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By Joe Flower
(This article appears in The Healthcare Forum Journal, Vol. 38, #4, July-August 1995, International Copyright 1995 Joe Flower All Rights Reserved. Please see our free downloading policy.)
Introduction Heifetz: o Leaders and authorities o Leadership when you're in authority o Getting attention o Facing facts o Leadership and vision o The end of the conversation - or the beginning? o Setting conflicts in dialog o Adaptive and technical problems o Can people learn how to lead? o Learning from failure o A learning strategy o Connection and disconnection o Complexity o Out of control
and a Julliard-trained cellist. M. Heifetz pulls leadership apart along two fault lines: the difference between leadership and authority. or bridging the gap between the values that we stand for and the current conditions under which we operate. Leadership is what individuals do in mobilizing other people." Heifetz: Leadership is an activity.the practical problems of leadership. Scott Peck felt the book "should be required reading for top managers in all sectors. and the difference between technical answers and adaptive work. Many people exercise leadership without much . Leaders and authorities There is a big difference between an authority and a leader. in organizations or communities." Leadership Without Easy Answers (Belknap. a psychiatrist. a problem for which it won't help to look to an authority for answers . a subject which might be called. especially in this difficult and turbulent industry. Many people in positions of authority don't exercise leadership. Ronald Heifetz has been addressing this problem head-on for over a decade in what is reported to be the single most popular course at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government." and Peter Senge felt it "should go a long way toward clearing up many confusions about leadership. How do we lead massive organizations throughrapid change? How do we lead our communities to a new vision of health? How do we lead? As director of the Leadership Education Project. in which authority is strictly limited and goals are unclear. 1994) focuses on the delicate "modern ballet" of leading change in our pluralistic society. but he has chosen this as his metier .Leadership is a recurring theme in these pages. for an important reason: our times cry out for it. When you have a problem or a challenge for which there is no technical remedy." Adaptive work can mean clarifying a conflict in values. Using such cases as Martin Luther King's civil rights leadership. to do what I call "adaptive work. "How to make a difference.the answers aren't there that problem calls for adaptive work. He's a surgeon.
but in the form of answers. None of us is an absolute authority. you often need a certain amount of disorientation. from facing tradeoffs or gaps between the values they espouse and the reality that they live. because they are not expected to disturb people. or within the . Yet if you want to make a substantial change. or trying to lead from below with lesser authority. People expect those in authority to maintain norms. in other ways. having authority can actually limit your capacity to mobilize people. having authority can be both a resource and a constraint. in negotiations with other organizations. Yet. But if you want to exercise leaderhsip. People look to those in authority to maintain equilibrium and to provide direction. 3) orientation to role and to place.when you are working with people on the same level. Exercising leadership when you have a position of authority has different strategic requirements from trying to lead people when you don't have any authority. Having authority can be a set of tools that you can use to mobilize people to do adaptive work. not in the form of questions. and 5) maintenance of norms. So people in positions of authority are often constrained in their exercise of leadership. If you try to lead as if you were in a position of authority when you are not . 4) control of conflict. for instance. with people above you. And this is relative. But in the surrounding community.then you are going to make some classic errors. with people in different organizations.authority. Yet leadership often requires changing norms. 2) protection. So people who are in authority often hesitate to see conflict as a source of creativity and as a necessary component in a process of adaptive change. sometimes without any. would be considered an authority within the sytem that she runs. People expect authorities to serve five basic social functions: 1) direction. rather than to generate disorientation. or with a public over whom you have no authority . People expect those in authority to control conflict. A healthcare CEO. They expect those in authority to protect them from change and painful adjustments. They expect those in authority to keep them oriented to their current roles and organizational relationships. They expect this direction.
