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  • Writer's pictureLars Christensen

Leadership on the line by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky

I finished this book in January 2024. I recommend this book 9/10.

Why you should read this book:

This is a great leadership book for both upcoming and senior leaders. The book touches on some areas I've not read in other leadership books, like political battles and the importance of partnership. And, for any senior leader, the self-destructive habits, the perks that suddenly go away, and the importance of anchor points.

Get your copy here.

🚀 The book in three sentences

  1. The toughness of leadership and being ready to accept the difficult task.

  2. The political balance on a higher leadership level.

  3. About the temptations and weaknesses and the anchors needed as a leader.

🎨 Impressions

A good book for middle managers to understand some of the political things happening at the top. A great book for senior leaders on what to watch out for.

📝 My notes and thoughts

  • Pxix. You can't cook without a pot to cook in, and leadership is as much about strengthening the pot and controlling the temperature as it is about which ingredients to add and when. Many people tell us that they find it difficult and personally well outside their comfort zones to raise and lower the heat (especially to raise the heat), although they may realize that doing so may be essential to getting people to address difficult issues. There are many tools here, some more challenging than others, for raising the heat, but strengthening the holding environment provides crucial leverage.

  • P18. When you are in a position of authority, there are also strong internal pressures to focus on the technical aspects of problems. Most of us take pride in our ability to answer the tough questions that are thrown our way. We get rewarded for bearing people's uncertainty and want to be seen in a competent, heroic light. We like the feeling of stepping up to the plate and having the crowds cheer us on. Yet, raising questions that go to the core of people's habits goes unrewarded, at least for a while. You get booed instead of cheered. In fact, it may be a long time before you hear any applause—if ever. They may throw tomatoes. They may shoot bullets. Leadership takes the capacity to stomach hostility so that you can stay connected to people, lest you disengage from them and exacerbate the danger. There is nothing trivial about solving technical problems. Medical personnel save lives every day in the emergency room through their authoritative expertise because they have the right procedures, the right norms, and the right knowledge. Through our managerial know-how, we produce an economy full of products and services, many of them crucial to our daily lives. 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.

  • P27. People's definitions of themselves often involve roles and priorities that others might perceive as self-destructive or as barriers to progress. For some young people, to be a woman is to be a teenage mother. To be cool, man is to take drugs or father a child. For some, to honor one's family is to be a terrorist. For some rich people, to be somebody is to belong to an exclusive club. For some politicians, satisfaction comes from making constituents happy, even if what they need is to be shaken out of their complacency. To give up those conceptions of self may trigger feelings of considerable loss. Habits are hard to give up because they give stability. They are predictable. In going through the pains of adaptive change, there is no guarantee that the result will be an improvement. Smokers understand this. They know that the odds of getting cancer are uncertain, while they know for sure that an enormous source of relaxation and satisfaction will be lost when the cigarettes are gone.

  • P30. The danger of exercising leadership derives from the nature of the problems for which leadership is necessary. Adaptive change stimulates resistance because it challenges people's habits, beliefs, and values. It asks them to take a loss, experience uncertainty, and even express disloyalty to people and cultures. Because adaptive change forces people to question and perhaps redefine aspects of their identity, it also challenges their sense of competence. Loss, disloyalty, and feeling incompetent: that's a lot to ask. No wonder people resist. Since the resistance is designed to get you back away, the various forms may be hard to recognize. You may not see the trap until it is too late. Recognizing these dangers, then, becomes of paramount importance.

  • P30. How leaders need to balance fixing technical issues (once we know the answers) to Adaptive issues where we don't have the solution and therefore create fear in people.

  • P39. Some people are promoted or given new glamourous responsibilities as a way of sidetracking their agenda. Whenever you get an unexpected promotion, or when some fun or important tasks are added to your current role, pause and ask yourself: Do I represent some disquieting issue from which the organization is moving to divert me and itself from addressing? We know a cantankerous newspaper columnist who found herself promoted to an editor's position as much to silence her provocative writing as to make use of her editing skills. We also know a primary school principal in the poorest community in her Missouri school district whose extraordinary success with students and parents generated sufficient disturbance among some teachers (whom she rode pretty hard) that the school superintendent promoted her to district headquarters to serve as a consultant. He even touted his ingenuity in finding a way to get her out of the primary school she had spent twenty years working to transform, with the goal of restoring "order and calm" to his school system.

