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Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading

It's not enough to lead everyone out of the mud. As a leader you need to ask yourself—honestly—what you did to get everyone into a bad spot to begin with. In this excerpt from their new book Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading, two Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government faculty pool ideas to look deeper at the hard work of leading others.

Leadership on the Line

When you belong to the organization or community that you are trying to lead, you are part of the problem. This is particularly true when you have been a member of the group for some time, as in a family. Taking the initiative to address the issue does not relieve you of your share of responsibility. If you have been in a senior role for a while and there's a problem, it is almost certain that you had some part in creating it and are part of the reason it has not yet been addressed. Even if you are new, or outside the organization, you need to identify those behaviors you practice or values you embody that could stifle the very change you want to advance. In short, you need to identify and accept responsibility for your contributions to the current situation, even as you try to move your people to a different, better place.

In our teaching, training, and consulting, we often ask people to write or deliver orally a short version of a leadership challenge they are currently facing in their professional, personal, or civic lives. Over the years, we have read and heard literally thousands of such challenges. Most often in the first iteration of the story the author is nowhere to be found. The storyteller implicitly says, "I have no options. If only other people would shape up, I could make progress here."

When you are too quick to lay blame on others, whether inside or outside the community, you create risks for yourself. Obviously, you risk misdiagnosing the situation. But you also risk making yourself a target by denying that you are part of the problem and that you, too, need to change. After all, if you are pointing your finger at them, pushing them to do something they don't want to do, the easiest option for them is to get rid of you. The dynamic becomes you versus them. But if you are with them, facing the problem together and each accepting some share of responsibility for it, then you are not as vulnerable to attack.

Leslie Wexner, founder and CEO of The Limited, faced that challenge in the early 1990s, when his company began "spinning," as he recalls. "We were working hard but going nowhere." He had taken the corporation to great heights, going from four employees to 175,000, but his strategy was no longer producing growth. 2  After a terrific fourth quarter in 1992, the company experienced two down years.

Leadership on the Line

Wexner hired a consultant, a Harvard Business School professor named Len Schlesinger, to take a very deep look at the company's problems and to assess what it would take to turn things around.

The consultant returned with three messages. First, strengthen the brands; that made sense to Wexner. Second, Wexner would have to fire a significant portion of the corporation's workforce, perhaps as many as one third of his people. But Wexner had run the company as a family since its inception in 1963. He had never been in the habit of firing people. He thought this part heretical.

Beyond clarifying the values at stake and the greater purposes worth the pain, you also need to name and acknowledge the loss itself.
— Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky

The third message cut even deeper. Schlesinger told Wexner that he was part of the problem. The company could make a transition with him or without him, the consultant said, but if the former, he would have to take responsibility. He would have to make substantial, significant changes in his own beliefs and behaviors. Without that, the remaining employees, the shareholders, and the company's corporate board would be able to successfully resist the needed transformation.

Wexner found the message difficult to hear. He had started the company in 1963 with a loan of $5,000 from his aunt. That was enough to open one women's clothing store in a suburban shopping mall in Columbus, Ohio. His goal then was to earn a salary of $5,000 a year and have enough left over to buy a new car every few years. First-year sales were $165,000. From that point on, he had enjoyed nearly thirty years of significant annual growth, and his one store had burgeoned into a retailing colossus. He was accustomed to accepting plaudits for success, not for throwing overboard values and practices that had been near the heart of his self image. Besides, he was fifty-eight years old, and questioned his capacity to admit error and to mend his own ways.

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.'"

He believed in Schlesinger and so, painfully, he began to accept his piece of the mess. He committed himself to a personal as well as a corporate makeover. He hired an executive coach to help him learn new ways and to stay on track. People in the company as well as shareholders and lenders noticed. They saw the changes he was making and began to understand that he was on their side, facing up to difficult issues, taking responsibility and risks, and facing an uncertain future. He embodied his message, and thereby avoided becoming a target for attack for most of the long turnaround period. His personal commitment helped to sway the vast uncommitted.

Wexner changed, survived, and thrived. So did The Limited. Between 1996 and 2001, the corporation increased sales by 50 percent and its operating margin by 4 percent, with 1,000 fewer stores, and a reduced workforce of 124,000 employees.