So you can direct attention more easily to a set of key challenges. so that people don't get overwhelmed. Instead. The second resource is attention. but you can't modulate the response. Leadership when you're in authority Many people in authority simply avoid the risks and hazards that come from challenging people to tackle tough problems.industry. breaking them down into digestible pieces of learning work. you have a variety of important resources or tools at your disposal. they just maintain equilibrium. Getting attention . and pacing the process of adjustment. Authority is a power that is given to you in exchange for performing a service. You can organize the process more tightly to diminish distress. you can make yourself a more active presence. And with that power comes a set of resources. Leadership could be defined as getting people to pay attention to tough problems that they would often rather avoid facing. They operate on that razor's edge by sequencing the issues. but within a range that people can tolerate. Some people in positions of authority find ways to exercise leadership by generating distress. how much you stimulate people to change or to face tough questions. she deals with peers and publics over whom she has no authority. you have a whole variety of tools at your disposal for regulating the stresses of an organizational learning process. You can't control how the organizational system responds in the same way that you have leverage when you are in the position of authority. By virtue of having authority. When you have a position of authority. When you're an authority figure. When you are trying to lead without authority. Attention is the currency of leadership. You can control your provocation. you don't have control over the holding environment.that organizational space in which the conflicts and stresses of adaptive work take place. So she needs different strategies if she wants to exercise leadership. You can sequence the issues. That will usually diminish distress. people are already paying attention to what you do and say. For example. The first resource is what I would call the capacity to manage the "holding environment" of the organization .
certainly no formal authority. but there would be nothing to report. In Albany. and use it to dramatize the much larger issue. too. Instead of providing answers as a means of direction. such as whether people could make their own salt. who would organize a march around a relatively minor issue. That was not at all the case for King. had to work extraordinarily hard to get the nation to pay attention to the huge gap between the values that we said we stood for as a country . while large segments of those societies gave them no moral authority. getting the nation to face it in a dramatic form. in front of the cameras. It took enormous collaborative effort. which was far from equal and free. every statement. for instance. exercising leadership is risky and difficult. A crowd of reporters would be tracking every move.the values of freedom and equal opportunity . King got good at scanning the towns and cities of the South for a sheriff and for a governor that predictably could be provoked to brutal response. and bringing it to the surface. every sneeze." The reporters would be there. for King to get the kind of attention to the problem that he got at the bridge in Selma. and wanted to pay them no mind whatsoever. Both Ghandi and King were trying to lead their societies toward change. Georgia. Alabama. Sometimes King failed to mobilize attention because the police would outsmart him and would refuse to generate a notorious scene. How do you even get people to pay attention to you. This is similar to Ghandi. Getting people to pay attention required a dramatization and an embodiment of the issues. but on the part of his opponents. but the sheriff understood that the best way to beat King was to "love him to death. He had to get his opponents to play their part. with which black people were living every day. King orchestrated a series of demonstrations. sometimes the best you can do is provide . not only on the part of King and his supporters.Getting people's attention without authority is a whole set of problems on its own. Facing facts With or without authority. as a way of taking the latent brutality of racism. both in the person and in the behavior of these movement organizers. and to the issues and questions that you want to raise? Martin Luther King.and the reality that we perpetuated. All President Johnson had to do was stand up and people would pay attention.
strategically challenging. then it would just be easy. you need to understand how to counteract these types of resistance. If we picture them as the conductor of an orchestra. This is a sales notion of leadership. or killing off the leader in the hopes that if only we had the right leader our problems would be solved. or face people with the hard facts. They resist in a number of typical ways. instead of protecting people from change. Leadership and vision In our society. It may be that the loss is only temporary and that the future will be even better. appears to require a painful adjustment. But in the current moment. denying the issue entirely. Some resistance strategies are well known and rather obvious. when people are experiencing the pressure to change. But some organizations have more subtle mechanisms. if it were simply about giving people what they wanted. A few of the top people go off for a weekend and come up with the vision . those future possibilities are simply possibilities. But it's not their vision.questions. You have to ask people to sustain a loss. Otherwise. such as scapegoating. But that does not work. because the leaders who have done good for their communities and organizations are not the ones who came up with the vision. Envisioning is quite popular in industry these days. and personally risky is that you are often in the business of telling people difficult news . What makes leadership difficult. . we carry a common notion of the leader as the person with the vision. at least in the short term. externalizing the enemy. such as reorganizing once again. These leaders are good at articulating the transcendant values of the organization or community. they are good at embodying the soul of the music. creating a decoy issue and so forth. If leadership were about telling people good news.news that. Often you need to make them feel the pinch of reality.which often is basically a vision that the CEO has decided on beforehand. This notion is bankrupt and dangerous. who then gets people to buy in. If you want to lead others. What people know is that right now it hurts. Then they come down from the mountain and give this vision to the masses. And they resist that hurt. it would be a celebration. why should they undergo a painful adaptive learning process? Why should people in defense industries give up their jobs to learn sets of skills if they can get the nation to protect them from the loss of that defense industry? People often resist doing adaptive work and painful learning. to align themselves with that vision.
