Leadership on the Line: Responses to Leadership Challenges

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leadership on the line book cover

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

Following 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 authors’ suggested responses and approaches for leaders facing challenges.

Get On The Balcony

The authors use the metaphor of ‘going up on the balcony’, as if to overlook a ballroom floor full of dancers, which enables a different perspective than being among the dancers.

While it is important to ‘become the witness’ – the observer of yourself and your role in a situation, as well as observing others – it’s also important to then get back on the floor again to take action and be a participant.

The authors suggest techniques for avoiding blind spots and traps (ie. missing perspectives), including finding out where people are at by being curious about their views, and starting where they are, not where you are.

Think Politically

Work out who are your allies (people who are with you); who are your opponents (people who are against you, or appear to be against you – but do you understand why?) and those who are uncommitted (may be wary, or may be waiting to be convinced).

Do some market segmentation on the field of players to help you understand their motivations and connections – draw up a matrix and list who you think are your allies, potential supporters, resisters etc are, then think about the following questions in relation to each:

  • Who They Are – what work are they doing/where are they at, how does it connect to the situation at hand?
  • Perception – how do you want this group to see and respond to this issue?
  • Alignments, Clashes – where might this group see the issue aligning with theirs – or not?
  • Engagement Story – what’s in it for this group, what’s the benefit?

Partnerships can be important, as it is easier for your opposition to push you aside if you are on your own, and partnerships can strengthen the credibility of an initiative by bringing in a diversity of viewpoints. However, the flip side is that partners might push their ideas, requiring you to compromise your own, thereby slowing you down and diluting your leadership.

The authors make a critical point in noting:

Partners who are members of the faction for whom the change is most difficult can make a huge difference…Know their existing alliances and loyalties so that you realise how far you are asking them to stretch if they are to collaborate with you.

Don’t discount the value of partners whose perspectives differ from yours – if you can find some common ground and collaborate effectively, these partners can be more powerful in effecting a shift than those already allied.

Further along the spectrum of difference, the book advises working as closely with opponents as with supporters:

Opponents have the most to lose by your success, your allies the least; for opponents to change will cost them in terms of disloyalty to their own constituency; for allies it may cost nothing…

Pay close attention to those who will be most affected by the change you are proposing – your opponents are the ones most in need of your compassion.

Orchestrate the Conflict

Bugs Bunny as Leopold, the conductor

Conflict is typically seen as something to be avoided, or a source of disturbance or danger. Yet it is through conflict – with those who think differently or hold different values – that we can learn and even be transformed through having our own experiences and assumptions challenged.

Leadership requires working with difference and conflict in a way that can simultaneously harness the energy this generates, and diminish its destructive potential.

Changing the status quo generates tension and produces heat by surfacing hidden conflicts and challenging organisational culture. It’s a deep and natural human impulse to seek order and calm, and organizations and communities can only tolerate so much distress before recoiling.

The authors speak of ‘controlling the temperature’ and ‘setting the pace’ as being about knowing how much, and how quickly, an organisation or community can tolerate change.

The ‘heat’ needs to be high enough to get people to pay attention, or there is no distress and incentive for change. It’s also essential to turn the heat down when necessary, when tension becomes counterproductive or to allow people to focus on the task in front of them.

Even people who like a proposed change will need time to prepare and adjust. By spacing out the change over a longer period, it helps people to adapt. The authors note that ‘…change involves loss, and people can sustain only so much loss at any one time.’

Acknowledging people’s fears, breaking the change down into parts (eg. timeframes, roles, so that the change is framed like a more familiar technical problem), temporarily bearing more of the responsibility, using humour and fun can all help people cope with the scale and speed of change.

Celebrating shared successes, and regular reminders about the positive vision being worked towards can help make the pain of change feel worthwhile as well as diminishing the pressure for keeping the status quo. People who are focused on ‘what could be’ are less likely to be caught up in what will be ‘let go’ as a result of the change.

Orchestrate the conflict, don’t become it.

Give The Work Back

How many of you have found yourselves in the situation where, by virtue of your job title or reputation, you have become the ‘sustainability’ or ‘environment’ person in your organisation?

In many cases, such people see themselves and/or are seen by others as carrying the majority (or total amount) of the responsibility for effecting change. This conveniently absolves others in the organisation from taking on their share of the responsibility.

You gain credibility and authority in your career by demonstrating your capacity to take other people’s problems off their shoulders and give them back solutions…all of this is a virtue, until you find yourself facing adaptive pressures for which you cannot deliver solutions…the situation calls for mobilizing the work of others rather than knowing the way yourself…When you fulfil people’s expectations, they will call you admirable and courageous, and this is flattering. But challenging their expectations of you requires even more courage.