Acknowledge their loss
Remember that when you ask people to do adaptive work, you are asking a lot. You may be asking them to choose between two values, both of which are important to the way they understand themselves. Any person who has been divorced with children understands how difficult this is. Most of us shudder at the prospect of having to choose between our own happiness and what's best for our children. We might try to convince ourselves that we are serving the children's happiness by ending a dysfunctional or unsatisfying marriage, but usually the children would not agree and neither would many of the experts.

You may be asking people to close the distance between their espoused values and their actual behavior. Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged Americans in that way during the civil rights movement. The abhorrent treatment he and his allies received in marches and demonstrations dramatized the gap between the traditional American values of freedom, fairness, and tolerance and the reality of life for African-Americans. He forced many of us, self-satisfied that we were good people living in a good country, to come face-to-face with the gulf between our values and behavior; once we did that, we had to act. The pain of ignoring our own hypocrisy hurt us more than giving up the status quo. The country changed.

Of course, this takes time. Confronting the gaps between our values and behavior—the internal contradictions in our lives and communities—requires going through a period of loss. Adaptive work often demands some disloyalty to our roots. To tell someone that he should stop being prejudiced is really to tell him that some of the lessons of his loving grandfather were wrong. To tell a Christian missionary that, in the name of love, she may be doing damage to a native community, calls into question the meaning of mission itself. To suggest to her that, in an age of global interdependence, we can no longer afford to have religious communities compete for divine truth and souls, calls into question the interpretation of scripture lovingly bestowed upon her by family and teachers.

People are willing to make sacrifices if they see the reason why.
— Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky

Asking people to leave behind something they have lived with for years or for generations practically invites them to get rid of you. Sometimes leaders are taken out simply because they do not appreciate the sacrifice they are asking from others. To them, the change does not seem like much of a sacrifice, so they have difficulty imagining that it seems that way to others. Yet the status quo may not look so terrible to those immersed in it, and may look pretty good when compared to a future that is unknown. Exercising leadership involves helping organizations and communities figure out what, and whom, they are willing to let go. Of all the values honored by the community, which of them can be sacrificed in the interest of progress?

People are willing to make sacrifices if they see the reason why. Indeed, boys go 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 often requires something more tangible and public to convince people that you truly understand.

When the terrorists attacked on September 11, 2001, they generated extraordinary disruption and loss to the United States in general and to New York City in particular. People in New York were forced, not only to grieve losses, but to face a new reality: their own vulnerability. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani seemed immediately to grasp people's struggle to adapt. He spoke clearly, passionately, and repeatedly, giving voice to people's pain. Over and over again, he urged people to resume their pre-September 11 activities, to go to work, use the city's parks, and patronize restaurants and theatres, even though everyone's natural response was to hunker down and stay out of harm's way. But as people began to heed his advice, he also let them know that he realized what he was asking them to do. He asked them to give up their heightened need to maintain a sense of their own personal security on behalf of larger values: not giving in to the terrorists, and rebuilding New York City. Giuliani went even further. He modeled the behavior he was asking of others by putting himself in harm's way, going to Ground Zero over and over again, barely escaping being injured himself on September 11 when the towers fell. Sometimes, modeling the behavior you are asking of others presents itself as an even more powerful way than just words to acknowledge their loss.

Excerpted with permission from Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading, Harvard Business School Press, 2002. Copyright 2002 Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky.

Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky serve on the faculty of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Heifetz is the author of Leadership Without Easy Answers, and founding director of the school's Center for Public Leadership. Linsky is faculty chair of many of the school's executive programs.

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Leadership in Real Life

Martha Lagace: Your book with Ronald A. Heifetz describes the personal, often wrenching, challenges of leadership. You mention that the word "lead" has an Indo-European root meaning "to go forth, die." Why aspire to leadership?

Marty Linsky: Good question. In listening to the stories of literally thousands of men and women over the past quarter century of doing this work, we have found that people aspire to exercise leadership because it gives meaning and purpose to their lives. Exercising leadership involves the pursuit of objectives that go beyond an individual's personal aggrandizement or material gain. Leadership cannot be disconnected from purpose. The risks are only worth taking, the dangers are only worth confronting, because there is an objective that you believe in and care deeply enough about to put yourself on the line.

