Leadership on the Line: The Heart of Danger, The Faces of Danger

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leadership on the line book cover

This is the first of a two-part post on this book.

Do you consider yourself a leader? If you’re intent on creating change, you already are!

One of the most useful books I’ve read that has helped my work is Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through The Dangers of Leading by Martin Linsky and Ronald A. Heifetz of the John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. It was recommended to me by a colleague who had participated in the Governor’s Leadership Foundation.

What makes this book worth a spot on the change agent’s bookshelf is best summed up in a review by President Emeritus of Harvard University, Derek C. Bok:

This is not a conventional book about how to inspire and lead a large organization. It is a much more ambitious work that describes the personal challenges and tactical problems that arise in trying to exert a constructive influence in all kinds of organizational settings.

Leaders are typically engaged in adaptive rather than technical challenges – technical challenges are where there are known solutions and processes, and where people’s routines and behaviours need to change. But adaptive challenge is where there are no ‘known’ ways to resolve complex issues, and when change in hearts and minds is needed. The authors caution leaders about being pressured into treating adaptive challenges as technical.

Leadership on the Line provides insights into why change-work and leadership creates challenging professional and personal situations in ‘The Heart of Danger’, and the varying ways in which the forces of resistance will attempt to neutralise efforts for change in ‘The Face of Danger’. It then sets out five challenges for adaptive leadership, and also approaches and techniques for self-care.

The Heart of Danger

When we are seeking to create change, we are often in the position where we must tell people what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear. When we are pushing people to question long-held values, beliefs or habits, this makes us appear dangerous to people.

How do people typically respond to danger? Fight or flight. Possibly more familiar to leaders in this day and age as resist or avoid!

People do not fight change per se – they want to avoid perceived loss. We expect our leaders to be the heroes and have ready answers, rather than raising questions that go to the heart of how we think and behave. We expect our leaders to protect us from the pains of change.

Yet as Linsky and Heifetz point out, the chances of successful change depends on people internalising the change, not being sheltered from it or having it resolved for them.

The dangers of exercising leadership derive from the nature of the problems for which leadership is necessary. Adaptive change stimulates resistance because it challenges people’s habits, beliefs, and values. It asks them to take a loss, experience uncertainty, and even express disloyalty to people and cultures. Because adaptive change forces people to question and perhaps redefine aspects of their identity, it also challenges their sense of competence. Loss, disloyalty, and feeling incompetent: That’s a lot to ask. No wonder people resist.

Effective leadership lies in the capacity to deliver disturbing news and raise difficult questions in a way – and at a rate – that people can absorb, prodding them to take up the message rather than ignoring it, or killing the messenger.

The Face of Danger 

man in suit holding a black face mask over his face, having just taken off a similar white face mask

There are many different manifestations of danger that may present themselves to the change agent. The objective of these manifestations, which appear in a range of guises, is to neutralise those who are exercising leadership in order to preserve the status quo.

According to Linsky and Heifetz, the ‘masks’ danger can present itself in are:

  • Marginalisation

Leaders should endeavour to orchestrate conflict – that is, managing the range of different interests – rather than embodying it. The authors warn that becoming the embodiment of an issue under your authority is dangerous, as it ties not only a leader’s success, but very survival, to that issue.

  • Diversion

Been promoted unexpectedly? Had some enjoyable or important tasks handed to you? Finding yourself lost in others’ demands? Take pause and consider whether this is a tactic to divert you from addressing an uncomfortable issue.

  • Attack

An attack on the person with the message wastes the currency of leadership – attention. Linsky and Heifetz note that no one criticises when you have good news or rewards, they do so when they don’t like the message:

The spectacle of attack…creates a drama and moves people away from underlying issues…By personally responding to attackers, leaders are colluding with the attacker in distracting the public from the real target.

Hence it is critical for change agents to be aware of ego states, and know how to handle personal attacks.

  • Seduce

This mask is about losing your sense of purpose, and happens when your guard is down, when defence mechanisms are lowered by the nature of the approach. It can emerge from those opposing you, or from within your own supporter base – for example, are you finding you are keeping those close happy at the expense of a broader group?

These masks are intended to neuter the disturbance created by change leaders, maintain what is familiar, and protect people from the pain of change.

Leadership requires the ability to recognise the manifestations of danger, and also the skills to respond effectively to them.

In part two of this post next week, we’ll examine Linsky and Heifetz’s responses to leadership challenges.

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  1. […] on from the first part of this review of Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, this week we examine the […]

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