  • P48. When leaders address the adaptive challenges that create fear, they expect to be attacked, even by their supporters.

  • P53. The challenge is to move back and forth between the dance floor and the balcony, making interventions, observing their impact in real time, and then returning to the action. The goal is to come as close as you can to being in both places simultaneously as if you had one eye looking from the dance floor and one eye looking down from the balcony, watching all the action, including your own. This is a critical point: When you observe from the balcony, you must see yourself as well as the other participants. Perhaps this is the hardest task of all—to see yourself objectively.

  • P55. Any one of a number of questions will help you get beyond your own blind spots. The most basic question is always the best place to start: What's going on here? Beyond that question, we suggest four diagnostic tasks to safeguard against the more common traps that snare people:

  • Distinguish technical from adaptive challenges.

  • Find out where people are.

  • Listen to the song beneath the words.

  • Read the behavior of authority figures for clues.

  • P72. People in authority, like Petrey, Daniel's boss, and the Governor, want to think of themselves as supporters of innovation, as modern managers who "empower" their subordinates rather than as political creatures limited by the resistance of factions weeded to the old order. So they often continue to pay lip service to those in the trenches who are tackling tough issues long after they have begun to respond to the pressures on them to curb the action. Watch them closely and interpret their behavior as a reflection of what is going on in the system. You might retreat, engage, or try to outflank the opposition. In any case, a cooling attitude from your authority figure indicates the resistance of the larger organization to your initiative and, therefore, provides an essential clue for leading and staying alive.

  • P74. Pay very close attention to senior authority figures. Read their words and behaviors as signals for the effects you are stimulating in the group as a whole. See-through them to the constituencies, pulling them in a variety of directions. Don't just personalize what you see. Read authorities to gauge the pace and manner to push forward.

  • P74. Be able to attach and look out for lacking support from above.

  • P78. Partners provide protection, and they create alliances for you with factions other than your own. They strengthen both you and your initiatives. With partners, you are not simply relying on the logical power of your arguments and evidence; you are building power as well. Furthermore, the content of your ideas will improve if you take into account the validity of other viewpoints—especially if you can incorporate the views of those who differ markedly from you. This is especially critical when you are advancing a difficult issue or confronting a conflict of values.

  • P84. This happens all the time. Have you ever gone to a meeting and realized that there was a "pre-meeting" that did not include you? The pre-meeting allowed those attending to minimize their internal conflict at the real meeting, present a united front, and isolate themselves. It's a mistake to go it alone. By doing the same kind of homework, you can increase the possibility that both you and your ideas stay alive. Make the next meeting one for which it is you who have made the advance phone calls, tested the waters, refined your approach, and lined up supporters. But in the process, find what you are asking of your potential partners. Know their existing alliances and loyalties so that you realize how far you are asking them to stretch if they are to collaborate with you.

  • P87. To survive and succeed in exercising leadership, you must work as closely with your opponents as you do with your supporters. Most of us cringe at spending time with and especially taking abuse from people who do not share our vision or passion. Too often, we take the easy road, ignoring our opponents and concentrating on building an affirmative coalition. But rather than simply recognize your own anxiety and plow ahead, as Pete did, you need to read this anxiety both as a vulnerability on your part and as a signal about the threat you represent to the opposing factions. These are clues to the resistance you will face, made worse if you do not engage with your opposition.

  • P89. People who oppose what you are trying to accomplish are usually those with the most to lose by your success. In contrast, your allies have the least to lose. For opponents to turn around will cost them dearly in terms of disloyalty to their own roots and constituency; for your allies to come along may cost nothing. For that reason, your opponents deserve more of your attention as a matter of compassion, as well as a tactic of strategy and survival.

  • P90. There are four steps to attend to your allies and opposition and trying to gain their trust:

  • Accept responsibility for your piece of the mess.

