by Steve Collins, Director of Training and Development
Lead International USA
Linked In

Leadership for all its hype and glory can be a pretty depressing experience. Very few kids grow up saying, “someday I am going to be a vice president, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, or one heck of an assistant manager. The prize is being king of the hill. Everything else is disappointment. Of course, the reality of burnout, divorce, ulcers, and superficial relationships do tend to dampen the overall leadership experience. In Leadership on the Line, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky have not written a book for those dreaming of being leaders. Rather they are addressing folks who have been there, felt the heat of the flame, and are asking, “why would I ever want to do that again?” They paint leadership as it is, a lonely often thankless task, where your somewhat noble attempts to get people to make needed changes in their best interest are met with personal attacks and lackluster compliance. Fortunately, the authors’ objective is not to reduce the size of the leadership pool but to provide some helpful perspectives and approaches to keep more of us in the game.

One of the book’s best insights is drawing the distinction between technical problems and adaptive change. Technical problems are the easy ones. We know how to fix the problem. We just have to do it. The leader’s role is largely to be there and make sure the job gets done. Adaptive change is every leader’s opportunity to get shot by his boss, colleagues, followers and observers. In adaptive change, the leader is asking his followers to do things they have never done before and deal with all the risks associated with being uncomfortable and the possibility they will fail. These are the times when the leader discovers he is not just unpopular but he is the villain and the root cause of universal unhappiness. Suddenly everything about him and everyone close to him is fair game for attack.

Heifetz, a Harvard Medical School graduate and Linsky, a Harvard Law School graduate, both teach at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and provide a number of good stories, many from personal experiences, to illustrate their recommendations for getting past the painful reactions and moving people towards productive responses.

One of the most useful realizations from the book is the inevitableness of being unpopular. Nobody dreams of being a president with a 22% approval rating or a plant manager who is laying off half his workforce. Hopefully, you can avoid those valley low experiences in your career. But if you desire to really be a leader, not just a manager solving technical problems, you are going to have to challenge people to follow you through times of adaptive change. That has never been truer than in today’s global economy.

So, once you have recognized that you are on the firing line, what do you do? Heifetz and Linsky suggest first getting “to the balcony,” so you can assess what is going on. Although, getting out of the line of fire may also come to mind. “Getting to the balcony” does give you the objectivity to separate the personal attacks from the real substance, to see how you are contributing to the problems and what issues need to be addressed and what approaches need to be changed. For some leaders “getting to the balcony” may sound a bit like abdicating in time of battle or sending the signal you are running from a fight. Yet in every military campaign, product launch, and branch office opening, there is that inevitable moment when the best laid plans look badly out of step with the events on the ground. Sometimes it simply means leaders need to stay the course but often it means a course direction of some magnitude is required. Without the balcony perspective, a leader simply doesn’t know whether to forge ahead or to make turns in the road. He may not know who are his friends and his enemies, and he may miss the important signals from above and below that indicate how much support he can expect under different scenarios.

Heifetz and Linksy highlight another important process, “orchestrate the conflict.” Leaders know as they push forward with adaptive change, their role is to regulate the pace of change. To do that they have to know when to turn up the heat to get everyone’s attention and to create a sense of urgency, but also when to turn the heat down to keep everyone from burning out, giving up, or punching the leader in the nose.   Keeping the thermostat to the right temperature requires constant attention and a fair amount of wisdom.   As Heifetz and Linsky note, “As they put pressure on you to back away, drop the issue, or change behavior that upsets them, you will feel the heat, uncomfortably. In this sense, exercising leadership might be understood as disappointing people at a rate they can absorb.”

Much more has been written about crafting an exciting vision to produce followers eager to satisfy the leader’s every directive in pursuit of “winning the gold” rather than helping people cope with disappointment. But Heifetz and Linsky have tapped into the reality of being a leader in times of change. You are asking people to do the heavy lifting of changing behaviors, expectations, and sometimes their dreams. Vision or pointing them to a better place is indispensable in that process but getting them to engage in the long march to get there requires a tactical focus as well.

Towards the end of the book, the authors deal with maintaining physical, emotional, and spiritual balance and offer some sound insights on focusing on what really matters in life and leadership. Their final chapter entitled, “Sacred Heart” deals with the greatest challenge a leader must face – in the midst of the hurt and darkness to remain open and vulnerable. “It’s the capacity to encompass the entire range of your human experience without hardening or closing yourself. It means that even in the midst of disappointment and defeat, you remain connected to people and to the sources of your most profound purposes.”

Young leaders facing the firing line for the first time will hopefully discover useful tools and approaches like periodically assessing the situation, not letting the attacks divert you from the real issues, and pacing the introduction of change. But the greater lesson will be what you learn about yourself. Will you have the courage to forgive, the passion to pursue the cause because it is the right thing, and the wisdom to know what really matters?

©2015 Lead International