Leadership can be a humbling and contentious experience. Not everyone is equipped by training, personality or inclination to endure the leadership cauldron. It's a tough business that requires discipline, courage, stamina and confidence. American industry seems to be suffering from a lack of leadership across the board, something a recent Harvard Business Review article addresses at length. Authors Ronald A. Heifetz and Donald L. Laurie talk about what they call "adaptive challenges." Heifetz is director of the Leadership Education Project at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Laurie is managing director of Laurie International Ltd., a management consulting firm in Boston. Their article was based in part on Heifetz's 1994 book Leadership Without Easy Answers. They believe leaders don't necessarily need to know all the answers, but they do need to ask the right questions.
Fundamental changes are taking place globally, triggering shifts in the way organizations are defining themselves and their values. Consequently, leaders have to develop new strategies and relearn how to operate their organizations. That's not easy to do. Probably the most difficult task for leaders is to mobilize their workers to accept such a challenge. People generally don't like times of change because of the anxiety and chaos involved. Since employees tend to resist change passively or aggressively, leaders will certainly have their work cut out for them.
Heifetz and Laurie offer six principles of adaptive work for forward-thinking leaders. First is "getting on the balcony." The authors believe leaders must develop the ability to objectively look at their businesses as if they were sightseeing. They should have the ability to see the big picture of the organization's mission and direction. Next is to "identify the adaptive challenge." Here, leaders must identify a key element that could change a company's direction or culture. For example, at a firm that has put little emphasis on customer service, building customer trust could be such a challenge. "Regulate distress" is the third principle. It has to do with leaders making sure too much change doesn't throw the work force into denial and lead to severe morale problems.
Fourth is "maintain disciplined attention." Leaders must see that all points of view are given a fair hearing. Then, the hope is some sort of a consensus can evolve. Jan Carlzon, the legendary former CEO of Scandinavian Airlines System, made this observation: "The work of the leader is to get conflict out in the open and use it as a source of creativity." The fifth principle, "Giving the work back to people," means empowerment and letting people do their jobs in a confidence-building environment. Treating people with dignity and respect is what makes this happen. The authors point to what Carlzon did when he assumed the top job at SAS: "He demonstrated through a variety of symbolic acts-for example, eliminating the pretentious executive dining room and burning thousands of pages of manuals and handbooks-the extent to which rules and regulations had come to dominate the company. He made himself a pervasive presence, meeting with and listening to people both inside and outside the organization."
The final principle is "protect voices of leadership from below." This is where management courage is a must. Those individuals who come up with new ideas or criticize the way things are done must be protected and given the opportunity to participate. They should have no fear of retribution.
The authors' overall contention is really quite simple: "Solutions to adaptive challenges reside not in the executive suite but in the collective intelligence of employees at all levels." Winning leaders understand this and constantly employ techniques that will enable their workers to embrace change and grow.
Leadership is an art,
Charles S. Lauer