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Heifetz on Leadership

Ronald A. Heifetz views leadership as helping people work through "adaptive challenges." This is important work but it calls for catalysts or facilitators, not leaders.

In order to fuel faster innovation and deeper engagement, all employees should be encouraged to show leadership bottom-up. But such leadership takes the form of direct influence. It does not facilitate work on adaptive challenges.

If we can show that all leadership is a form of influence, then it can't be about helping people address adaptive challenges. If such work requires a catalyst or facilitator, then why not call it that instead of leadership?

Heifetz's Model of Leadership

Heifetz's concept of leadership, as presented in his 1999 book, Leadership Without Easy Answers is sufficiently popular that it deserves critical attention. Having been trained as a doctor, Heifetz compares the role of leader to that of a doctor engaged in helping people solve their problems.

Straightforward medical problems can be solved with technical expertise. More challenging conditions require patients to engage in some hard thinking about their values and options, hence doing some "adaptive thinking" facilitated by the doctor.

Heifetz views leadership as addressing challenges arising in the context of complex problems. It can't merely be influence, he argues, because that implies getting people to do what the leader wants, which may not meet the needs of those who are led.

Leaders don't simply influence followers, Heifetz claims; they work together, much as do doctors and patients when major life-changing forces need to be faced. Leadership, on this view, doesn't so much provide direction as help people find it for themselves.

Critique of Heifetz on Leadership

Here are some exceptions to Heifetz's model:

  1. Not all leadership occurs in the context of a problem. A novel product like the iPad, for instance, can gain a following by creating a need that did not exist before. Any creative act, as in novel art, can have a leadership impact on other artists simply because it is new and attractive even though it doesn't solve a problem, let alone encourage people to solve their own problems.
  2. Leading by example works through one-way influence. One person takes action and, seeing its advantages, others follow suit. The leader may not even know many of those who follow, in which case they can't be working together to solve a problem.
  3. Leadership can bring about immediate action or attitude change without the need to think through the issues. Heifetz notes that Martin Luther King, Jr. stimulated adaptive thinking on the part of some people who had to re-think their attitudes and values. Heifetz recognizes that King had a leadership impact on the general population and several levels of government, not just on people who worked with him. But some of those who did not work directly with him may have changed their attitudes in a flash upon hearing one of his speeches, like suddenly seeing the other figure in a gestalt image. If a change is made easily, there is no "adaptive challenge."
  4. Leadership can be shown at a distance. When a green leader promotes environment friendly policies in Norway and is followed by communities in Australia, there may be no working relationship between leader and led. As with leading by example, this is a case of one-way influence. It is not a matter of a leader working with a group to develop solutions together.
  5. Similarly, groups can lead other groups by example. Apple leads competitors in the mobile phone, music distribution and related markets. Here again, leadership is pure, one-way influence.

Objections to Heifetz's Model

Heifetz uses the word "mobilize" to describe how leaders get people working on an issue, but leadership can be shown without any concrete action being taken. It can simply move people to change their attitudes or STOP them from taking action, hence not "mobilizing" them to do anything.

Heifetz feels that leadership induces people to reassess their values. For him, leadership is always about people's values, but leadership in a technical context is not about values. The increasing popularity of "evidence-based" decision-making suggests that there are many technical contexts where hard facts are sufficient for one person to show leadership to others.

According to Heifetz such technical contexts call for mere "answer giving", but technical leadership does not just give people answers; it persuades them to accept a better way.

Heifetz says that Hitler is not a leader in spite of his ability to inspire people to follow him. He claims that leaders must "elevate" followers, not just influence them. It is not clear, however, who should be the judge of who is elevated and who is not; Hitler's followers may have felt elevated even though Heifetz thinks that they should not have been. In any case, followers are not elevated in technical or small-scale leadership. We can only talk about elevation if we restrict ourselves to so-called "great" leaders and forget the rest.

Heifetz talks about leadership in terms of authority, formal or informal, but in either case, he is talking about a kind of role within a group, one in which a leader gains authority over a period of time. However, leadership in the above examples is a one-off impact, not an ongoing role within the follower group.

But does the person who has even a brief leadership impact on people not need some kind of authority in order to command the attention of prospective followers? The degree of personal authority or credibility that is required to lead is situational, thus not a part of the basic meaning of leadership.

When someone leads by example, others might follow even if the person setting the example is not endowed with much personal authority or credibility. In general, a leadership impact is a function of the content that leaders promote and their personal characteristics. The more compelling the content is in its own right, the less need there is for personal credibility.

Actually, influence is not just about what the influencer does; it is also at least as much about the receptivity of the audience. Even the most spellbinding oratory might not move a highly resistant audience, while the content of the proposal alone, might move a highly receptive audience, even if it is presented poorly or abrasively.

Heifetz rejects the view that leadership is a form of influence because it is only the means. No doubt a doctor treats patients as an end in themselves but this is not true of managers. Regardless of how skilled and considerate managers are in helping employees solve their problems, this is only a means to the end of improved performance.

Heifetz also feels that leadership can't merely be influence because it must generate socially useful outcomes. But surely, such outcomes are an application of leadership. We must allow that leadership can be shown for socially harmful purposes. If so, then it must be a form of influence, not a desire to achieve socially useful outcomes.