  • Acknowledge their loss

  • Model the behavior

  • Accept casualties

  • P92. Wexner uses a metaphor to describe the feeling: "I was an athlete trained to be a baseball player. And one day, someone taps me on the shoulder and says, 'football.' And I say, 'No, I'm a baseball player.' And he says, 'football.' And I say, 'I don't know how to play football. I'm not 6'4" and I don't weigh 300 pounds.' But if no one values baseball anymore, the baseball player will be out of business. So, I looked into the mirror and said, "Schlemiel, nobody wants to watch baseball. Make the transformation to football.'"

  • P94. People are willing to make sacrifices if they see the reason why. Young men and women went to war with the blessings of their parents to protect values even more precious than life itself. So it becomes critically important to communicate, in every way possible, the reason to sacrifice—why people need to sustain losses and reconstruct their loyalties. People need to know that the stakes are worth it. But beyond clarifying the values at stake and the greater purposes worth the pain, you also need to name and acknowledge the loss itself. It's not enough to point to a hopeful future. People need to know that you know what you are asking them to give up on the way to creating a better future. Make explicit your realization that the change you are asking them to make is difficult and that what you are asking them to give up has real value. Grieve with them and memorialize the loss. This might be done with a series of simple statements, but it often requires something more tangible and public to convince people that you truly understand.

  • P98. People were taking real risks in doing what they were asking others to do. But even symbolic modeling can have a substantial impact. When Lee Iacocca reduced his own salary to $1 during Chrysler's troubles, no one worried that Iacocca would go without dinner. But the fact that he was willing to make a personal economic sacrifice helped motivate employees to do likewise as part of the company's turnaround plan.

  • P100. People seeking to exercise leadership can be thwarted because, in their unwillingness to take casualties, they give people mixed signals. Surely, we would all prefer to bring everyone along, and we admirably hold up this ideal. Unfortunately, casualties are often a necessary by-product of adaptive work.

  • P110. Be mindful that the organization will almost always reflexively want you to turn down the heat. Therefore, you need to take the temperature of the group constantly, trying to keep it high enough to motivate people but not so high that it paralyzes them. When people come to you to describe the stress you are causing, it might be a sign that you have touched a nerve and are doing good work.

  • P111. How to control the heat:

  • Raise the Temperature.

  • Draw attention to the tough questions

  • Give people more responsibility than they are comfortable with

  • Bring conflicts to the surface

  • Protect gadflies and oddballs

  • Lower the Temperature.

  • Speak to people's anger, fear, and disorientation

  • Take action. Structure the problem-solving process—break the problem into parts and create time frames, decision rules, and clear role assignments.

  • Slow down the process. The pace and sequence of the issues and who you bring to the table.

  • Be visible and present—shoulder responsibility and provide confidence.

  • Orient people—reconnect people to their shared values and locate them in an arc of change over time.

  • Low-hanging fruit—make short-term gains by prioritizing the technical aspects of the problem situation.

  • P120. If you have some authority, you can use some of the basic functions of your position as resources for pacing the work. You decide which ingredients to mix and when. For example, in setting agendas, postpone the most threading or provocative issues, either by ruling them off the agenda or by excluding their advocates from participation in the early stages. This will help modulate the rate of change. Also, in determining decision rules, think strategically about how decisions are made; draw out this process so the group is not faced with too much too soon.

  • P120. To sustain momentum through a period of difficult change, you have to find ways to remind people of the orienting value—the positive vision—that makes the current angst worthwhile. As you catalyze change, you can help ensure that you do not become a lightning rod for the conflict by making the vision more tangible, reminding people of the values they are fighting for, and showing them how the future might look. By answering, in every possible way, the "why" question, you increase people's willingness to endure the hardships that come with the journey to be a better place.

  • P122. To lead people, we suggest you build structures of relationships to work through tough issues, establishing norms that make passionate disagreement permissible. But keep your hands on the temperature controls. Don't provoke people too much at any one time. Remember, your job is to orchestrate the conflict, not become it. You need to let people do the work that only they can do.

  • P127. A boundary of authority separates team and coach, and individual boundaries separate each teammate. But the boundaries between close-knit teammates can be more easily crossed over than boundaries that delineate authority or divide highly divergent factions, teams, or parties.

