Heifetz and Linsky Lead through Adversity
Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky. 2002. Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Postmodern philosophy is toxic for leaders. We live in a buddy culture where everyone is presumed to be equal. When equality is not true because of divine inspiration, gifting, or merit, jealous buddies stand ready to entertain with defeatist stories about victims, villains, or helplessness and to rescue mediocrity from actual change. Real leadership is accordingly poorly compensated and under constant suspicion .
This characterization is itself, of course, a defeatist rant.
In their book, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky assert:
we believe you can “walk the line,” [citing Johnny Cash] step forward, make a difference, take the heat, and survive to delight in the fruits of your labor.
In fact, they see leadership providing meaning to life itself in spite of obvious dangers and discouragements (3, 11-12).
Technical versus Adaptive Change
A key insight in Heifetz and Linsky’s work is to distinguish technical from adaptive challenges. In a technical change, authorities apply current know-how to solve a problem while in an adaptive change people with the problem must learn new ways to solve the problem (14). A technical change typically requires nothing more than additional budget while an adaptive change requires an entirely new approach (18).
Heifetz and Linsky cite the example of a car that breaks down. If your car breaks down, then you can take it to a mechanic and get it fixed. However, if your car breaks down because of how the family drives it, then the problem is likely to come up over and over until the family changes how the car is driven. The mechanic can fix the first problem (car breaks down), but only the family itself can fix the second problem (repeated break downs; 19). The rub arises because: Habits, values, and attitudes, even dysfunctional ones, are part of one’s identity. To change the way people see and do things is to challenge how they define themselves (27). As a consequence, adaptive problems are inherently more difficult and costly to deal with.
Importance of Adaptive Change
Because current leaders were promoted to bring organizations to the point they find themselves in today, part of the challenge of adaptive change arises in dealing with dealing with those with a vested interest in the way things are. Heifetz and Linsky observe that resistance to change often comes from unexpected places and people. They see the 4 principal dangers to leaders being marginalization, diversion, attack, and seduction (31). Marginalization can take the form of tokenism, neglect, or professional pigeon-holing (32-37). Diversion results in a loss of focus—taking on too many issues or being promoted off-line (38-40). Attacks may focus on your ideas, character, competence, family, or physical existence (42) . Seduction arises as constituents for change insist on taking the issue too far and the leader then fails chasing the dream rather than accomplishing real, doable change (45-48).
Fog of War
Emotions rage and helpful information is often absent during periods of change. In the military, this is called the fog of war. Heifetz and Linsky accordingly observe the need to maintain the capacity for reflection—to observe more clearly what is really going on (52). During movies of the 1930s and 1940s, during dance or dinner party scenes characters frequently retreated to a balcony to talk (or have a smoke) where they figured out their strategies. On the balcony, Heifetz and Linsky see 4 useful activities:
- Distinguish technical from adaptive changes;
- Find out where people are at;
- Listen to the song beneath the words (do not accept things at face value); and/or
- Read the behavior of authority figures for clues (55).
A Christian might substitute the expression—Sabbath rest—for balcony here as we lead our families through the stresses and struggles of life.
Heifetz and Linsky’s Leadership on the Line is written in 11 chapters divided into 3 parts: The Challenge, the Response, and Body and Soul. The chapters are:
- The Heart of Danger;
- The Faces of Danger;
- Get on the Balcony;
- Think Politically;
- Orchestrate the Conflict;
- Give the Work Back;
- Hold Steady;
- Manage Your Hungers;
- Anchor Yourself;
- What’s On the Line? And
- Sacred Heart (vii).
These chapters include an introduction and notes, an index, and write-up about the authors in the pages that follow.
Example of Adaptive Change Challenge
Heifetz and Linsky’s distinction between technical and adaptive changes is most useful. I cannot tell you how many meetings that I attended in the government where a focus on “low hanging fruit”—technical changes which really did not address the issue but gave managers an opportunity to pretend to do something—pushed aside attempts at adaptive change.
Conversion as Adaptive Change
Conversion to Christ is an adaptive change; it is not the low hanging fruit that people want to grab which leaves them feeling “in control” of their lives. Christians become leaders the moment they respond to God’s call on their lives because they reject technical change for the transformational change which Christ offers. The Apostle Paul writes:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2 ESV)
Consequently, Heifetz and Linsky offer a style of leadership which is an allegory for the Christian life . Leadership on the Line is well worth the reading.
 My paraphrase of Heifetz and Linsky’s challenges of leadership on pages 1-5.
 In the recent Veteran’s Administration scandal, for example, no one questioned the administrator’s competence, but media attention forced him to resign. In effect, the appetite to solving the problem remains weak—it was easier to personalize the problem and make it go away by assigning blame—a villain story.
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