A vision has to have accuracy. and provide this solution to the community . simply because people in senior positions of authority. with carefully diagnosing the current problematic environment to which one needs to adapt. The end of the conversation . . "Now I simply need to motivate people to align themselves so that we get what I want. as well. He could never have moved forward on civil rights by simply passing legislation. out of that process. But it doesn't necessarily lead to a better adaptation between the organization and its environment. Think about Lyndon Johnson. Setting conflicts in dialog The leader can help set conflicts set in productive dialog with each other. It's the development of a strategy for adaptive change within their institution. It has to start.That kind of vision may. telling themselves. and you are not going to change the community without engaging them in the problem. move the institution to a new place. as if they were technical experts. Our current notions of leadership are technocratic.to distill. But it's not technical work. have a lot of power to push the organization in one direction or another. particularly in a business environment. to capture. Top executive teams have a lot of work to do on retreats. the values. because racism and civil rights exist in the hearts and minds of people throughout the land.or the beginning? Going off on a retreat might be part of the process but here's the difference: is the vision that you come up with the beginning of a conversation? Or is it the end of a conversation? Often people view it as the end of the conversation. we can come up with a more coherent strategy that takes into account the legitimately competing values and perspectives that different parties have. in fact. and not just appeal and imagination. a lot of stimulating of debate and conversation.when in fact it's the community that is the problem." But what if it's the start of a conversation? What if we see the retreat as coming up with a stimulating initiative that provokes a deliberative process amongst all the key parties in the environment? Then. They rely on a few people at the top to come up with the vision. This is how Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson moved civil rights forward. because it relies too much on the best guesses of a few people operating in isolation. Articulating a vision for an organization or community has to start with an awful lot of listening. for instance. and then listening .
"Mary. That's a key question: is this a problem that an expert can fix. millions of times across the land that is exactly the process of social learning that King and his fellow strategists were trying to generate in these demonstrations. we just came from church. saying. "Daddy.Imagine a man relaxing at home on a Sunday afternoon after church. But most organizations err on the side of suppressing conflict and maintaining such a low level of disequilibrium that no real learning takes place. there is no learning. I'm delighted when a car mechanic fixes my car. Of course it's dangerous. It can't get out of hand. Adaptive and technical problems The difference between an adaptive problem and a technical one is key." And she goes to the TV and starts changing his channels.and you have got to see the brutality that is happening right now on TV. He says. where they were talking all about love of our fellow human beings ." which is a polite way of saying. It has to be orchestrated properly. and distress does not overwhelm people's learning capacity." because most organizations have an allergy to conflict. People don't learn by looking in the mirror. at the time of the incident at the bridge in Selma. So they called it a leadership skill: "leveraging disagreements. This may not mean fighting. "orchestrating conflict. an orthopedic surgeon gives me back a healed bone. the engine of learning. The fight may last for months. you have got to see what is happening right now on TV. or is this a problem that is going to require people in the community to change . In a sense then. a fight ostensibly about what channel to watch. If people don't engage across the divide of their differences. conflict. They learn by talking with people who have different points of view. At AT&T they didn't want to use the word "conflict. with the daughter in effect challenging the father to live according to his values. There are problems that are just technical. He's watching a ball game. "But daddy." We need to begin to see conflict as a good thing. Suddenly his daughter erupts into the living room. Imagine that conflict played out within each family. conflict is really the engine of adaptive work. how many times have I told you that this is my time to relax before I start work again tomorrow?" Mary says. or an internist gives me penicillin and cures my pneumonia." She insists on changing the channels. A fight breaks out between father and daughter. but really about values. We have to learn to regulate the level of disequilibrium in the system so that the level of tension.
