Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Change (2017) by Ronald Heifetz & Marty Linsky is a great reflection on change leadership. They speak to the challenges of leadership but I find their take on adaptive leadership the most valuable.
In the preface, the authors warn against several leadership traps. The first is the “transformational dilemma.”
Transformation by itself is problematic as a frame for leadership. First, it encourages self-referential grandiosity—‘I have a transformational vision and now I am going to sell it to you.’ Leadership seen in this light too readily becomes about ‘me and my vision’ rather than the collective work to be done. The transformational mindset does not begin with a diagnostic focus and search process: the crucial step of listening to comprehend the gap between values, capacities, and conditions, before formulating a path forward. (xii)
I’m often reminded of the days when I began new leadership positions. “What’s your vision,” I’d be asked. I usually squirm and say, “I don’t have anything yet. I’m hoping to figure something out that we can all get behind.” And then I’d watch the disappointment. The authors continue by introducing how sustainable change is adaptive as opposed to technical. “Indeed, the single most common source of leadership failure we’ve been able to identify—in politics, community life, business, or the nonprofit sector—is that people, especially those in positions of authority, treat adaptive challenges like technical problems” (14).
In other words, leaders can’t simply tinker their way out of adaptive challenges. They aren’t simply issues which need to be fixed. “What makes a problem technical is not that it is trivial; but simply that its solution already lies within the organization’s repertoire. In contrast, adaptive pressures force the organization to change, lest it decline” (18). I find this insight exceptionally challenging to school leaders. When we identify problems and only try to fix them through our current problems there should be no surprise that solutions are hard to come by!
The authors come up with some great advice (“Get on the Balcony” and “Start where people are”) which is actionable and challenging. Put this book on your leadership book list!