For a long time, I carried with me an ethos of service – to ‘fix’ other people’s questions, demands, needs. It is difficult for ‘people pleasers’ like myself to understand that service can also mean helping people to develop their own capacities, which they will not do if they have someone to troubleshoot for them. There is an art to knowing how to help, but not help too much.

In addition, if you take on the issue, you can become identified with it and then the way to get rid of the issue is to get rid of you! Taking on the problems of others means taking on the risk.

You stay alive in the practice of leadership by reducing the extent to which you become the target of people’s frustrations. The best way to stay out of range is to think constantly about giving the work back to the people who need to take responsibility.

Anyone who has ever gritted their teeth when yet another committee has been formed, or more research called for, or another meeting arranged in lieu of decisive action will recognise the symptoms of ‘work avoidance’, which arise from not wanting to confront difficult or painful change:

…denial, scapegoating, reorganising, passing the buck (setting up another committee), finding an external enemy, blaming authority, character assassination. These mechanisms reduce the level of distress in an organization or community by deflecting attention from the tough issues and shifting responsibility away from the people who need to change.

Leaders must take the work off of their own shoulders, and place the work where it belongs.

One way of giving the work back is to make observations – statements that reflect back to people their behaviour or describe current conditions (effectively, shifting the group ‘onto the balcony’).

You can follow an observation with a question – such as ‘what’s really going on here’, or ‘what is the real issue that is preventing a resolution?’

Be aware: if you incorporate your understanding of events into the question, it becomes a loaded question which may be seen as you attempting to manipulate the group into assuming your interpretation is true, and starting the discussion from this point.

You can follow an observation with an interpretation – not a question, but offering your interpretation of events.

Be aware: people generally do not like their statements or actions interpreted by others. Offer the interpretation, then listen for the way the group responds.

Hold Steady

By its very nature, adaptive change work generates ‘heat’ and resistance, creating danger for leaders. Perhaps the hardest kind of heat is when it is coming from friends and allies, who may want things calmed down rather than stirred up, as ‘heat’ is expected from your opposition.

Learning how to stomach hostility and anger is a difficult but essential ability for the change agent:

The people you challenge will test your steadiness and judge your worthiness by your response to their anger…receiving people’s anger without becoming personally defensive generates trust. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi…Mohammed, Jesus, Moses – all gained extraordinary credibility and moral authority by receiving anger with grace. Receiving anger is a sacred task, because it tests us in our most sensitive places. It demands that we remain true to a purpose beyond ourselves, and stand by people compassionately, even when they unleash demons. Taking the heat with grace communicates respect for the pains of change.

Silence and stillness are both ways of keeping your cool when things are turbulent. Learn to identify, and know how to handle, different ego states.

Often, leaders will be thinking and acting ahead of the group they are leading. But be careful not to get too far ahead, and try to push an issue before it has ‘ripened’ or you may find that both you and the issue are sidelined.

Wait until the issue is ripe – when there is a widespread urgency to deal with it – or ripen it yourself.

Factors that determine whether an issue becomes ripe include:

  • what other concerns are people engaged with?
  • how deeply are people affected by the problem?
  • how much do people need to learn?
  • what are the senior authority figures saying about the issue?

There is a relationship between the level of knowledge and attention about an issue, and it’s level of ‘ripeness’. The authors point out that a crisis can change the level of both very quickly (eg. tragedies generate the urgency to tackle issues), and that sometimes creating a crisis is the only way to shift the focus to the issue so that it can ripen.

Authority figures are important, because they can command and direct people’s attention – however, be mindful of the position your authority figures are in when engaging with them:

Those who have authority put it at risk by seeking to raise unripe issues. They may not move out the front to take a stand; they may need to help other people to ripen an issue to leave their hands free to orchestrate the conflict…For people exercising leadership without or beyond their authority, ripening an issue becomes more difficult, requiring more dramatic and therefore riskier steps.

In terms of directing attention, a useful observation by the authors is that people may see routine mechanisms for getting attention as being about routine (and therefore ignorable) problems.

How can you change your engagement strategies to maximise attention, and ‘interrupt’ the business-as-usual frequency? If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always had – so what can you do differently? The recent example of how the University of Adelaide took what could have been a routine process of deciding on loan funding and turned it into an event is one way.

There is so much of value in Leadership on the Line that two blog posts cannot do it justice. A useful snapshot summary of the book can be found in this slideshare presentation, however I would strongly recommend getting hold of a copy of the book and taking on board the wisdom captured within it.

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