Even in chimpanzee societies. in human societies. And it's a dangerous idea. Right now we are treating the problem of crime as a technical problem. from our being stretched too thin as parents. And the nation does not want to hear that. Our teachers want to teach reading.their values. We have got a plan. They appointed a powerful chief executive. They did not want to be told that the problem of drug abuse comes from us. so that we don't help each other raise our kids. It comes from our lack of community spirit. and not knowing how to parent teenagers. at different moments in their life. and arithmetic. dominance is a product of political alliances. as the most senior authority. It is going to take time but we are taking action. Bill Bennett. Different situations. The drug abuse problem is an awful example of an adaptive problem treated as if it were technical. to solve the drug problem. writing. their behavior. Our churches no longer provide sustaining sources of meaning during times of distress and pain. When we talk about leadership we don't distinguish between leadership. all eyes turned to him. from the fact that the weave of our neighborhoods has been shredded. Can people learn how to lead? The notion that leaders are "born. and called him the "Drug Czar. Dominance isn't a product." And in September of 1989 Bush gave his debut speech in which he told people basically not to worry. The capacity for gaining dominance in a social situation is one of the skills that enable people to gain authority. is entrenched in our culture and in the way we think. The adjustments required to solve the drug problem are not adjustments in Bolivia or Panama. When President Bush came into office it was the hottest problem in the land. but are adjustments in each and every one of our own families and communities. A ." that we cannot learn to lead. the technical skills. by debating how much we should pay for more police. rather than addressing the underlying forces that produce criminal behavior. are people going to need to learn new ways of doing business? The Vietnam War was an adaptive problem which Robert McNamara and the other authorities of the time insisted on treating as a technical problem. of physical prowess. not made. or their attitudes? For this problem to be solved. People were delighted to hear that. It means being able to win the hearts of your fellows through a variety of favors and affiliative behaviors. different organizations. different cultures. and dominance behavior. Because he was the president. We are going to win this war. call for different characteristics and require different skills in a leader. He brought his experts together and they devised a $9 billion plan. authority.
Some terrific business leaders exercise no leadership in their families. because leadership in the context of an adaptive challenge means improvising. their neighborhoods. But the plan is just today's best guess.person may be terrific at exercising leadership in her church and awful in exercising leadership in her business environment. different authority structures. or their church groups . Sometimes the most difficult thing about learning from failure is noticing that we have failed. You take whatever talent a person has and you teach them how to maximize that talent and how to deploy it appropriately given the kind of music they want to play. People can learn a great deal about how to use those skills appropriately. A leader has to engage people in facing the challenge. But it should also ease the burden of having to know the answers and bear the uncertainty. They just don't know how to get their talents around them. To the person who waits to . It's important for people to get desensitized to facing their failures. Those other settings have different sets of norms. then how can one possibly do mid-course corrections in this improvisation toward adaptive success? A learning strategy Leadership requires a learning strategy. Sometimes they are larger strategic errors. changing perspectives. I sequenced the agenda improperly. and different sets of adaptive challenges with which they are unfamiliar. Learning from failure If we want to learn better leadership. In my classes people spend a lot of time analyzing their own failures in their efforts to exercise leadership. I put too much spin on that argument. This happens all the time. So leadership education is a bit like violin teaching. People may want you to have a clear critical path and a plan of action. So you have to be willing to face failure every day. Tomorrow you are going to learn things that are going require a deviation in the plan. If you are an authoritative person with pride in your ability to tackle hard problems. But if you can't face failure.not just because they choose not to. Sometimes these are small tactical blunders . adjusting their values. this may come as a rude awakening. a powerful source of learning is our own failures. and developing new habits of behavior. People can learn a great deal about how to deploy whatever skills they do have in different contexts.I spoke to this person wrong. but also because they don't know how. Somebody may be a terrific player of Bach and an awful player Brahms.
