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Leadership Without Easy Answers

Leadership Without Easy Answers

Ronald A. Heifetz provides a discussion of just how complicated leadership is and how challenging it can be to lead in a responsible, ethical fashion. The book analyzes a number of leaders who faced not just crises, but transformational situations. As the book’s title promises.

Leadership Without Easy Answers
Leadership Without Easy Answers

True Adaptive, Social Leadership doesn’t take shortcuts; he carefully looks at the complexities that leadership, power and authority involve. His examples range from Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. to former U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson to Adolf Hitler. To make his point, he uses metaphors from biology, music and the military and draws lessons from history.  Heifetz has developed a great angle to look at leadership that will force you to reject the easy, superficial answers that make up so much of leadership literature. In their place, Heifetz offers approaches for observing contexts, balancing various factors and monitoring growth.

Leadership Without Easy Answers 2 Minutes

What Society most needs are leaders that face challenges requiring adaptation and growth. Those kind of leaders are rarely rare, and it’s the hardest kind of leadership someone can do.

The way you lead should vary, depending on the context and reality of your or your community’s challenge.

One of the reasons Adaptive Leadership is so hard, its because it  necessarily involves values. It is not merely a combination of authority, skills and traits.

When a community bestows power and authority on you as a leader, it expects you to perform certain tasks, some of them which are quite uncomfortable and no one else is willing to do

As a leader, you can have both formal and informal authority. These can align to create greater power for you, but they can also work against each other or even incubate the doom of your project, in some critical cases it even has involved personally against a leader.

Your physical office, or any other point of reunion can multiply your formal authority; think of the U.S. president’s OvalOffice.

Leaders without formal power are often more effective in crises demanding change. No preset constraints bind them, and they can grow and adjust as necessary. During a crisis, your community may pressure you to act, but that is not necessarily your responsibility as a leader. Rather, you should help people comprehend events. Frame problems for community understanding.

To keep the spirits and approbation on high levels while managing to advance the challenge, guide the community’s attention, and pace the flow of information about a crisis.

Leadership Without Easy Answers 10 Minutes Summary

The “great man” theory is a dominant philosophy of leadership. It says leaders are simply more “heroic” than others, and their innate qualities empower them to shape events. This theory oversimplifies leadership. Leaders do not single-handedly produce the vision that will guide their people to a better future. A contrasting theory argues that specific situations generate the leaders people need, through social and political forces acting on society. This theory doesn’t tell the whole story, either.

A more realistic view of leadership synthesizes these ideas and draws on human psychology as well as disciplines like military and business command. It concludes that a leader’s role is contextual. As a leader, your governing style should fit the situation. Like other biological organisms, you must adapt to a larger environment. That means navigating social systems that have specific histories, that make certain demands on you and that enable you to perform particular tasks. The “social contract” or “social habit” that exists between leaders and their followers further heightens your challenge. People have empowered you for a reason: They expect you to “provide direction, protection and order.” They may feel angry or betrayed if you don’t meet their expectations. The combination of context, contract and function requires good timing and pacing. Doing the right thing too early, too late, too fast or too slow could generate resistance in the community.

Too often, theorists discuss leadership as if it didn’t involve values. This is a misunderstanding. Values are an integral part of good leadership. To be a true leader, take a stand on issues. You have status in your community as well as influence over it. Lead your community by mobilizing people to action and by working to “elevate followers to a higher moral level.” Your community gives you “legitimate authority,” and this collective approval makes your actions more significant. Exercise that authority to resolve clashes in the community’s values, and to help it build a larger perspective that includes all members’ values. The goal of broadening a society’s values distinguishes a leader like Martin Luther King Jr., who gave his life to create a more inclusive society, from one like Adolf Hitler, who had great power but gained it by extinguishing competing values.

Helping your community adapt is difficult because social systems, like living organisms, “seek equilibrium.” They try to stay in balance, and to keep things the same. Even though it is necessary for long-term survival, adaptation is stressful. Three categories of events can put a society out of balance. First, common problems can happen, like excess snow slowing down traffic. No real leadership is necessary; existing social mechanisms can address the event (a snowplow could take care of it). Second, problems can arise that demand new insight of societies, and people might create solutions that work in the short term, but fail in the long run. Third, a community can face a fundamental crisis, but learn from it, as Japan did when it adapted to Western technologies. Be a strong leader to help your society produce the third category of response, rather than the second. Adaptation can be hard, because people may not understand the need for change. In that case, you must educate them.

People may use “avoidance mechanisms” so they don’t have to change. This further complicates your efforts to help the community adapt, because you must distinguish between useful action and distraction, and must guide your community through painful growth. Another challenge is that people may depend on you more in times of crisis, surrendering their autonomy precisely when they need to be responsible.

— The Role of Authority

Forming organizations is a trend in human behavior. Ranging in size and complexity from families to entire countries, organizations incorporate patterns of “dominance and deference.” These patterns contribute to social structures of authority. In animal groups, dominance refers to practices that make a single animal, like a male silverback gorilla, the

focal point of the group. This dominant animal focuses the group’s attention, guides its actions and initiates intergroup clashes. He also serves as a kind of community fulcrum, balancing and mediating conflicts within the group. Children also fall into patterns of dominance when some boys or girls claim more attention, often based on their skills, intelligence and toughness. Small groups of adults usually appoint a leader, and the group then “orients itself in relation” to that person. Concentrating attention this way gives the leader authority, or “conferred power to perform a service.”

Mature human authority involves more than dominance, however. It includes social contracts about how people should behave toward one another. These tacit agreements vary from culture to culture. Societies also internalize authority, and expect their leaders to act as the embodiment of their collective consciences. Often, a leader’s physical office carries a charismatic charge that multiples that person’s power. This can be seen in the Oval Office of the U.S. president.

