Leadership Without Easy Answers


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"Leadership Without Easy Answers"
Ronald A. Heifetz. 
Cambridge, Mass: The Belknap Press of Harvard Press, 1994. 348 pages. 
Available through the Alban Institute..
Reviewed by Rev. Peter Coutts 
Oakridge Presbyterian Church

In an age of universally acknowledged change and uncertainty, people of all walks of life are looking for guidance, security and support through the upheavals. It is no wonder then that people are clamouring for "leaders". On the other side of the fence, persons in leadership roles are finding themselves on the route of Star Trek -- boldly going where no one has gone before -- and being "the leader" on this uncertain journey. It is a difficult time to be a leader. Ron Heifetz, in "Leadership Without Easy Answers", provides some refreshing and helpful guidance for these times. As an instructor at Harvard University, a researcher and consultant to government, business and non-profit organizations, he has developed a very different perspective on leadership which which will be helpful in any setting, including the Church. His thoughts are presented in an easy reading style, filled with recognizable and approachable illustrations from recent American history.

 I found this book to be very helpful for three of its main elements. The first element is his approach to defining problems and the two basic types of responses available. "Technical change" is the application of current knowledge, skills and / or tools to resolve a situation. "Adaptive change" is called for when the problem cannot be solved with one's existing knowledge and skills, requiring people to make a shift in their values, expectations, attitudes, or habits of behaviour.

The second element is his definition of leadership as an activity that seeks to bring about change, which is engaged in through the conferred authority of those being led. This basic assertion allows Heifetz to explore the similarities and differences between leaders with "formal authority" (officeholders who by their role promise to meet certain expectations), leaders with "informal authority" (those with the promise of meeting the expectations of a coalition of people whom they serve, such as Martin Luther King) and leaders "without authority" (those who work to bring about change without having a formal role nor the support of a group of people being represented"). Heifetz's exploration of the powers and constraints of these three types of leadership as well as how one can evolve into the other is astute and informative.

The third element which is very helpful is Heifetz's four principles for bringing about adaptive change:

  1. be able to recognize when the challenge requires adaptive work for resolution. Understand the values and issues at stake in the situation.
  2. Adaptive change causes distress in the people being led. Keep the distress in the tolerable range for doing adaptive work. Too little stress does not motivate people, while too much can defeating as well.
  3. Keep the focus on the real issue. Do not get side-tracked by stress-reducing distractions (such as denial, scapegoating, externalizing the enemy, etc). Such distractions are "work avoidance mechanisms".
  4. Ensure the people who need to make the change take the responsibility of doing the work of change themselves.

I found Heifetz's ideas immensely helpful for leadership in church settings. Situations present themselves regularly today to which the "tried and true" responses seem no longer to work. On many different fronts congregations face issues of cultural change. But rather than resolve our issues congregations too often get tied up in "work avoiding" behaviour, which displaces people's focus in order to reduce the distress spawned by the spectre of change. Heifetz's book helps the the leader to focus on the need and provides a perspective to help people resolve it. The book's only short-coming, perhaps, is not giving even more attention to how effectively organizations can consciously or inadvertently go about defeating movements of change. If you are really interested in how to effect organizational change, add to your reading list "Overcoming Organizational Defenses: Facilitating Organizational Learning" by Chris Argyris (Prentice Hall, 1990). Heifetz and Argyris together are perfect companions as resources for leaders enabling change today.

I recommend "Leadership without Easy Answers" to church leaders without reservation, confident that you will find it as helpful as I have. The first chapter (primate studies) may make you wonder why I gush over this book, but hold on.... the great stuff follows!

Peter Coutts @ Oakridge Church, London
(519) 471-2290 (VOICE) 471-0128 (FAX)