For Heifetz "There are several advantages to viewing leadership in terms of adaptive work. First, it points to the pivotal importance of reality testing in producing socially useful outcomes." Reality testing is clearly invaluable but that doesn't make it leadership. The reasons people follow a leader are surely beside the point.

With hindsight or better information we may wish that we, or others, hadn't followed leaders such as Hitler, but we can't say that he wasn't a leader just because we can find good reasons why he shouldn't have been followed.

This is true for other forms of influence as well. We say: "there's a sucker born every minute" to account for the fact that people often buy silly things. But, like it or not, a sale has occurred if someone buys. The customer's reasons for buying are beside the point with regard to understanding how selling works or how to define it.

Helping customers do "reality testing" before they buy a product they don't need could kill some sales but that doesn't mean that it is NOT a sale when people buy without such reality testing. The same is surely true of leadership. People's reasons for following are irrelevant to the meaning of leadership or whether it occurs.

The truth is that leadership can occur in an infinite variety of contexts. Some of them induce criminal action or otherwise do harm to people. If we restrict leadership to socially useful actions, as Heifetz seems to do, that would mean that there is no leadership in criminal or terrorist organizations. This can't be correct.

Further, Heifetz's model of leadership requires highly developed facilitative skills: the ability to provoke adaptive thinking without pushing people over the edge. He describes the training that a doctor possesses, especially a psychiatrist like himself, to help people get through stressful challenges successfully. But this means that no unskilled person could show leadership. What about leading a street gang or factory workers?

Heifetz seems to have developed his concept of leadership with an eye on heads of state who may well have the requisite negotiating and political skills to juggle complex stakeholder agendas but surely leadership is not limited to this stratospheric context.

Leadership in Complex Situations

Heifetz rightly objects to Plato's conception of leadership as wisdom or answer giving. In highly complex situations one person might not be able to lead on the full range of issues but why restrict ourselves to a single leader? Every stakeholder whose views move the debate in a new direction, even slightly, has a brief leadership impact on the group's direction.

Most leadership theorists, including Heifetz, lock themselves into ONE leader, the single person in charge. With this mindset, it is hard to see how leadership can be influence, because (a) issues are too complex for one person to have all the answers and (2) stakeholders need to own the ultimate solution.

However, when we see leadership as small, discrete influence impacts in which all can engage, then every participant in a group discussion can show some leadership. This move reconciles leadership-as-influence with the twin realities that many issues are too complex for one person to solve and the fact that all stakeholders must feel some ownership for solutions.

Thus, for complex problems, one person can act as a catalyst or facilitator but every stakeholder can show some leadership toward solving the problem. Each suggestion that impacts the final solution could be called a micro instance of leadership. Thus every stakeholder can both show some leadership and share ownership for the solution.

If people, acting as facilitators, don't influence the solution then they don't show any leadership. They may stick to general questions such as "What are the advantages and disadvantages of that option?" But, if they ask specific content questions such as "What would be the advantages of adding X component to the solution?" they are actually making a suggestion in the form of a question. When such a question impacts the solution, then the facilitator has switched to leadership mode, even if only briefly.

Managers as Catalysts and Facilitators

If leadership means influence, then it must be managers who help people address adaptive challenges, where management is suitably upgraded as a facilitative function.

Modern managers need to facilitate creative thinking and act as catalysts to help employees solve performance problems. The better they are at fostering ownership in others, the more that employees will own the solutions and take the requisite "adaptive" action.

Managers have authority, which Heifetz defines as follows: "I define authority as conferred power to perform a service." He arrives at this definition from his role as a doctor. Patients "authorize" him to help them.

But surely this is not the basis of a manager's authority. We can accept that employees "authorize" their managers to manage their careers, but that is not the service that managers are there to perform. The doctor is, indeed, there to care for his patients, but managers are there to ensure organizational productivity.

A manager's services, with regard to performance, are authorized by the organization, not the employees. This subtle equivocation between authority and authorizing someone to provide a service is the whole foundation for Heifetz's claim that leadership is a helping function.

Managers facilitate improved performance in two basic ways: (1) by using their authority to allocate rewards such as higher pay, special assignments, development opportunities and promotions, and (2) by acting as catalysts. Using facilitative skills, they ask employees what they think to encourage them to solve their own performance related "adaptive challenges."

Managers can use some of the skills of the doctor, coach, facilitator and catalyst while also having a type of authority that they lack. In any case, this is not leadership and their purpose is not to help employees as ends in themselves but to improve performance. This is where managers differ from doctors.

Management can be defined as achieving goals in a way that makes best use of all pertinent resources. Making the best use of people entails engaging them in problem solving in such a way that they feel ownership for agreed solutions.

So What?

As long as we associate leadership with being in charge of people, we will continue to confuse it with all kinds of other roles and, as a result, overlook its real potential. In an increasingly fragmented, complex and fast-changing world the old idea that one person perched atop a hierarchy can provide all the leadership we need is obsolete. Today, we have microleadership: small-scale, one off influence impacts that nudge the conversation, sometimes imperceptibly, in new directions. We need to see how all employees can show such leadership on order to break the monopoly on leadership of those in charge of people.

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