  • P134. Exercising leadership involves interventions. These need to be both strategic and tailored to the particular situation. Generally, short and straightforward interventions are more likely to be heard and to be accepted without causing dangerous resistance. Four types of interventions constitute the tactics of leadership: making observations, asking questions, offering interpretations, and taking action.

  • P139. You stay alive in the practice of leadership by reducing the extent to which you become the target of people's frustrations. The best way to stay out of range is to think constantly about giving the work back to the people who need to take responsibility. Place the work within and between the factions who are faced with the challenge, and tailor your interventions so they are unambiguous and have a context. In the ongoing improvisation of leadership—in which you act, asses, take corrective action, reassess, and intervene again—you can never know with certainty how an intervention is received unless you listen over time. Therefore, just as critical as the quality of your actions will be your ability to hold steady in the aftermath in order to evaluate how to move next.

  • P141. Learning to take the heat and receive people's anger in a way that does not undermine your initiative is one of the toughest tasks of leadership. When you ask people to make changes and even sacrifices, it's almost inevitable that you will frustrate some of your closest colleagues and supporters, not to mention those outside your faction. Your allies want you to calm things down, at least for them, rather than stir things up. As they put pressure on you to back away, drop issues, or change the behavior that upset them, you will feel the heat uncomfortably. In this sense, exercising leadership might be understood as disappointing people at a rate they can absorb.

  • P148. What determines when or whether an issue becomes ripe? How does it take on generalized urgency shared by not just one but many factions within the community? Although there are many factors, we have identified four key questions: What other concerns occupy the people who need to be engaged? How deeply are people affected by the problem? How much do people need to learn? And what are the senior authority figures saying about the issue? First, what else is on people's minds? If most of the people in your organization are handling a crisis, you may have greater difficulty getting them to shift their attention to the issue you think is most important. Sometimes, you can get a better hearing by postponing your issue to a later time.

  • P151. How much must people learn in order to make judgments? The lack of knowledge on an issue is almost always in direct proportion to its lack of ripeness. A crisis can change this quickly. The risks of nuclear power were not well understood until accidents at Three Mile Island and Chornobyl. Those incidents generated public learning in short order. On an even larger scale, the events of September 11, 2001, and their aftermath schooled the nation, and to a significant extent the world community, on the grave risk and potential consequences of terrorism and the need for new international norms and cooperation. By contrast, global warming is an issue that is slowly and gradually impressing itself on the public consciousness. As weather patterns change, new issues develop. No doubt, a teaching moment will develop in this area when we experience a string of catastrophic and weird weather events with losses of life and property.

  • P158. Getting a group to focus on a tough issue from a position without authority is always risky business. But you can lower the danger by speaking in as neutral a way as possible, simply reporting observable and shared data rather than making more provocative interpretations. It may be more than enough simply to ask a straightforward question in order to bring the underlying issue to the surface.

  • P159. Undoubtedly, you have experienced and observed the pressure on you to back off when you point to difficult, conflictive, value-laden issues in an organization or community. Although hard to do, holding steady allows you to accomplish several things at once. By taking the heat, you can maintain a productive level of disequilibrium or creative tension, as people bear the weight of responsibility for working out their conflicts. By holding steady, you also give yourself time to let issues ripen or, conversely, to construct a strategy to ripen an issue for which there is not yet any generalized urgency. Moreover, you give yourself time to find out where people are so that you can refocus attention on the key issues.

  • P160. We have suggested a series of approaches to keep your bearing when you are under fire. For example, getting to the balcony, finding partners, adjusting the thermostat, pacing the work, making your interventions unambiguous and timely, bringing attention back to the issue, and showing the relevant communities a different future than the one they imagine are all methods of dealing with the disequilibrium that you generate.

  • P171.Managing one's grandiosity means giving up the idea of being the heroic lone warrior who saves the day. People may beg you to play that role; don't let them seduce you. It robs them of the opportunity to develop their own strengths and settle their own issues. Don't begin to believe that the problem is yours to carry and solve. If you carry it at all, make certain you do so only for a limited period of time while people accustom themselves to their need and ability to take responsibility for the challenge. Of course, every human being hingers for importance and affirmation. Every person wants to matter in life, at least to somebody, but some of us are more vulnerable than others in this regard. We include ourselves in this group. We love feeling needed and important. Like many people with this need, we spent many years of our lives learning how to solve problems for people, investing enormous personal energy and discipline in formal and on-the-job education. If we can solve people's problems, then we become important to them, or so the logic goes.

