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Speed Review: Leadership on the Line

Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading

by Ronald Heifetz & Marty Linsky

Speed Review: Leadership on the Line
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Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading

Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky are two faculty members from Harvard and high-level consultants who understand the risks that are inherent in the role of the leader. They write that leadership is worth the risk because the goals of leadership extend beyond material gain or personal advancement. Real leadership speaks to higher values, surfaces unresolved conflicts, and can make a difference in people's lives. But, leadership can be risky when it brings up unpopular initiatives, puts provocative new ideas on the table, questions the gaps between people's values and behaviors, or asks people to face up to tough realities.

To help leaders survive and thrive, Heifetz and Linsky provide encouragement to those who put their ideas on the line and challenge people to change. Using the lessons learned from their students and clients around the world as inspiration, they offer guides to help leaders name, organize and make sense out of their experience.

Challenges and Pitfalls

The first part of Leadership on the Line explores the challenges and pitfalls of leadership and describes many stories where a leader has been "taken out of the game." Leadership is dangerous, and stories about assassinated leaders make the point.

Some problems are mere technical problems that can be solved with available know-how and procedures, but other problems that cannot be solved with authoritative expertise or standard procedures are adaptive challenges. These require experiments, new discoveries and numerous adjustments.

The authors write, "Without learning new ways - changing attitudes, values and behaviors - people cannot make the adaptive leap necessary to thrive in the new environment." Sustaining change requires those with the problem to internalize the change. But, this is difficult because it is hard for people to see that the new situation will be any better than the current condition. The authors write that the single most common source of leadership failure is when leaders treat adaptive challenges like technical problems.

To mobilize adaptive work, leaders must engage people in adjusting their unrealistic expectations, rather than try to satisfy them with a technical remedy. The authors write that leaders must counteract people's "exaggerated dependency and promote their resourcefulness." This requires an extraordinary level of presence, time, artful communication and trust.

Reducing The Risks of Leadership

To offer hope to those who want to avoid being pushed aside, Part Two discusses these five action ideas that help reduce the risks of leadership:

  1. Get on the Balcony. First you must see what is happening, then you must take action with a plan. Repeat these two things with discipline and flexibility. Maintain a diagnostic mindset on a changing reality. Address real stakes, fears and conflicts.
  2. Think Politically. Place an emphasis on personal relationships. Nurture networks of people, find partners, keep the opposition close, accept responsibility, acknowledge people's loss, model behavior, and accept casualties.
  3. Orchestrate the Conflict. Work with differences, passions and conflicts in a way that diminishes their destructive potential. Create a safe environment where conflict can safely take place, control the level of conflict, pace the work, and offer a vision of the future.
  4. Give the Work Back. Place the work of finding solutions within and between the factions who are faced with the challenge, and tailor your interventions so they are clear and have a context. Hold steady in the aftermath so you can evaluate your next move.
  5. Hold Steady. Wavering or acting prematurely can destroy an initiative. Maintain your poise so you can plan the next step.

The book ends with a discussion of the critical aspects of exercising leadership, and ways to manage personal vulnerabilities without losing hope. These include remembering to pay attention to your own needs, and not forgetting that leadership is a personal activity that is an intellectual, emotional, spiritual and physical challenge. Detach your professional life from your role as a leader.

Why Soundview Likes This Book
Leadership on the Line offers a well-rounded approach to leadership that embraces the humanity of the leader while providing numerous pertinent examples and lessons about successful leadership strategies. The authors' words of practical advice and inspiration are packed with wisdom and experiences that can give any leader a better perspective on their crucial role in business, family, government and community.

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