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March 2013


Building the Bridge as You Walk on It


by Robert E. Quinn (Jossey-Bass, 2004)


What are the big take-aways?


Using a lot of helpful, down-to-earth examples from real leadership situations, Quinn presents a very thorough examination of his theory that effective and sustainable leadership is – at its core – self-transformative.  In others words, successful leaders of change are able to change themselves and grow through the process of leading change in their organizations.  To do this, Quinn asserts that leaders must enter “the fundamental state of leadership” (which he contrasts against “the normal state,” a passive acceptance of entropy and the status quo).


Why do I like it?


Quinn’s practical theory for transformational leadership is well-reasoned and resonates with my own experiences as a leader and as a leadership development professional.  I also admire how thoughtfully he treats this subject (although at times his argument is written so very carefully that it can seem a bit plodding).


According to Quinn, the main characteristics of leaders in the “normal state” are that they are “self-focused,” “internally closed,” “externally directed,” and “comfort-centered” (chart, p. 20).  The hallmarks of leaders who have entered the “fundamental state of leadership” are the opposite.  They are (chart, p. 22):


  • other-focused (transcending ego, nurturing authenticity, trust and connectivity);
  • externally open (experimenting and adapting, discovering and visioning);
  • internally directed (continually improving alignment of values and behavior);
  • purpose-centered (committed, energetic and pursuing a meaningful task).


I like that the bulk of the book unpacks these elements of the fundamental state of leadership in a very analytical fashion, and guides the reader through a comprehensive prescription for how to prepare for it – as well as eight practices for achieving it.  The eight practices, which are semi-paradoxical competencies that Quinn asserts promote increasing integrity overall, are: reflective action, authentic engagement, appreciative inquiry, grounded vision, adaptive confidence, detached interdependence, responsible freedom and tough love (p. 95).


In what situations would this be useful?


Quinn’s book is a dense read and probably not the right how-to guide for a leader who is already in the throes of an immediate crisis and looking for a reassuring checklist of steps to quickly get out of it.  By definition, you can’t enter the fundamental state of leadership at the flip of a switch. Building the Bridge As You Walk On It could, however, be the right how-to guide for a leader in almost any other stage of personal or organizational transformation.


This book would be appropriate for any leader seeking a structured process for reflecting on and learning from a crisis or change that has already taken place, or for a leader who is starting a new career or is otherwise at the beginning stages of initiating a personal or organizational transformation.  It would also be a supportive resource in the midst of a simmering (non-immediate) crisis, when a leader realistically has enough reading and reflection time to get perspective on what the crisis means for his or her leadership.


What other resources might “pair” well with it?


For an accompanying leadership workbook, I recommend Kevin Cashman’s Leadership from the Inside Out (previously reviewed in the Leadership Library).  For additional reading on transformational leadership, I recommend Kegan and Lahey’s Immunity to Change and/or Joiner and Josephs’ Leadership Agility – both of which - Immunity to Change | Leadership Agility - have also been reviewed previously in the Leadership Library.  John P. Kotter, whose Harvard Business Review article “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail” (2007) is a classic for good reason, has a new book out that I haven’t read yet, but it would certainly be worth checking out: Leading Change (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012).


Since Ronald Heifetz’ theory of adaptive leadership is likewise ultimately about leaders growing beyond self-interest to living a life of larger purpose – so that they and their organizations contribute to the world in a responsible and sustainable way – I think Heifetz’ wonderful Leadership Without Easy Answers (previously reviewed in the Leadership Library) or perhaps even more on-point, his handbook on The Practice of Adaptive Leadership (Harvard Business Press, 2009), would also pair well with Building the Bridge As You Walk On It.


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