Overcoming the Dangers of Leadership


“People do not resist change, per se. People resist loss… And as a leader, you appear dangerous to people when questioning their values, beliefs, and habits. You put yourself on the line every time you tell people what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear.”

-Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky

I just read an inspiring book on leadership called, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading. This book introduces topics that all change agents should consider, and focuses on the ways leaders can effectively overcome resistance and risk. Coauthored by Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, it dives straight into the dangers of leadership, provides examples of how people get taken out of the game, and offers methods for aspiring leaders to reduce the risk of getting pushed aside.

One of the most intriguing concepts that Heifetz and Linsky bespeak is the way adaptive challenges and technical challenges shape the way authority figures act. Technical challenges are defined as problems that organizations and communities encounter, where the required expertise and know-how needed to resolve the problems is already known. A mechanic, for example, is a technical problem solver who people hire for answers to their car problems, not questions about their driving habits and how they can change them. Adaptive challenges require experiments, new discoveries, and adjustments to the values and habits that organizations, communities, and individuals currently hold. Since there is no guarantee that the new situation will be any better than the current condition, people frequently resist these changes because they fear loss and uncertainty.

Authorities often make the mistake of treating adaptive challenges like technical challenges due to the way people react to loss. It’s safer to apply a sort of short term/ technical solution to a problem, so as to protect oneself from danger. Politicians recognize that people seek direction from authority figures, and protection from potential harm. Heifetz and Linsky do a remarkable job of showing how technical solutions are not what real leadership is about. Technical solutions are discovered through routine management, but adaptive change requires revolutionary leaders that are not afraid to put themselves on the line.

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