The 'dark side' of leadership

To lead is to live dangerously, and leaders who ignore the danger can find themselves taken down, write Ronald A Heifetz and Marty Linsky in last month's issue of the Harvard Business Review.

          To lead is to live dangerously, and leaders who ignore the danger can find themselves taken down, write Ronald A Heifetz and Marty Linsky in last month's issue of the Harvard Business Review.

          The authors, who teach leadership at the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, adapted the article from their new book, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading (Harvard Business School Press, 2002).

          Heifetz talked with Computerworld's Kathleen Melymuka about the perils of steering your organisation through change.

          What's the "dark side" of leadership?

          It's the danger, and the danger is a product of the real or feared losses that frequently accompany change.

          So to the extent that I champion change, I'm in danger?

          Yes. When you ask people to develop competencies they currently don't have, you're asking them to go through a period of incompetence, and the loss of competence is a terrible thing, especially in IT.

          Depending on how proud they are of their competence and how much learning they may need to do to develop new competence, they may fight quite ferociously against the validity of your initiative and frequently in ways that will endanger your efforts and you personally.

          What do you mean endanger me personally?

          Rarely do I mean physical danger, though on occasions we have seen someone go berserk. In the vast majority of situations, the dangers are to one's reputation, career or institutional credibility.

          Where does this danger come from?

          You can find yourself "marginalised" suddenly no longer in the loop, and people are not asking for your opinion. There's out-and-out attack.

          People can begin to take you on face-to-face in meetings in a way that reduces your credibility. Or your own people may seduce you by pushing you out on a limb to champion their perspectives without appreciating how much interference you're going to run into.

          You find yourself more and more isolated because you're not listening to others in the organisation. It's seductive because it makes you feel heroic, and you don't discover till you're on the slippery slope that your credibility is eroded.

          Or people will divert you from the tough issues. In IT, they may have you focus on the technical dimensions rather than the adaptive dimensions of the change IT is implementing.

          What are the adaptive dimensions?

          That's the degree to which people's ways of working have to change beyond simply implementing the hardware or software system. You can be diverted to be focusing only on the technical aspect so you end up with this wonderful equipment that doesn't get used properly.

          One survival tactic you mention is to maintain perspective in the midst of action. But that's easier said than done.

          It's not easy. You need a set of basic questions to ask in the midst of action: "What are the real stakes? What is this resistance really about? What are the losses involved? What are the adaptive aspects of this challenge, in addition to the technical aspects?" Those will help you reflect. You also need allies and confidants to pull you by the collar and say, "Let's look at what went wrong and what went right."

          Another tactic is to acknowledge your own responsibility for the status quo. Why is that important?

          First, because you can then begin to correct how you're contributing, and because you will have more credibility in getting people to take losses [and] generate a new competence if you can talk about how you're going to have to generate a new competence too.

          One of the big problems of adaptive change is to bring along the uncommitted, and your credibility among the uncommitted will rest on several factors. Key among them is your ability to own up to your piece of the mess and to model the reflection and learning you're asking of them.

          I like the idea of "cooking the conflict." Can you talk about how that can help a leader survive?

          Getting people to tackle tough problems generates conflict, so leadership has a lot to do with cooking the conflict. By that I mean creating a containing vessel structures and processes, like meetings or a task force to bring together key parties with different vested interests and orchestrate conflict.

          The trick for you is not to be a source of conflict; be the person pointing at it and structuring the process to deal with it. Let a variety of advocates work the issue.

          You say it's important to engage others by not trying to solve all the problems yourself. But isn't there a danger of looking weak or indecisive?

          Yes, there is that problem. To maintain credibility, you also have to display your authoritative expertise in all the situations for which a technical remedy is possible.

          But in adaptive challenges, you can't provide an authoritative solution, because the solution lies in changing people's behaviours. If they don't change, there is no solution. [They need to] grapple with the issues and internalise the need for change.

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