Leadership without easy answers [book synthesis]

After several years of sitting in my queue, I finally got around to reading this classic book:

Leadership Without Easy Answers by Ronald A. Heifetz

While it’s been written almost 20 years ago, it has not lost its relevance. At its core it attempts to define what leadership is and offer principles aimed at helping leaders lead more effectively. Many of the examples used to illustrate these concepts are taken from US political leadership in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s and definitely feel more relevant today, after the latest US presidential race.

Overall this book was a valuable but hard read. Something in Heifetz’s writing style made it harder for me to distill the key ideas in first read. And while the examples certainly help illustrate the concepts, they were incredibly detailed and extensive, making it harder to reconnect back to the overall structure once each of the stories wrapped up.

Nonetheless, much of Heifetz’s thesis made some intuitive sense to me, so I’ve taken up the challenge of trying to distill it to a more concise resource that I (and you) can use for future reference.

Adaptive challenges and adaptive work

One of Heiftez’s key distinctions is the distinction between technical challenges and adaptive challenges:

If we define problems by the disparity between values and circumstances, than an adaptive challenge is a particular kind of problem where the gap cannot be closed by the application of current technical know-how or routine behavior. To make progress, not only must invention and action change circumstances to align reality with the values, but the values themselves may also have to change.

Adaptive challenges require adaptive work:

Adaptive work consists of the learning required to address conflicts in the values people hold, or to diminish the gap between the values people stand for and the reality they face. Adaptive work require change in values, beliefs or behavior. The exposure and orchestration of conflict — internal contradictions — within individuals and constituencies, provides the leverage for mobilizing people to learn new ways. In this view, getting people to clarity what matters most, in what balance, with what trade-offs, becomes a central task.

In general, different situations can be classified into three types:


Heifetz views promoting adaptive work as the essence of leadership:

The hardest and most valuable task of leadership may be advancing goals and designing strategy that promote adaptive work…

Tackling tough problems — problems that often require the evolution of values — is the end of leadership; getting that work done is its essence.

Leadership can be further decomposed into 5 strategic principles:

1. Identify the adaptive challenge. Diagnose the situation in light of the values at stake, and unbundle the issues that come with it

2. Keep the level of distress within a tolerable range for doing adaptive work. To use the pressure cooker analogy, keep the pressure up without blowing up the vessel.

3. Focus attention on ripening issues and not on stress-reducing distractions. Identify which issues can currently engage attention; and while directing attention to them, counteract work avoidance mechanism like denial, scapegoating, externalizing the enemy, pretending the problem is technical, or attacking individuals rather than issues.

4. Give the work back to people, but at a rate they can stand. Place and develop responsibility by putting the pressure on the people with the problem.

5. Protect voices of leadership without authority. Give cover to those who raise hard questions and generate distress — people who point to the internal contradictions of the society. These individuals will often have latitude to provoke rethinking that authorities do not have.


The other key distinction that Heifetz makes is between leadership and authority.

He defines authority as a dynamic that arises from group psychological mechanisms:

These studies begin to suggest a psychological mechanism for the dynamics of authority. A group recognizes the presence of a problem when the level of stress in the group goes up. Stress arises from disorientation in the face of a complex task, and effective groups normally generate an authority structure in response, sometimes quite informally. The authority structure establishes places and roles for group members, including the role of chairperson, and by so doing creates a coordinating and problem-solving mechanism. When members know to whom to turn, they feel calmed.

Leading with Authority

Specifically, an individual in an authority position is expected to provide 5 social functions for the group:

  1. Choosing the direction of group movement (problem definition and direction)
  2. Protecting the group from predators / extrenal threats
  3. Orienting members to their status and place
  4. Controlling conflict by restoring order
  5. Maintaining norms (resource allocation, etc.)

An authority position provides an individual with several capabilities which enable him to be more effective in leading adaptive work:

  1. Provide a holding environment for containing the stresses of the adaptive challenge
  2. Direct attention to the issues
  3. Gather and test information — perform reality testing
  4. Manage information and frame issues
  5. Orchestrate conflicting perspectives
  6. Choose the decision making process

He also offers a few specific guidelines for the latter:

Deciding which process to use: consultative, autocratic, participative or consensual — requires judgement based on several factors:

* The type of problem

* The resilience of the social system

* The severity of the problem

* The time frame for taking action

One becomes more autocratic — exclusive — when the issue is likely to overwhelm the current resilience of the group or society given the time available for decision.

