Leadership on the Line: Responses to Leadership Challenges

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

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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Surviving Personal Attacks – A Guide for Change Agents

Bugs and Daffy from 'Rabbit Season/Duck Season' skit, with sign on tree altered to read 'Messenger Season'

Image credit: Up The Hammers/Warner Bros

By definition, change agents are ‘the messenger’ – and one thing change agents can be certain of is that as messengers, shots will be fired at them.

‘Shooting the messenger’ is considered a subdivision of an ad hominem attack, which is:

…insulting or belittling one’s opponent in order to attack his claim or invalidate his argument, but can also involve pointing out true character flaws or actions that are irrelevant to the opponent’s argument. This is logically fallacious because it relates to the opponent’s personal character, which has nothing to do with the logical merit of the opponent’s argument.

A lay term for ‘ad hominem‘ is ‘playing the man and not the ball’, an expression from various codes of football, where a player targets the body of the player with no intention of attempting to tackle to take possession of the ball.

It’s against the rules because players are supposed to be focused on the ball (the issue or debate in question), not taking out an opposing player (engaging in character assassination or ridicule intended to undermine an opponent’s position).

How should a change agent manage their response to messenger-shooting and/or an ad hominem attack?

Firstly, be aware of the nature of the response you receive. Even if you have become the target of hostility, be aware that it is your message, not you personally, that the person or group is reacting to. When people attack the person delivering the message instead of debating the issue raised by their message, they are reacting to someone placing them in a state of cognitive dissonance – or where their view of the world is suddenly interrupted and made uncomfortable by new information or ideas that conflicts with their established understanding and belief system. The reaction is because your message has clashed with an individual or group’s ‘belief grid’, or challenged values they hold dear.

Secondly, manage your own response. Like most human beings, your initial reaction to hostility is unlikely to be rational, as such an attack triggers ‘survival’ mode, bypassing the conscious mind and going straight to the ‘older’ parts of the brain. Physical reactions may include a racing heart, a surge of adrenaline, a flushed face, perhaps even shaking hands or voice. You may feel your temper rising, the need to defend yourself and your argument, or the overwhelming desire to sting the person who has stung you (how dare they!).


First, make sure you listen to what the other person is saying – really listen, as the words they are speaking might not be exactly what they are reacting against, there may be a deeper issue. Reflect back to the person what you have heard for two reasons – to make sure you’ve understood them, and so that they know they have been heard, and that you’ve not been preparing a counter-argument while they’ve been speaking.

Often, a few moments of silence can work wonders to cool an inflamed situation. Pause before answering. Take a slow, deep breath.

Visualise a white light around yourself – allow yourself to be present, and respond, but without internalising hostile energy.

Ask strategic questions. Create effective conversations by being curious without being judgmental. Practice empathy.

small vial with a green potion labelled 'empathy'

Bottle label reads: ‘Empathy is the ability of blurring the line between self and other’

Image credit: Viralmente

Most of all, realise and accept that your role is to take the heat for being the bearer of change. It’s hard – hard when people arc up, hard when they’re attacking positions you yourself hold to be true, very hard when you’re being attacked personally and/or dismissively ‘shot down’, especially when someone has misinterpreted something you said. The most unbelievably frustrating scenario is when people are attacking something you didn’t even say!

Remember – amazing leaders would be found everywhere if it was easy!

Helpful resources Crux has discovered and recommends include:

Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through The Dangers of Leading by Harvard University’s Ronald A Heifetz and Marty Linsky includes guidance on ‘Anchoring Yourself’, ‘Holding Steady’/’Taking the Heat’ and ‘Controlling the Temperature’; some excerpts below:

When you take ‘personal’ attacks personally, you unwittingly conspire in one of the common ways you can be taken out of action – you make yourself the issue.

Adaptive work generates ‘heat’ and resistance, which present forms of danger to leaders…Learning to take the heat and receive people’s anger in a way that does not undermine your initiative is one of the toughest tasks of leadership.

Leadership takes the capacity to stomach hostility so that you can stay connected to people…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.

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. Raise the heat enough to that people sit up, pay attention and deal with threats/challenges – no distress means no incentive for change. But lower the temperature when necessary to reduce counterproductive tension.

