Ronald Heifetz* on leadership – Part III: the five strategic principles of leadership

1. Leadership identifies the adaptive challenge. It puts the finger on the values at stake and the work to be done. For leadership without authority this is easier. The sole focus enables to become the lightening rod for the issue, the conductor for mobilizing energy. In my leadership interviews this is what again and again strikes me: transformational leaders define real challenges that transcend all personal concerns  in a tangible, emotional way.

2. Leadership keeps the level of distress within the tolerable range for doing the adaptive work. It keeps the heat up without blowing up the vessel. Leadership doesn’t simply satisfy ‘the need for security’ of people. It’s not doing the expected. It creates social disequilibrium during which people adapt their values. Authority is key for containing this stress. Leadership without authority provokes authority but doesn’t deny the containing role of authority. In Egypt the heat was turned on without provoking a violent repressive reaction. In Libya the distress threshold for authority was surpassed very quickly and authority tries to restore order brutally.

3. Leadership focuses the attention on ripening issues and not on stress-reducing distractions. Egyptian demonstrators kept and keep their eye on the ball: “we want more democracy.”  They want a change in values of authority. They were not distracted by the proposals of Moebarak.

4. Give the work back to the people at a rate they can stand. Leadership keeps the spotlight on the persons embodying the issues and mobilizes the stakeholders. It’s about the people and their change. Technical solutions don’t touch the heart and souls of people and avoid the work to be done. This is the leadership challenge for the European Union and Greece: how to give the adaptive work to the people? How to stop e.g. corruption or lack of transparency? The problem is only solved in the short run by lending more money. The same goes for Egypt. The worst thing that could happen is that people give back the authority to the president and the generals and don’t adapt their own beliefs and habits.

5) Protect voices of leadership without authority. This is especially important for authority figures doing adaptive work. Their role is to provide order and stability. They see disturbing voices easily as ‘annoying’. This is why diversity is so difficult to organize in organisations. Leadership protects these disturbing voices. It recognizes the importance of raising hard questions and provocation. Authority becomes leadership if it allows distress provoked by leadership without authority.

Any comment?

* Heifetz, Ronald (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge: Harvard Business Press, 348 p.


About Koen Marichal

Director Future Leadership Initiative at Antwerp Management School
This entry was posted in Academic insights & evidence, English and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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