"Leadership Without Easy Answers" Ronald A. this may also seem a mixture of good and bad news. Mass: The Belknap Press of Harvard Press. Heifetz. One may lead perhaps with no more than a question in hand.receive either "the vision" to lead or the coach's call. 1994. Peter Coutts Oakridge Presbyterian Church . Reviewed by Rev. Cambridge. The adaptive demands of our societies require leadership that takes responsibility without waiting for revelation or request. 348 pages. Available through the Alban Institute..
3) identify the issues that engage the most attention and counteract avoidance mechanisms such as denial. According to Heifetz. therefore tends to be demanding. Lech Walesa. leadership may more often emerge from the foot of the table. Leadership." Gandhi. he says. Heifetz discusses strategies for "staying alive. generate distress. finding a sanctuary. perhaps the most celebrated example of this type of leadership. the bad end of the bargain. tried to force attention to a set of problems in India which the British colonial government refused to acknowledge. He also attempts to redefine leadership as an activity rather than a position of influence or a set of personal characteristics. distinguishing between oneself and one's role. and between leadership and authority. and unbundle the issues involved. such as poverty. Heifetz outlines five strategic principles of leadership: 1) diagnose the situation in light of the values at stake. This may involve marshalling energy. Heifetz says. and 5) protect those who raise hard questions. scapegoating. This belief fosters both self-delusion and irresponsibility in those who see themselves as "born leaders. Ronald Heifetz presents a new theory of leadership aimed at clarifying two important distinctions: between technical and "adaptive" problems.In this widely acclaimed and oft-cited study. and challenge people to rethink the issues at stake. dismissed. "Leaders and authority figures get attacked. or might get. While the distinction is a crucial one. identifying and sharing the burden with partners." and it can lead to inaction and dangerous forms of dependency in those who do not see themselves as leaders. with or without authority. pretending the problem is technical. to those members of the community who feel that they have gotten. Leaders without authority "push us to clarify our values. The task of the leader is to close the gap. Martin Luther King Jr. The same is true for other traditionally disempowered groups. 4) allow people to take responsibility for the problem. leaders are confronted with two types of problems: technical problems. and to shift the process from one stage to the next. 2) keep the level of distress within tolerable limits for doing adaptive work ("keep the heat up without blowing up the vessel"). face hard realities. Leadership therefore consists "not of answers or assured visions. which can be solved by expertise and good management. however frightening they may be. and sometimes assassinated because they come to represent loss." Because we are not accustomed to distinguishing between leadership and authority. or attacking individuals rather than issues. this category has received very little scholarly attention and is often perplexing to people." Heifetz's practical recommendations to leaders include "getting on the balcony" (getting far enough above the fray to see the key patterns)." The stresses of adaptive work are often severe and can bring out the worst in people. which require innovation and learning. even dangerous. externalizing the conflict and giving it back to its rightful owners. and preserving a sense of purpose. We need to abandon the idea that "leaders are born and not made. While each of them gained considerable informal authority — widespread popular confidence and support — it was their very lack of formal authority that allowed them address deep-seated adaptive problems in society. but in situations where beliefs and values come into play technical "fixes" tend to exacerbate the problem. and seize new possibilities. But just as often it requires that people change their values. While we usually focus attention at the head of the table." Good leaders know how to stimulate and contain the forces of invention and change. and Margaret Sanger. but of taking action to clarify values. silenced. many women who have been denied formal authority roles in society have developed strategies for leading without authority. Traditional management strategies are useful in dealing with technical problems." he insists. but at a rate they can handle. adaptive challenges involve a disparity between values and circumstances. and ingenuity to change the circumstances. For example. He identified many adaptive challenges and used various methods of creative defiance to get people to face them. leadership theory has only begun to address the latter. and "adaptive" problems. drug abuse. . resources. In the book's final section. By definition. Heifetz goes on to explore what he calls "leadership without authority. real or perceived. Other examples include Nelson Mandela. he says. and racial tensions.
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