Q: New leaders in large organizations are often resented for rocking the boat. How should someone in a leadership role keep a level head when conflict becomes personalized, as it often does?

A: One of the most important keys to survival is to separate yourself from your role when you are carrying a controversial issue in your organization. People seeking to raise difficult questions are resented because they are creating distress. A system in such disequilibrium can employ many different tactics to try to restore calm, but one of the most tried and true is to personalize the issue so that the person carrying it becomes the subject of the conversation, and not the issue itself.

No one criticizes your style when you are handing out checks; it's only when you are delivering some disturbing news that people come after you personally. It's difficult to resist responding in kind; that's why going after you personally is an effective way to get you to take your eye off the ball. But when you respond personally, you collude with those who are trying to take your issue off the table. Remind yourself that the attack is not about you, even though it is framed that way. It is about the issue you represent.

Q: You write about four basic dangers that people can encounter when they take on a new leadership role: marginalization, diversion, attack, and seduction. How do these dangers come into play, and what tools or attitudes can a leader use to overcome these particular dangers?

A: What is common to all of these dangers is that they stem from a desire on the part of the group or community or organization to take you out of your game plan, to restore the status quo by shoving the difficult issue you are trying to surface back under the table where it cannot disturb anyone.

What we found is that the most consistent reason people trying to exercise leadership get taken out is that they did not see it coming. Systems do not announce that they are out to get you. They seek out your vulnerabilities and come after you in a way that is most likely to succeed.

The first rule for survival is to get off the dance floor and onto the balcony so you can see what is really happening around you. That is often hard to do. You may need help from confidantes who have no stake in the issue, but who are worried about you. You need to listen carefully to the song behind the words people are whispering in your ear, rather than taking literally what they say. You need to stay close to the people who your initiative is threatening the most, but also watch carefully your most zealous supporters who may unwittingly push you into a vulnerable spot as their applause and enthusiasm encourages you to step further and further out onto thin ice.

Q: What particular leadership challenges (if any) do you see affecting business people as opposed to government leaders and others in public life?

A: Let me suggest two generic leadership challenges that seem to us to be more applicable in business settings than in the public sector. First, the private sector is characterized by a clear measure of success: the bottom line. People who raise issues that might challenge the bottom line in the short run or represent competing values make themselves very vulnerable to being marginalized, because the most important organizational value is so widely shared.

Secondly, most but by no means all businesses are more or less hierarchical in structure. People who seek to exercise leadership who are not at the top of the pyramid—leadership without authority—put themselves very much at risk, especially in difficult economic times when there is great insecurity and plenty of people willing to replace them and toe the line.

Q: In your book, you write that it is important for leaders to listen carefully to the positive feedback they receive as well. Why? And how?

A: We have noticed that many people seeking to exercise leadership are brought down by people who are ostensibly on their side. This can happen in many ways, but two are most common.

First, people in your own faction are likely to condition their support for you on your willingness to push harder and harder. This is the bind in which labor leaders often find themselves. Rank-and-file union members do not experience the conflicting pressures that the leadership is under. They do not see the legitimacy of other, conflicting interests. And there is always someone else ready to replace the less-than-zealous person out front. People seeking to exercise leadership often respond to these pressures by going further and further out on a limb until they find themselves completely vulnerable to being disregarded because of their unreasonableness. This might be one way of understanding the bind that is trapping Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Leadership can be understood, in part, as about disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb, as you get them to face the need to make tough trade-offs. A second danger from your own folks is that you might be turning up the heat on them more than they can stand, and the way they will manifest their discomfort is by trying to lull you into inaction by heaping on the accolades. Be careful when you hear all that praise and there's a voice inside of you saying, "I'm terrific, but I'm not that terrific." It's a signal.

Paradoxically, one of the ways organizations try to ensure that people do not exercise leadership, do not raise difficult and disturbing issues that challenge basic values and beliefs, is by calling them "leaders." The hidden contract is that as long as you make us happy, we'll keep calling you by that name you so aspire to; but if you start upsetting us by asking questions we don't want to address, we won't call you "leader" anymore.

— Martha Lagace, Senior Editor, HBS Working Knowledge


2. This case is based upon a lecture given by Leslie Wexner at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 13 September 2000.