Leadership on the Line

A book I began reading a month ago, Leadership on the Line, by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, (Harvard Business Review Press, 2002). is now the first leadership book on my recommended reading list for 2020. Only 236 pages, it is easily read and well annotated. Using stories, including among others, a turnaround at IBM to a Chicago Bulls locker room incident in a crucial NBA finals game, the authors illustrate leadership lessons. The principles of leadership the authors discuss are just as relevant to present leadership challenges -in business, in politics or other less structured organizations. For those who are not looking at this worldwide pandemic as “when we get back to normal”, but recognize change coming and are willing to step up to lead -entrepreneurs, independent contractors, and public servants – they will face resistance but how they communicate, will change everything.

Summarizing in a few bullet points the object lessons of Leadership on the Line:

  • Authorities who are leaders recognize change which will require adapting to new technology, marketing and production methods, customers,or a shift in political or social environment.
  • Their response communicates the prospective benefits, as well as the uncomfortable change coming
  • Authorities who approach change as a series of management steps (technical challenges) are not leaders
  • Opponents to change may resist the loss of comfortable habits, influence, and expertise
  • Opposition may come from others seeking to marginalize the change-maker’s influence
  • Opposition may come by diverting attention to other priorities
  • Opposition to change may also be internal, when a change-maker confuses the role with self-identity
  • Leaders take responsibility for errors and omissions
  • Leaders deflect credit for themselves, giving instead to their team
  • Faced with criticism, leaders resist surrounding themselves or focusing solely on supporters

Leadership is dangerous. It is demanding personally and professionally. It requires competence, insight, and humility. A leader recognizes that not everyone will support necessary change, and that popularity does not last. A leader has vision and a plan forward, and relies on others to manage the process to effect change. These are the technical challenges as the authors describe them. Leaders are communicators. He takes responsibility when things go wrong. She is effuse with praise for others. And as important as being an effective communicator, is someone who does not take failure nor criticism personally.

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