  • P187. The roles we play in our organization, community, and private lives depend mainly on the expectations of people around us. The self relies on our capacity to witness and learn throughout our lives, to refine the core values that orient our decisions—whether or not they conform to expectations. Many people experience a rude awakening when they live in high positions of authority. Former CEOs and politicians alike find that their phone calls to important and busy people do not get through as easily, their emails are not answered as quickly, and their requests for favors and special treatment from "friends" no longer get quick results. Such is the harsh realization that the benefits they enjoyed in the past were at least as much a function of the role they played and the position they held as they were a product of their character.

  • P190. You must play your role in accordance with what you believe is that your passions infuse your work. You need to realize that you cannot have it both ways. If you are attacked, discredited, ostracized, or fired, you may feel that you have experienced a kind of assassination. But you cannot expect people to seriously consider your idea without accepting the possibility that they will challenge it. Accepting that process of engagement as the terrain of leadership liberates you personally. It enables you to make room for others to get just as involved in working on your idea as you are without withdrawing or becoming entrenched in personal defense. Again, distinguishing yourself from your role is just as important with regard to praise as it is to criticism. When you begin to believe all the good things people are saying about you, you can lose yourself in your role, distorting your personal sense of identity and self-image. Also, people can gain control over you because of your desire to maintain their approval. Losing yourself in your role is a sign that you depend on the institution or community to meet too many of your personal needs, which is dangerous.

  • P219. Then, sometimes, a crisis hits. You might feel like you've been knocked off your horse. Perhaps you have reached the end of your time in a successful career, or you're a doctor, and the structure and values of the healthcare environment have changed around you. Maybe your company has been taken over by a higher conglomerate, and you are pushed aside. Perhaps you're actually fired from your job, or you're secure, but something is gnawing away at you inside, suggesting that this is just not right for you or enough for you, even though it has put food on the family table for twenty years. Or you've stayed at home to raise the kids, and now your nest is empty. Perhaps you lose reelection, or your boss does, and you are out of a job. People experience disorientation at those times because they've mistaken form for essence. They've come to believe that the form of work is what makes it important; they have identified themselves as their roles: I am the mayor, I'm a stay-at-home mom, I am a business executive. They confuse the form of their participation in life with the essence of its meaning and purpose. If the essential ingredients of meaning in life are the experiences of connection and contribution, then part of the magic of life in our organizations and communities lies in the human capacity to generate many forms for its expression. Meaning derives from finding ways, rather than any one particular way, to live, to contribute to the worldly enterprise, and to enhance the quality of life for people around you.

  • P222. Having a purpose differs from having any particular purpose. You get meaning in life from the purposes that you join. But after working in a particular discipline, industry, or job for twenty or thirty years, you begin to be weeded to that specific purpose, that particular form. When you lose that purpose, that specific form, you think you have no meaningful options. We know a seventy-seven-year-old man, Bennie, who can retire with a full salary and medical benefits. He's been in the same job for forty years. He no longer has the strength to do the tasks that go with the job. He refuses to quit, he says, because he does not know what he will do with his days. Bennie fears retirement because he can't redefine the purposes of his life. Minus the form, he thinks he will lose his source of meaning. But what Bennie really has lost is something that he probably once had as a child: a sense of purpose. Children have generative power. They create meaning as they busily connect with whatever is happening. But grown-ups often forget that ability. They tend to lose that playful, adventuresome, creative generatively by which they can ask themselves: What's worth doing today?

  • P227. The hard truth is that it is not possible to experience the rewards and joy of leadership without experiencing the pain as well. The painful part of that reality is what holds so many people back. As we have described, the dangers of leadership will come from many people and places and take many forms, not only from known adversaries but also from the betrayal of close associates and the ambivalence of trusted authorities. Cynicism, arrogance, and callousness can come in very handy. It may often seem as though, without their protection, there is nothing between you and the experience itself. They get you through the day. In reality, however, they undermine your capacity for exercising leadership tomorrow. Perhaps even more critically, they disable an acute experience of living.

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