But the relationship between authority and leadership is not only positive:

Having an authority relationship with people is both a benefit to leadership and a constraint. Authority is a resource because it can provide the instruments and power to hold together and harness the distressing process of doing adaptive work. Authority is a constraint because it is contingent on meeting the expectations of constituencies. Deviating from those expectations is perilous… Exercising leadership from a position of authority in adaptive situations means going against the grain:

Leading without Authority

Thus, when we speak of leadership without authority, we are referring to a very large set of stances, from the person operating from the margins of society even to the senior authority figure who leads beyond his pale of authority, challenging either his own constituents’ expectations or engaging people across the boundary of his organization who ordinarily or preferably pay him no mind.

Since authority certainly forces some constrains on leading, leading without it offers some advantages:

1. Creative latitude — The absence of authority enables one to deviate from the norms of authoritative decision making. One does not have to keep the ship on an even keel

2. Issue focus — Leading without or beyond one’s authority permits focusing hard on a single issue. One does not have to content to fully with meeting the multiple expectations of multiple constituencies and providing the holding environment for everybody.

3. Front line information — Operating with little or no authority places one closer to the detailed experience of some of the stakeholders in the situations. One may lose the larger perspective but gain the fine grain of people’s hopes, pains, values, habits , and history.

Which therefore require a different set of strategies and tactics:

1. Without authority, one has very little control over the holding environment. One can shape the stimulus, but one cannot manage the response. A leaders without authority can spark debate, but he cannot orchestrate it. Without authority, a leader must regulate distress by modulating the provocation.

2. In attracting and direction attention to an issue, a leader without authority has to take into account the special vulnerability of becoming a lightning rod

3. Just as people look to authority to solve problems, leaders without authority commonly make the mistake of assuming that only authority figures have the power to affect changes. As a result, there is a strong temptations to identify the authority figure as the audience for action. In general, however, people in power change their ways when the sources of their authority change the expectations.

The Personal Challenge

Heifetz concludes the book with some advice on how to manage the personal challenge of leading:

To lead and yet sustain the personal stresses that come with leading requires inner discipline… What follows, then, are seven practical suggestions for bearing the responsibility that comes with leadership without losing one’s effectiveness or collapsing under the strain. They are:

1. Get on the balcony

2. Distinguish self from role

3. Externalize the conflict

4. Use partners — both confidants and allies

5. Listen, using oneself as data

6. Find a sanctuary

7. Preserve a sense of purpose

“Getting on the balcony”

… is the term Heifetz is using the describe the diagnostic/reflective part of leadership. He offers several diagnostic questions which mirror the 5 strategic principles of leadership:

Identifying the adaptive challenge:

What’s causing the distress?

What internal contradictions does the distress represent?

What are the histories of these contradictions?

What perspective and interests have I and others come to represent to various segments of the community that are now in conflict?

In what ways are we in the organization or working group mirroring the problem dynamics in the community?

Regulating distress:

What are the characteristic responses of the community to disequilibrium — to confusion about the future direction, the presence of an external threat, disorientation in regard to role relationships, internal conflict, or the breaking up of norms?

When in the past has the distress appeared to reach a breaking point — where the social system began to engage in self-destructive behavior, like civil war or political assassination?

What actions by senior authorities traditionally have restored equilibrium? What mechanisms to regulate distress are currently within my control, given my authority?

Directing disciplined attention to the issues:

What are the work and work avoidance patterns particular to this community?

What does the current pattern of work avoidance indicate about the nature and difficulty of the present adaptive challenge and the various work issues that it comprises?

What clues do the authority figures provide?

Which of these issues are ripe? What are the options for tackling the ripe issues, or for ripening an issue that has not fastened in the people’s minds?

Giving the work back to people:

Changes in whose values, beliefs, or behaviors would allow progress on these issues?

What are the losses involved?

Given my role, how am I likely to be drawn into work avoidance?

Leadership without easy answers [book synthesis]

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