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By Ronald A. Heifetz
Harvard University Press, 1994, 348 pages

In this widely acclaimed and oft-cited study, Ronald Heifetz presents a new theory of leadership aimed at clarifying two important distinctions: between technical and "adaptive" problems, and between leadership and authority. He also attempts to redefine leadership as an activity rather than a position of influence or a set of personal characteristics. We need to abandon the idea that "leaders are born and not made," he insists. This belief fosters both self-delusion and irresponsibility in those who see themselves as "born leaders," and it can lead to inaction and dangerous forms of dependency in those who do not see themselves as leaders.

According to Heifetz, leaders are confronted with two types of problems: technical problems, which can be solved by expertise and good management, and "adaptive" problems, such as poverty, drug abuse, and racial tensions, which require innovation and learning. While the distinction is a crucial one, he says, leadership theory has only begun to address the latter. Traditional management strategies are useful in dealing with technical problems, but in situations where beliefs and values come into play technical "fixes" tend to exacerbate the problem. By definition, adaptive challenges involve a disparity between values and circumstances. The task of the leader is to close the gap. This may involve marshalling energy, resources, and ingenuity to change the circumstances. But just as often it requires that people change their values. Leadership therefore consists "not of answers or assured visions, but of taking action to clarify values." Good leaders know how to stimulate and contain the forces of invention and change, and to shift the process from one stage to the next.

Heifetz outlines five strategic principles of leadership: 1) diagnose the situation in light of the values at stake, and unbundle the issues involved; 2) keep the level of distress within tolerable limits for doing adaptive work ("keep the heat up without blowing up the vessel"); 3) identify the issues that engage the most attention and counteract avoidance mechanisms such as denial, scapegoating, pretending the problem is technical, or attacking individuals rather than issues; 4) allow people to take responsibility for the problem, but at a rate they can handle; and 5) protect those who raise hard questions, generate distress, and challenge people to rethink the issues at stake.

Heifetz goes on to explore what he calls "leadership without authority." Because we are not accustomed to distinguishing between leadership and authority, this category has received very little scholarly attention and is often perplexing to people, Heifetz says. While we usually focus attention at the head of the table, leadership may more often emerge from the foot of the table. For example, many women who have been denied formal authority roles in society have developed strategies for leading without authority. The same is true for other traditionally disempowered groups. Leaders without authority "push us to clarify our values, face hard realities, and seize new possibilities, however frightening they may be." Gandhi, perhaps the most celebrated example of this type of leadership, tried to force attention to a set of problems in India which the British colonial government refused to acknowledge. He identified many adaptive challenges and used various methods of creative defiance to get people to face them. Other examples include Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, Martin Luther King Jr. and Margaret Sanger. While each of them gained considerable informal authority — widespread popular confidence and support — it was their very lack of formal authority that allowed them address deep-seated adaptive problems in society.

In the book's final section, Heifetz discusses strategies for "staying alive." The stresses of adaptive work are often severe and can bring out the worst in people, he says. Leadership, with or without authority, therefore tends to be demanding, even dangerous. "Leaders and authority figures get attacked, dismissed, silenced, and sometimes assassinated because they come to represent loss, real or perceived, to those members of the community who feel that they have gotten, or might get, the bad end of the bargain." Heifetz's practical recommendations to leaders include "getting on the balcony" (getting far enough above the fray to see the key patterns), distinguishing between oneself and one's role, externalizing the conflict and giving it back to its rightful owners, identifying and sharing the burden with partners, finding a sanctuary, and preserving a sense of purpose.

Copyright 1995 by Scott London. All rights reserved.