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August 2011


Leadership without Easy Answers


by Ronald A. Heifetz (Harvard University Press, 1994)


What are the big take-aways?


Heifetz posits there are primarily two types of problems that call for different leadership styles, and that it’s critical for leaders to be able to identify which type they’re facing: (1) known “technical” problems requiring technical solutions, and (2) unprecedented “adaptive” challenges requiring adaptive leadership. Technical problems are those that we already know how to approach because they are paradigmatically similar to issues that have come up in the past, and they can be successfully solved by experts. Problems requiring adaptive leadership are emergent challenges that have never been encountered before (and there are more and more of those in our flattening, accelerating and globalizing society). An adaptive leader must grow throughout the process of solving an adaptive challenge (via disequilibrium, experimentation and learning) because the unknown new reality requires a different way of operating and mobilizing others.


Why did I like it?


I suspect one reason this book has become a classic in leadership literature is that it lays out simple, common-sense ideas about the nature of leadership and authority which every leader (or follower) can recognize, even though the implications of those ideas are extremely complex.


The most fascinating part of the book was – among other case studies – the extensive discussion of President Lyndon Johnson’s successful adaptive leadership on domestic issues during his administration, most notably on civil rights. (This is offered in contrast to his administration’s failures on the Vietnam War, where technical solutions were applied to what may also have been an adaptive challenge.) One reason that I appreciate Heifetz’ theory so much – from my perspectives as an educator and a coach – is because adaptive leadership is presented as a learning process that happens within a “holding environment” created by the leader.


Heifetz postulates “five strategic principles of leadership” (p. 128) which allow a leader to use the position of authority to meet an adaptive challenge:


  • Identify the adaptive challenge. Diagnose the situation in light of the values at stake…
  • Keep the level of distress within a tolerable range for doing adaptive work. To use the pressure cooker analogy, keep the heat up without blowing up the vessel.
  • Focus attention on ripening issues and not on stress-reducing distractions…counteract work avoidance mechanisms like denial, scapegoating, externalizing the enemy, pretending the problem is technical, or attacking individuals rather than issues.
  • Give the work back to people, but at a rate they can stand. Place and develop responsibility by putting the pressure on the people with the problem.
  • Protect voices of leadership without authority. Give cover to those who raise hard questions and generate distress – people who point to the internal contradictions…These individuals often will have the latitude to provoke rethinking that authorities do not have. [Author’s emphases.]


In what situations would this be useful?


More than anything else, Heifetz’ theory is a problem-solving approach for people who are leading – and/or leading a response to – major change. Heifetz is very validating about how no leader of a change process emerges unscathed from it; he describes effective leadership as a “razor’s edge,” and leaders as being subject to cuts, and attack. On page 127 he explicitly asserts that “Even the most agile cannot dodge these attacks completely, nor shield himself, mentally and physically, from an assortment of wounds.”


To deal with these realities, Heifetz offers strategies in the final part of the book, titled “Staying Alive.” The essay that I think is of most practical use to leaders who are already inside of change is the subchapter called “The Personal Challenge.” In it, he speaks to the importance of: balancing action with reflection (which he calls “getting on the balcony”); distinguishing the leadership role from the leader’s self; externalizing the conflict; finding confidants and allies; listening (“using oneself as data”); finding a sanctuary; and preserving a sense of purpose.


What other resources might “pair” well with it?


While I have not utilized it yet, myself, in an applied setting, I own and like the “handbook” Heifetz and his colleagues came out with in 2009, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World (Harvard Business Press). Also, Heifetz’ leadership theory would pair nicely with a couple of my favorite workbooks which promote self-awareness, self-discipline and resilience, such as Leadership from the Inside Out by Kevin Cashman (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008), and Finding Your True North by Bill George (reviewed previously in the Leadership Library).


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