Heifetz (Lefty) & Linsky (Unknown, so probably not) on Surviving the Dangers of Leadership


Here at the halfway point of the Heifetz Leadership class, a summary of the key points lifted from part of this excellent book.  I pray all in the class will reflect well and be fine over this weekend.  I pray the Lord bless my classmates with great, life-changing insights from the rest of this class, so we can go out there and change the world, each a little bit.  I also pray we enhance the capacity to return the burdens to our ancestors, and not pass on any to our descendants.

The Challenge

Leadership is dangerous because in adaptive situations, people look to their leaders for answers when the answers actually lie with themselves. The initial challenge, and risk, of leadership is to go beyond your authority—to put your credibility and position on the line in order to get people to tackle the problems at hand.  There must be a willingness to challenge people’s expectations of you.  Resistance from the people comes from the prospect of loss—of values, habits, attitudes, etc.

Four forms of danger face the leader:

  • Marginalization – “carrying” a specific issue, colluding with the marginalizers, personalization.
  • Diversion – moving or diluting the leader’s focus, getting swamped by work.
  • Attack – physical attack, character attack, misrepresentation, as a result turning the subject of conversation away from the real issue.
  •  Seduction – causing the leader to lose his sense of purpose, e.g. desire for the approval of one’s own faction, leading to one “carrying” a specific issue (see Marginalization)

Responding to Danger

Get off the dance floor and get on the balcony.  Distance yourself from the fray to get a clearer view and the bigger picture.  To get beyond your own blind spots, use these diagnostics:

  • Distinguish technical from adaptive challenges
    • When people’s hearts and minds need to change
    • Problem persist despite technical fixes
    • Conflict persists
    • Occurrence of crises
  • Find out where people are at – learn people’s perspectives.
  • Listen to the song beneath the words – interpret people’s words correctly, get the intentions behind the words. Don’t just process the literal message.
  •  Read the behavior of the authority figure for clues. The authority reacts to all factions in the organization.  Assess where he stands on the issues you have raised. A cooling attitude reflects the resistance of the organization to your initiative.

Think Politically, invest in personal relationships.

  • Find Partners—people inside and outside the organization who share your goals.
  • Keep the Opposition Close—work with your opponents, not just your supporters.
  • Accept Responsibility for Your Piece of the Mess.  You may be the one who needs to change.
  • Acknowledge the People’s Loss.  When you ask people to change, you are asking that they give up something precious.
  • Model the behavior.  Lead by example.
  • Accept Casualties.  If people cannot adapt, they will be left behind. Accepting casualties signals the leader’s commitment

Orchestrate the Conflict.  The challenge is to work with differences, passions and conflicts in a way that constructively harnesses their energy.  Ideas to orchestrate the conflict:

  • Create holding environment—to contain and adjust the heat generated by addressing difficult issues
  • Control the temperature—raise the heat enough that people take action, and lower the temperature to reduce a counterproductive level of tension
  • Pace the work—people can only stand so much change at any one time
  • Show them the future—remind people of the positive vision that makes the current angst worthwhile

Give the Work Back.  When one takes on the issue, one becomes the issue.

  • Take the work off your shoulders and challenge your people’s expectations of you.
  • Place the work where it belongs, because the relevant parties need to resolve the issues in order to have lasting progress.
  • Make your interventions short and simple, by making observations, asking questions, offering interpretations and taking tangible actions

Hold Steady and maintain your poise so you can plan future actions.

  • Take the heat and receive others’ anger in a way that does not undermine your initiative.
  • Let the issues ripen.  Hold off before addressing the issue, or ripen the issue so it can be addressed earlier.
  • Focus on the real issue the attentions of those who need to change.

Heifetz on Leadership Without Authority

1. Leadership can be exercised from a position of no authority, formal or informal.  Since these people have no authority to shape the holding environment, they must make use of existing vessels.

2. There are benefits to leading without authority:

  • one has more latitude to raise disturbing questions, for creative deviance.
  • it permits one to focus singularly on one issue.
  • it allows one to have frontline information, to better understand details on the ground.

3. Distinguishing leadership and authority is a means to describe the personal experience of leading.  Many people wait until they gain authority to begin leading, seeing authority as a prerequisite.  Yet those who do lead usually feel they are taking action beyond whatever authority they have, experiencing leadership as an activity performed without authority, beyond expectations.

4. Because benefits and constraints differ, those who lead without authority adopt a different set of strategies and tactics:

  • one has little control over the holding environment – a leader without authority must regulate distress by modulating the provocation.
  • one must take into account one’s vulnerability of becoming a lightning rod for attacks.
  • one should resist the temptation of identifying the authority figure as the audience for action, rather, attention ought to be targeted towards the source of the authority.

5. A leader needs indicators of systemic distress.  A leader without authority typically lacks these indicators.  One is the behaviour of people in authority.

6. Leaders without authority must be sure of where to direct their challenge.  The challenge ought to mobilise the real stakeholders, rather than just the proxy (typically the leader acting on the stakeholders behalf).

Deconstructing Heifetzian Leadership

I’ve done about half of Heifetz’s Leadership on the Line, and this is my attempt at breaking it down into a few bite-sized pieces. And hey, I know people are busy and may not have enough time for the book, so this is it (Disclaimer: Use this for your exams/assignments at your own risk!):

1. We talk about leadership as something that is desirable. This is because it is not just about power and authority, it is about values. It is about mobilizing people to tackle tough problems. The book addresses leadership in terms of adaptive work, defined as the learning required to address the conflicts in the values people hold, or to diminish the gap between values and reality.

2. Authority is the conferred power to perform a service. In societies with established and coherent institutions, authority is always there. In times of adaptive challenges, the role of authority is paramount.

3. Adaptive challenges are different from technical challenges-those for which the appropriate response has already been developed. Type I situations are purely technical; Type II situations are those in which the problem is definable, but with no clear-cut solution in sight. Type III situations are those in which the problem is not defined, and technical fixes are not available.

Leading With Authority

4. People in authority have powers at their disposal for mobilizing adaptive work. The following are the tools built into a framework: one, the power to provide and manage a holding environment (defined as a relationship in which one party has the power to hold the attention of another party and facilitate adaptive work); two, that to command and direct attention; three, access to information; four, to control and manage the flow of information; five, to frame the issues; and six, to orchestrate conflict and contain disorder.

5. Leadership is a razor’s edge because the leader in authority oversees a sustained period of social disequilibrium. The tools above can be arranged into the following strategic principles:

i) Identify the adaptive challenge.
ii) Keep level of distress within tolerable range for doing adaptive work.
iii) Focus attention on ripening issues, not on stress-reducing distractions.
iv) Give the work back to the people, but at a rate they can stand.
v) Protect voices of leadership without authority.

6. While his civil rights policy worked according to these principles, President Johnson’s Vietnam policy, however, showed how not to exercise leadership. Here, he played lone warrior, did not present the adaptive challenge to his people, let distress levels exceed productive levels, did not discipline attention and distribute responsibility to his people, and did not use dissent as a source of insight and options.

This is not the end, of course. It’s just where I’ve read to. Will continue as I read.

And welcome to the first post entirely done on a mobile device. 🙂