Considering how often even well-intentioned, hardworking, and
intelligent leaders implode a year or two after a big promotion,
the research of professors Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky on
leadership adaptability is crucial to teaching leaders how to
survive their own promotions!
Heifetz and Linsky, who both teach at Harvard's Kennedy School of
Government, are co-authors of one of my all-time favorite and
most-often-recommended books: Leadership on the Line. The
book proposes that adaptive leadership is a bone-bruising,
full-contact, and sometimes even dangerous sport (skill). When you
lead people through change, they often have to give up something -
such as well-worn routines, daily comforts, and the ever-potent
status quo - and this feels like a genuine loss.
It's not easy for people to follow a new leader who demands that
they face the truth - often a painful truth that requires giving up
something they hold dear, such as a myth they might hold about
themselves or their organization. Rather than face the painful
truth, such shell-shocked followers try to eliminate the pain: the
new leader! Yes, the very one they believe caused all their pain.
Thus, according to Heifetz and Linsky, the adaptive leader must
know - and experiment with - applying the heat of change while also
knowing when to release the pressure valve to avoid an explosion.
Bottom line: Purposeful change requires disruption of the status
quo. However, people can only take so much disequilibrium. So, I
have developed a kind of seesaw-image model for good leadership. In
this model, the new leader sits on one end, and the issue and those
who have to deal with it (subordinates, peers, and customers) sit
on the other end of the seesaw. The boss, often the CEO, helps the
new leader (the change agent) modulate the change and rebalance the
disequilibrium caused by change and adaptive leadership. According
to Heifetz and Linsky, it's not change that people fear. Rather,
it's the loss of something they cherish, such as their basic
beliefs about themselves, their roles, or favorite practices -
especially the status quo. When you mess with your colleagues'
status quo, they feel loss, and they push back at YOU, the leader
who ushered in the pain of change.
To stay alive and survive their own promotions, such new leaders
must adapt. Such adaptive change is transformational - and thus,
threatening - because it's not easy. To use Heifetz' and Linsky's
example, it's like the doctor telling you that you need to lose
weight and exercise. You want to take a pill so you can eat like a
horse but not look like an elephant! However, that won't work. So,
you change doctors. Who really loses on that one? Nonetheless,
that's at the core of this powerful concept born from the study of
politics - the father and mother of all power relationships. We
don't like hard change and will often opt for the easy solution,
often a technical one: a pill - a surface-level change - a sham
masquerading as a solution.
Suppose the leader hangs tough. Then you have what we might call
"pushback." According to Heifetz and Linsky, when people are
confronted by a leader who is introducing adaptive change
(requiring people to change how they do things), they experience
intense disequilibrium. So they try to rebalance their situation by
attacking, intellectually seducing, marginalizing, and diverting
leaders of that change.
This pushback, or resistance to change, requires leaders to get a
new perspective on the situation. Heifetz and Linsky suggest that
leaders then experiment with measured doses of change by staying on
the "dance floor" (tactics) and then moving on to the balcony
(strategy) to realistically observe the reaction to the change.
This technique of going from the fray of tactics (the dance floor)
to the big-picture view (the balcony) allows the leader a chance to
get a larger view and to take the temperature of the group
responding to the change. I liken it to a football game in which
the team's scouts seated in the booth far above the field give the
coach, who is standing on the field sidelines, the benefit of a
"balconied," big-picture view. From the booth, the scouts can see
the patterns of defense and offense that the coach might not be
able to see from the sidelines. Such a big-picture view allows the
coach (and any leader) to make timely changes before getting his
Moving between the balcony and the dance floor (from the booth to
the field), leaders will be better able to experiment with new
techniques for relieving pressure, and then apply new pressure to
move the ball down the field and get things done, without
destroying the team - or themselves - in the process. Leaders also
need to step back (onto the balcony or into the booth) to
objectively observe the effect and dial the pressure up or down. As
one of my friends describes it, they need to develop a
"bend-don't-break" style of leadership.
This piece was excerpted from The Trusted Leader: Understanding
the Trust Triangle by Steve Gladis. The book will be released