The book also makes the point that you may also be facing resistance from friends and allies, as well as those opposing you – people who want you to calm things down, not stir them up, because the upheaval has become uncomfortable for them. It also provides useful insights into other tactics often used to neutralise or marginalise those undertaking change work.

A New Earth, by Eckhart Tolle – Tolle experienced a profound transformation aged 29 when he was on the verge of suicide, and heard himself saying ‘I can no longer live with myself’. This very statement enabled him to wonder ‘who is this self I cannot live with?’ and to begin to separate his egoic self from his true being. A New Earth examines the current collective and individual egoic state of humanity, and how a shift in consciousness is the evolutionary leap we need to make to survive. Here are some selected quotes from Tolle’s chapters on ego, which are highly relevant for the change agent:

Most people are so completely identified with the voice in the head – the incessant stream of involuntary and compulsive thinking and the emotions that accompany it – that we may describe them as being possessed by their mind. As long as you are completely unaware of this, you take the thinker to be who you are. This is the egoic mind…

The ego isn’t wrong; its just unconscious. When you observe the ego in yourself, you are beginning to go beyond it. Don’t take the ego too seriously. When you detect egoic behavior in yourself, smile…

Nonreaction to the ego in others is one of the most effective ways…of going beyond ego in yourself…but you can only be in a state of nonreaction if you can recognize someone’s behavior as coming from the ego…when you realize its not personal, there is no longer a compulsion to react as if it were…somebody becomes an enemy if you personalize the unconsciousness that is the ego. Non reaction is not weakness but strength…

All that is require to become free of the ego is to be aware of it, since awareness and ego are incompatible. Awareness is the power that is concealed within the present moment. This is why we may also call it Presence.

Please note, this is very much about the role of your own ego in any kind of exchange, as well as that of anyone you are engaging with. In the moment you become the target of an attack, the kind of reaction you may begin to feel manifesting is the ego in ‘damage repair mode’ – Tolle uses the example of road rage, the abuse of other drivers with language and gesture. By definition, the attacks cannot be personal, as you do not know the others involved, but if you are on the receiving end of aggression, you are likely to have an emotional/instinctual reaction before your rational brain has even engaged.

Becoming aware of your reaction – ‘oh, it’s just the ego, going into damage repair mode’ – and being aware that ‘you’ are not your ego, can help you take a step back at a critical time and enable you to offer a considered, compassionate response instead of a kneejerk reaction.

The Lotus Leadership Guide provides a succinct summary of nine essential leadership capacities. They are all important, but perhaps the most critical ones for when the heat is on are:

Being Present means being fully aware and awake in the present moment – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. This includes connecting to others, the environment around you and current reality.

Suspension and Letting Go is the ability to actively experience and observe a thought, assumption, judgment, habitual pattern, emotion or sensation like fear, confusion, conflict or desire, and then refraining from immediately reacting or responding to the situation.

Compassion is having unconditional acceptance and kindness toward all the dimensions of oneself and others, regardless of circumstance. Compassion involves the ability to reflect upon oneself and others without judgment, but with recognition and trust that others are doing the best they can in any given situation.

If you have practiced yoga, or if you meditate, you might already be aware of ‘becoming the witness’ – consciously becoming a detached observer of your own thoughts, letting them come, noticing them, letting them go, without judgment or attachment. It is this technique that both Tolle and the Lotus guide are referring to when separating from one’s ego (being aware of one’s own thoughts), and practicing suspension and letting go.

Leadership and change involves being prepared to take some heat. While nothing replaces the baptism of fire of a real situation, investing some effort into creating an ’emotional hazmat suit’ is well worth the time and an effective way of developing your leadership skills.

And with practice, you won’t merely survive ad hominem attacks, you’ll be able to turn a conversation around from what could have been a potentially destructive situation, and instead create a positive, empowering space for everyone involved.

Have you ever been attacked personally and publicly for breaching a taboo, or saying something that went against what appeared to be the general consensus of a group? How did it feel? How did you handle it?

What tactics have you developed to allow yourself to speak out, without internalising or reacting to others’ anger, frustration or fear? 

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