Leadership on the Line

Posted on March 12, 2011


I’ve been reading Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading by Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky. It’s a very interesting book and well worth reading, but so far, I’m not sure that I agree with much of it or if I would implement it in the manner described. The basic premise is that leadership is dangerous: dangerous to your career and even, in the case of the example that they use of Yitzhak Rabin, dangerous to your life. Organizations are resistant to change, and they express this resistance by attempting to marginalize, divert, attack or seduce agents of change. Although change can result in good, and is often needed, it also involves loss – loss of long held beliefs, loss of the familiar, loss of prestige and power by groups and individuals invested in the status quo.

The authors make an important distinction between the technical aspects of driving change and the adaptive aspects. Driving adaptive changes involves changing the attitudes, hearts and minds of people, and it is by far the toughest. Technical changes are well-defined, don’t generate irrational, emotional resistance, and are easier to implement. But woe the leader who neglects the adaptive aspects of change and focuses on the technical aspects.  This is where the book speaks to me: I tend to focus on the technical aspects, and act as if I only explain those changes sufficiently, I can bring everyone over.

Heifetz and Linsky suggest several methods for successfully navigating adaptive change. The first is to “Get up on the balcony” in their metaphor. On a dance floor, the only way to see the whole picture is to get off the dance floor at times and get up on the balcony. From there you can see if certain people or groups are not participating, see if everyone is dancing as far away as possible from the band because they’re playing too loudly, etc. However, you can’t enact change from the balcony. You have to constantly move back and forth from active participation and taking a dispassionate look at the bigger picture.

They suggest four specific actions to successfully “Get on the balcony”:

  • Distinguish technical from adaptive challenges, per the discussion above
  • Find out where people are at. This means showing curiosity, and genuinely understanding another point of view, even when it’s radically different than your own.
  • Listen to the song beneath the words. This requires understanding of the underlying message, which may get conveyed in body language or in tone, not in the literal words. This may require you to interpret people’s real intentions, rather than what they say, and acting accordingly.
  • Read the authority figures for clues. They point out that the authority figure often provides clues to the amount of distress an unpopular initiative may be causing in the organization.

As I read this, I was much more comfortable with the first three points than the last point about “reading the authority figures for clues”. Change requires discomfort and no important change happens without someone pushing beyond what others think is reasonable.  Their advice came across to me as “at the first sign of discomfort, pull back”. That’s probably a bit harsh on them, but I found their position conservative in the extreme.  If the crowds in Egypt had listened to their advice, they never would have accomplished what they have accomplished.

The next section of the book is about acting and thinking politically, and like the last point above, I found myself agreeing with some of their ideas, and disagreeing strongly with other points.  They suggest six specific ways to think and act politically; I’ve listed each of them below along with my reactions to each of these ideas.

  • Find partners – this section makes total sense to me, particularly their point about finding partners who aren’t necessarily aligned with you, but may be aligned with the opposition. They can provide both insight into the thinking and tactics of the opposition, and a way in to a “reaching across the aisle” to the opposition.
  • Keep the opposition close – while I agree with this sentiment, their example failed to convince me.  They describe Pete, an executive director for a non-profit, who wanted to establish a mental health center in an upper middle class suburb of Connecticut.  He describes how the NIMBY forces defeated his attempt, and suggested that if he had kept them close, this wouldn’t have happened.  I don’t believe it.  No matter how close he kept them, I don’t think they would have been satisfied or allowed a mental health clinic in their neighborhood.  Sometimes the opposition isn’t reasonable, and no compromise can be reached.
  • Accept responsibility for your piece of the mess – makes sense to me.
  • Acknowledge their loss – Again, makes sense to me, although this seems tricky to pull off.  How do you acknowledge their loss without losing the momentum for change? This has to be balanced with pointing out the reasons for change and the vision for the future.
  • Model the behavior – this strikes me as particularly important.
  • Accept casualties – I found this section personally enlightening, and I could think of several times within my career when I was unwilling to accept certain casualties as part  of the process of change, and it held me back.

Chapter 5 is entitled Orchestrate the Conflict. Heifetz and Linsky offer four pieces of advice:

  • Create a holding environment – whether this is an offsite, a physical place for meetings or just a group of people who trust each other, you need something that gets away from the day to day in order to accomplish change effectively.  This makes sense.
  • Control the temperature – while the general idea makes sense to me, I felt that many of their examples suggested pandering to the forces resisting change, and I question whether real change would have happened if someone followed their advice. It was also in this section that I started to come to terms with something that had been bothering me unconsciously for some time: the strong political bias of the book.  By my count, nearly 80% of the references to Democrats are to illustrate failings, whereas Republicans are inevitably wise and successful. I may have my own political bias, but I seldom bring them so forcefully into my writing, and it undercut their authority for me.  I struggled through the rest of the book until I decided to just ignore this aspect of the book. One part of this chapter struck a chord with me – the example of the Henry Fonda character in the movie Twelve Angry Men. He orchestrated lowering and then raising the temperature of the jury room to perfection.
  • Pace the work – this is a corollary to controlling the temperature, differing in the fact that it is about the pace of change, rather than the amount of conflict.
  • Show them the Future – this is important, and something I’ve realized before. The one thing I took away from this section of the book is the importance of reiterating this over and over. People don’t always hear the message the first time, and it bears repeating during the difficult phases that inevitably accompany change.

Chapter 6 covers giving the work back; forcing people to do the work of conflict resolution themselves, rather than as the authority figure, always being the last word and resolving the issues. Certainly this makes sense, and some of the examples were illuminating (particularly the example of Phil Jackson handling Scottie Pippen’s insubordination). But this strikes me as tricky in the real world, when people are looking for leadership.  When do you decide to give the work back, and when do you decide to lead? In any case, he advises keeping your interventions (i.e., when you lead) short and simple.  Good advice.

Chapter 7 covers taking the heat and allowing issues to ripen.  Again, good advice for me.  Chapters 8 and following are entitled Body and Soul, and basically cover managing your own hungers and needs. The most interesting part of this discussion is the in-depth discussion of the circumstances surrounding Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky.  I had forgotten that the government was shut down that week, due to the showdown with Newt Gingrich and the Republicans, and Clinton’s normal handlers weren’t around.  Hilary was also not around.  Not an excuse for Clinton, but it does provide an interesting context.

Overall, I think it’s a valuable book. Flawed, but valuable.  I’ll also read their more recent book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership.

Posted in: Uncategorized