Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading

by Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky; Harvard Business School Press, 2002

Leadership on the Line is oft-cited by tenured leaders as a favoured text, perhaps because the book offers a highly empathetic perspective. Heifetz and Linsky argue that leadership is a dangerous undertaking. They encourage those who want to “step forward, make a difference, take the heat, and survive to delight in the fruits of your labor.” This book helps leaders face and mitigate common perils.

Leadership is a profoundly creative act. Where there is creation, there is change. Where there is change, there is loss. Where there is loss, there is resistance. People will resist leaders who attempt change.

Their first insight about change and leadership should come as no surprise to US President Barak Obama. Obama campaigned on a platform of change only to discover upon taking office that Americans were not as change-ready as they may have seemed during the election.  Most people want only painless change in the form of ‘technical fixes’ but there are a whole host of problems that do not yield to easy answers. These are sticky problems which require “adaptive change.” Adaptive changes can challenge current behaviours, attitudes, and values. Predictably the Obama Administration has faced resistance to adaptive change policies in health, environmental and financial regulation. Leadership on the Line argues that such resistance from constituents is part of the bargain of holding power.  According to Heifetz and Linsky: “To lead is to live dangerously because when leadership counts, when you lead people through difficult change, you challenge what people hold dear – their daily habits, tools, loyalties, and ways of thinking – with nothing more to offer perhaps than a possibility.”  Nevertheless, leadership is worth the risk because it improves lives. The authors offer some practical steps to survival amidst the dangers of leading. These include gaining perspective while maintaining your engagement; watching your allies as well as the opposition, forcing those who need to own the change to shoulder the burden of finding the answer; and replenishing yourself personally so that you can weather the inevitable storms and challenges.  The book draws attention to the personal costs of leadership and stresses that leaders need to protect themselves from internal and external pressures. The authors argue that leaders who face continual threats can become cynical, arrogant, or callous. To maintain curiosity and compassion, leaders must maintain a connection to the people that inspired them to lead in the first place.  Navigating the professional and personal risks of leadership takes sustained commitment. For those who have already stepped into this risky realm or are contemplating the first step, this is a worthy read.

For more: hbr.org/product/leadership-on-the-line-stayingalive- through-the-d/an/4371-HB K-ENG

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