is that messages communicated through numbers are too easy to ignore. Tipping point leaders put their key leaders face-to-face with reality and their end customers. Communicating the message in this way impacts the managers and drives home the message of change in a way that it sticks. This is essential if they are going to recognize the problem and believe they can make a difference.

Your internal communications strategy also plays a critical part in jumping over the cognitive hurdle. Communicating in a way that isn’t expected will bring you (the leader of change) closer to those you are trying to impact. Let them see who you are, what you believe, and that you understand what you are asking of them.

Sidestep the Resource Hurdle

Faced with the limited resource challenge, most leaders either limit their expectations – which only demoralizes the team – or go searching for more resources. This takes time and can cause other problems. Tipping point leaders know how to make the most of what they have.

Now is the time to utilize some common frameworks where efficiency can be improved simply by changing the way it’s always been done. Identify the top 20% areas of need and shift more resources to them. Another tactic to consider is trading resources with another part of the organization or outside the organization. If you have excess in an area, don’t be afraid to leverage that to your advantage. Get creative.

Jump the Motivational Hurdle

Instead of trying to reform incentives across the whole organization, find your key influencers. Once you identify these leaders, you can leverage their influence to your advantage. If you can get them motivated, the rest of the organization will follow.

One way to do this is to bring them into the spotlight, empower them, and hold them accountable for results. Framing the challenge is another well-honed skill for a tipping point leader. Unless people feel that success is possible, a turnaround is highly unlikely. Break the problem down into a series of smaller more easily attainable goals so the big pie of change can be eaten one bite at a time. When this is done well, it allows tipping point leaders to motivate the rest of the organization.

Knock Over the Political Hurdle

Never underestimate the power of politics within your organization. There are several ways to deal with naysayers or those resistant to change. One way is to appoint key leaders to your core team who are well respected within the organization. This will give you immediate credibility. Another way to silence naysayers is with undeniable facts and examples. One of the keys to tipping point leadership is to be ahead of the game. Take time to consider and preemptively find your opponent’s arguments so you can put strategies in place to answer them. This is one of the key tenets of the Pyramid Principle.

Tipping Point Leadership Examples

As we’ve mentioned, William Bratton is one of the clearest tipping point leadership examples. This is primarily because the concept was developed by studying his approach. Here are some more specific examples of the ways Bratton broke through the four hurdles in the New York City Police Department.

Cognitive Hurdle

Bratton broke through this barrier in several ways. He insisted that all transit officers take the subway to work – including himself and other senior leaders. He organized community meetings in schools and churches where officers could be questioned by the people they were protecting. His internal communication strategy was also unique. He recorded video messages to be played at roll call, so his officers would feel closer to leadership.

Resource Hurdle

To sidestep the resource hurdle, Bratton used performance numbers and statistics to justify shifting more resources to areas of need. For instance, the narcotics division was only allocated 5% of human capital, but Bratton convinced his team to shift more officers to that division by pointing out the fact that narcotics crimes constituted at least 30% of the crime in the city.

Motivational Hurdle

Bratton motivated his key influencers by putting them all under the spotlight. He organized a semi-weekly strategy review meeting at which one of his key performers was tasked with giving an update on their unit. They were also questioned by their peers and Bratton himself was in attendance as often as possible. These meetings helped Bratton keep an eye on how his commanders were motivating their teams. They also helped change the culture within the department to one of performance because everyone knew what was expected of them.

Political Hurdle

The political hurdle was perhaps Bratton’s biggest obstacle. He silenced opponents early on by hiring a highly respected senior insider to be on his top team. This immediately bought him credence with the officers, and also gave him inside information on the thoughts and perceptions of those throughout the ranks. He also didn’t shy away from involving the mayor and local press when necessary to get his way in the courts. Via both of these moves, he showed an ability to foresee challenging stakeholders and involve the right influencers to keep the ball rolling.


As you can see, tipping point leadership comes from the unique ability of a leader to be resourceful, focus on the areas that need change, and challenge the status quo. One of the key skills of a tipping point leader capable of creating organizational change is effective communication. This is why we run corporate communication training for teams inside of Fortune 2000 companies. Learn more and work with us to empower your tipping point leaders!

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