“Authority relationships” are part of daily life and, when they incorporate “appropriate dependencies,” they are highly useful. For example, when you interact with someone from a different department, each of you may lead when dealing with your own respective area of knowledge, then shift to following when discussing the other’s expertise. Authority relationships are complex and tend to evolve over time.

— Leading for Community Growth

When existing social structures are not sufficient to address an issue, construct a “holding environment,” or system “within which people facing adaptive work can accomplish the necessary learning.” The relationship between a doctor and a patient offers a useful model. When a problem is “technical” and a physician can address it medically, he or she might simply solve the problem or direct the patient about how to act. However, sometimes the ailment is unknown or still emerging, such as when there are signs of a serious illness but the tests are not yet complete. Then, the doctor must blend technical expertise with adaptive counseling, and guide the patient to construct an emotional support system. When the problem is purely adaptive, as in the case of a terminal illnesses, the demands shift further: The doctor plays a cooperative role, shaping a holding environment where the patient can progressively face the implications of death. Organizational leadership is not completely parallel, but it is analogous. You can solve some problems, cooperate in addressing other concerns and counsel community members as they deal with larger, more transformative issues. This requires helping them learn to see things differently.

In adaptive situations, use your leadership power to guide your community. First, establish a holding environment, so you can focus the group’s attention and facilitate change. Then, assess how great a challenge the community is facing and how quickly members can deal with it. Decide how you will handle “pacing and sequencing the flow of information.” Telling people what they need to know in the order they need it and at the pace they can integrate it produces good growth. To do this, take advantage of your unique perspective atop the social hierarchy and understand more about the situation. Frame information for productive understanding. This often means dealing with “conflicting perspectives” among community members. You may be able to mediate between parties, but you may also have to arbitrate if they cannot resolve conflicts. You are responsible for determining how decisions get made. The more adaptive the challenge, the more participative the process must be.

In a crisis, people will want you to fix things, and to act faster than you do in normal times. However, in an adaptive situation, that is precisely what you cannot do. Quick, familiar solutions won’t really work when your community is facing change. They may even be counterproductive. Therefore, you have to travel along a “razor’s edge”: You must be a recognizable leader on the one hand, clearly fulfilling your role, but on the other, you must refuse to take action that is too easy. As you balance there, figure out what sort of challenge your community is facing. What do people need to consider? Guide their attention accordingly. Assess your community members. How much distress can they handle? If they are overwhelmed, act to relieve their pain. Even if your action is symbolic,

rather than functional, it will help them adjust emotionally. Then, as they become able to handle it, you must give “the work back to people.” Protect the first individuals who step up to grapple with the issue. Keep the community from deciding those people are a problem or a threat, and encourage them to keep doing what is needed. You don’t need to have a clear vision of how things will turn out. That can emerge through action and interaction. Focus on understanding the situation, the challenges and your people.

— Lessons from History’s Leaders

Leaders must select the right approach to handling a crisis. They can strive to “circumvent” a problem or they can address it directly by introducing it to their people. Or, they can try “riding the wave” by staying just ahead of the situation and steering the community accordingly. U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson used the third approach successfully to guide his role in the civil rights movement. Johnson anticipated the movement and, by the time it began, he had already prepared his speechwriters and the members of the Justice Department. However, he treated the Vietnam War as a “technical” problem that required expert solutions, and decided to use the first method and circumvent Congress and the public. This strategy did not fit the circumstances, and it contributed to his downfall. When Richard Nixon applied a similar approach during the Watergate scandal, it led to his ouster as well. President Jimmy Carter tried to reverse this approach, but struck the wrong tone. In his attempts to involve the country and address people’s emotional issues, he seemed weak, and not like a leader.

Power is an important aspect of leadership. As a leader, you can have “formal authority,” which is an explicitly articulated part of your position. You can also have “informal authority,” which comes from the intersection of your individual qualities with the needs and desires of others, and is often tacit. These two forms of authority can align to create greater power for you, but they can also be in conflict. For example, if you have formal authority at work, but have lost your employees’ trust, you will experience a substantial reduction in your power. Generate trust by demonstrating that you share your workers’ values and by performing well in core areas.

Most people think formal authority is crucial to leadership, but you can lead without it. In fact, every time you make decisions beyond your explicit job description, you are “leading without authority.” The most basic form of this type of leadership is the power of persuasion. You can craft a message or articulate a new concept that wins people’s hearts and minds. If you lack formal authority, you must build a power base from scratch. This involves educating and persuading people. People without formal power often do better than formal leaders in situations that require change. No preset constraints limit these self-defining leaders. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. was free to organize protests, lead strikes and even go to jail in support of civil rights. President Johnson was not. King could commit himself to a single cause, and completely devote his energies to change; Johnson had to address many causes, and to represent all factions.

Mohandas Gandhi offers another example of powerful informal leadership. He devoted himself to helping India gain independence, and spent decades educating his people and working to create a coherent “national identity” and functioning economy there. He used his own body “to dramatize the issues” by fasting. His close contact with people at all levels of society gave him an “intimate understanding” of Indian culture. Adaptive work requires just that sort of close proximity. Gandhi chose not to hold a formal office because he wanted the freedom to continue challenging officials. He demonstrated how informal leaders reverse the standard pattern of power: Rather than building authority and then leading, such leaders simply lead. Authority follows.

Informal leadership carries special challenges, however. Leaders without authority are especially vulnerable to attack. Formal leaders may treat them as troublemakers or think the issues they stand for are theirs alone, and not representative of a larger community. Informal leaders have less control over their followers. Members of their movement may head off in different directions. In well-known tragic instances, leaders have even paid for their influence with their lives, due to assassinations. On a more mundane level, leadership can simply be lonely: Responsibility isolates them.

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