The Work of Leadership

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HBR On Leadership CoverBy Ronald A. Heifetz and Donald L. Laurie
This article is included in the Harvard Business Review’s 10 Must Reads on leadership.

The Work of Leadership makes clear the intersections between itself and several other publications on leadership and human behavior. As I read it, I saw connections with What Makes a Leader, Crucial Conversations, Influencer, Leading Change, The Difference, and The Power of Habit to name a few.

If I had to reduce the book to four main points they would be as follows:

A) Adhering to traditional frameworks of leadership creates a strategic disadvantage (oftentimes, the very culture of an organization makes improvement difficult, if not nearly impossible);

B) Leaders must see themselves AND their employees as jointly responsible for improvement;

C) Leaders should openly address conflict and use it as an avenue for innovative problem-solving; and

D) Leaders should not shield employees from the internal and external demands of the market place, including how the survival of the organization or department is impacted. This “uncovering” creates an opportunity to have conversations about values, tradeoffs, and identifying new opportunities. Further, this uncovering creates a sense of urgency.

In addition to these overarching  points, the book specifically puts forth six key perspectives.

  • Getting on the balcony:  Employees may not clearly see the context in which they are operating due to limited information or a limited vantage point. Thus, leaders must help employees see the current challenges that the organization faces in the marketplace while also showing them how its past successes don’t translate into future ones.
  • Identifying the adaptive challenge:  Leaders must study the business landscape so that their organizations can figure out how to adapt. When organizations cannot adapt, they face failure (whether going out of business or negative changes in operations).
  • Regulating distress:  The leader has to “check in” and doesn’t have the luxury of being oblivious or unconcerned. Because change causes stress, leaders must learn to read signs that reveal that their teams are experiencing change fatigue or are otherwise overwhelmed. To this end, leaders must see their responsibility for managing conflict, intentionally designing a productive culture, and making sure people understand how their work and roles are changing while setting overall direction.
  • Maintaining disciplined attention:  Adaptive work is hard, time-consuming, and disruptive; thus, conflict and work stoppage are natural occurrences. Leaders must be able to get employees to deal with conflict and challenges without losing sight of the overall need for collaboration.
  • Giving the work back to people:  Two things must occur: leaders must stop seeing themselves as the sole source of answers. In turn, employees must come to understand the organization’s adaptive challenges and believe they can contribute to the solutions. Until employees truly understand the problem, they aren’t motivated (threatened) enough to change their behavior.
  • Protecting voices from below:  It is important not to silence the voices of individuals who don’t have status within the organization or with a particular audience. Those individuals should be encouraged to share their perspectives because the collective problem-solving ability of an organization is enhanced as the level of cognitive diversity increases. Additionally, voices from below often feel vulnerable while raising opinions that aren’t popular or mainstream; thus when they are censored, their voices are usually lost forever. Moreover, when such occurs, a clear message is sent not only to the individual, but across the organization about its culture and power dynamics.

Essentially, The Work of Leadership aims to get leaders to think about the necessity of adjusting the organization’s culture through changes to its daily routine in order to maintain and improve its position in the marketplace now and in the future. If this work isn’t done, the organization may die or struggle to say alive.



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