I have a love/hate relationship with leadership books. Most of them give all sorts of interesting tips and tricks for doing something that you want to do. Most deal with cosmetic issues. What most leadership books don’t do is to evaluate underlying assumptions and issues that cause us to think about why we do what we do.
That’s why I appreciated the honest evaluation of Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linksy in their book “Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading.”
One of the central claims that Heifetz and Linsky make is that leadership can be a dangerous undertaking when leaders confuse how they need to react to a set of problems. Leaders, they say, face two main kinds of problems. The first are technical problems. These are issues that can be solved by the leader by applying procedures or tools that are readily available. These are issues such as cutting budgets, streamlining processes, firing people, and the like. The second kind are adaptive challenges.
“Without learning new ways–changing attitudes, values, and behaviors–people cannot make the adaptive leap necessary to thrive in the new environment. The sustainability of change depends on having the people with the problem internalize the change itself” (p. 13).
In other words, they require people to be able to adapt and make changes in themselves in order to address and meet the need of the issue.
Note the danger when leaders try to apply the wrong solutions, though:
“When people look to authorities for easy answers to adaptive challenges, they end up with disfunction. They expect the person in charge to know what to do, and under the weight of that responsibility, those in authority frequently end up faking it or disappointing people, or they get spit out of the system in the belief that a new “leader” will solve the problem” (p. 14).
They give many examples including that of Jamil Majuad, the former president of Ecuador that came to office in January of 2000. The country was in the midst of an economic meltdown. Many were loosing their jobs. Inflation became a problem. And the people wanted him to find remedies “for which other regions and localities would pay the costs.”
“The people did not want him to tell them they had to change. He made several trips abroad to plead for help from the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and U.S. Treasury. He consulted many worthy economic experts…He came to see that any practical solution would require each region and sector of his society to endure considerable pain, at least in the short run” (p. 16).
The problem was that he did not adequately communicate to the people the kind of sacrifice that would be necessary. He did not prepare them for the change or set appropriate expectations. He set about trying to fix the problem, but he did not challenge them enough to make the changes that only they could do. He was eventually forcibly removed from office.
I wonder how many of the conflicts and problems that we face deal with us as leaders trying to apply technical solutions to adaptive problems?
One of the best recommendations they make for every leader is to take time out and find some purposeful “balcony time” (p. 51). They use the metaphor of dancing to delineate this. When you’re in the middle of the dance you see your partner, and you’re caught up in the excitement of the moment. But when you’re on the balcony, you can actually see the patterns taking place on the dance floor. So they recommend taking some time every week to spend time thinking and trying to get some perspective on what’s happening in your organization. I’ve heard of some leaders that take an entire day of their week to devote to processing ideas. I’ve heard of others that take a half day.
Overall, I quite enjoyed the book. It does get a little technical in places. But it does make you stop to evaluate your own leadership and the kinds of wrong fixes we’ve all tried applying in the past.
So what about you? Have you ever dealt with adaptive issues in the wrong way? What do you do to get some “balcony” time?
[image from Harvard Business Review]