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Reflecting on Heifetz and Hunt on leadership


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Reflecting on Heifetz (2009): The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, and Hunt (1994) Leadership:A new synthesis

Heifetz et. al. Ch 6 notes (carry over from last week)

Heifetz continues to discuss authority’s role in achieving adaptive leadership but draws the distinction between authority and leadership. This separation causes him conceptual problems. He describes authority figures involved in controlling and allocating resources, negotiating, and connecting goals with values. If these actions, decisions and choices are not central to any common sense definition of leadership, then I don’t know what does, but these fall outside of Heifetz is definition of adaptive leadership. It’s convenient for his message but does not connect to the world as I know.  This matters because Heifetz positions himself as a giver of practical advice and common sense. So it seems to me that commonsense definitions of normal words should be applied whenever possible.

They have an important discussion of being successful in politics in order to be successful adaptive leaders. They suggest thinking of politics as a web of stakeholders. An alternative metaphor for politics is that of warring tribes. The difference in these two mental models is significant when you consider how to approach another member of the community to engage in pursuit of common goals.

Networks are designed to operate together; warring tribes must be enticed and protected against at the same time. Their subsequent discussions of how to successfully engage in politics actually uses the warring tribes model more so than their stated model of networks. This is a problem for a book that does not emphasize the theoretical constructs that support their techniques and tips.

This chapter is big on specifics and checklists but is not as insightful in its discussion of intangibles in social settings, which is surprising, given their focus on exactly those settings as being suitable for adaptive leadership.

On page 91 they emphasize the importance of making interpretations about the behavior of others, but without acknowledging the complexity and inherent uncertainty of just such an activity. I think they should eat their own cooking by discussing how important the communication between members of the network or  tribes is in order to resolve matters of interpretation. The Harvard Negotiation Project provides a nice framework that transcends both of these discussed mental models when it comes to effective mutual cooperation between different groups.

The concept of “maximum sustainable rate of change” of a given system  came to mind as they described the practical and realistic limits of change when you involve multiple groups of stakeholders. I thought that part was well done. The idea of a “hange space” came to mind as a visualization of how much room you have to navigate as you take on the adaptive challenge and that the boundaries are defined by the edge of fear of loss and sense of risk provided by all the participants.

Heifetz chapter 7 notes:

it struck me that many of the descriptions of adaptive leadership would work equally well for the concept of learning organizations . There is a strong connection between what Heifetz suggests about building an adaptive culture and all the work that has been done over the years on learning organizations. It continues to be a shortcoming of this book that other theoretical and practical contributions are not acknowledged. If their work is uninformed by the literature on learning organizations,  they are not marginal ; if they deliberately elected to exclude, then no more needs to be said about their work.

I would like to see more discussion in this book about the balance between reward and risk when it comes to encouraging people to try new behaviors or adopt a different frame. They described the idea of loss avoidance and risk properly , but the connection to the benefits that could occur if we are successful has not been made. This kind of discussion would be especially important when in chapters 8-12,  they describe enlisting the support of authority figures to help create conditions for adaptive learning.

The discussion of the four meetings that occur when every meeting is held can be found in the action research literature but was a good synthesis of those ideas, once again without attribution. Unfortunately I believe their discussion of meetings and how to leverage them fall into the category of tactical techniques and do not describe a strategic approach of using all modes of communication to present the business case for this being an adaptive opportunity and not just another technical exercise. I think they spend too much time on the individual as hero and not on creating conditions inside an organizational culture. I feel like they are giving us snacks and not a meal.

On page 103 I think they should realize that there is a difference between having shared responsibility for a process and the techniques required to truly conduct cross team problem solving. These are two separate but related ideas.y

It is ironic that in chapter 7 the describe the value of sticking to your guns as suboptimal, but in later chapters they will describe the importance of maintaining your position in the face of opposition. Like all good platitudes it has its equal and opposite platitude which sometimes applies. They do not make the distinction of how to choose which platitude is appropriate.

I do like their discussion of building the bench and creating adaptive leadership capacity at all times and not waiting for an adaptive crisis to begin these deliberations. This however has everything to do with what they call the authority figures establishing direction and purpose. I think because they want to create a distinction between adaptive leaders and authority figures, they can’t go in that direction and simply call authority figures leaders. I think they are trapped in their own semantics.

The omission of a discussion of the literature on high reliability organizations is a great shortcoming of this chapter when they’re talking about building an adaptive organization. There are decades of theoretical and practical contributions made by scholars like Carl Weick which are overlooked.

Chapter 8 making interpretations

Heifetz describes effective visions as possessing a high degree of accuracy. I offer an additional insight which is that sometimes the feelings and fuzzy concepts are more important, particularly when we’re making important decisions with our emotional brain’s and the feeling becomes more important than the details;  people want to feel safe and excited and not necessarily need needing to know all of the details which come from accuracy. Think about the importance of impressionistic painting in terms of creating a mood and atmosphere which is accomplished precisely without accurate details.

I agree with their position that learning is pain on page 115. I like their discussion about reframing tension away from the personal frame of reference and moving it to the systemic frame of reference. By showing that complex systems inevitably must have friction points that can be managed and adjusted we can remove some of the interpersonal challenges to adaptive change.

The table on page 117 that shows the transition between technical and adaptive challenges is a nice treatment of what other scholars have called the locus of control. This can be a helpful way to conduct reframing.

Dr. Michael Roberto has done some good work on classifying default organizational processes as cultural artifacts. He describes the “cultures of yes”, the “cultures of no”, and the “cultures of maybe” as being default responses to new ideas and stressors. So it is possible to have a default response that is process oriented as well as what Heifetz described as an interpretive scheme. It’s not just the content, it’s our default way of processing that can present problems for adaptation.

The idea on page 122 of auditioning your ideas has everything to do with increasing informal authority which is normally considered to be leadership and influence but which in Heifetz’ definitions falls outside of the domain of leadership. This continues to be a problem with their language.

Chapter 9: designing effective interventions

the Heifetz model only seems to account for linear projects that can move from phase to phase through time. Although they acknowledge the need to plan for the course corrections I don’t see evidence of multiple loop learning and processing.

There is a lot of literature on the challenges of design versus planning, which come down to the idea that when you know what to do and what success clearly looks like, then you can plan. When you have uncertainty and must explore and experiment, or adapt in Heifetz’s language, what you do is design which works from potential solutions back towards problem definition and identification. In this sense, design is the exact opposite of planning. This does not fit into the linear processing model that Heifetz offers and is the example of another shortcoming of ignoring the theoretical models that apply in this area.

Chapter 10: acting politically

this chapter is not convincing, because they’re talking about increasing their informal and formal authorities through political techniques. While this may be tactically effective in the short term, playing normal political games doesn’t seem to be a strategy that will change the existing power structures that connect multiple groups and have created the status quo. Playing the same old games shouldn’t be able to lead you to new results.

Heifetz continues to use the language of opposition battle and warfare such as can be found on page 128 through 130. If language is how we frame problems, then using the language of opposition and warfare is unlikely to produce the surprising alliances that their techniques call for.

Heifetz  suggests that adaptive leaders should project uncertainty right after he tells us how uncertain adaptive change can be. In this case, wouldn’t it be proper to interpret a projection of certainty as a lie or being unaware of the situation? I don’t see how he can have it both ways.

I strongly disagree with his advice to manage authority, which I consider to be a euphemism for saying that your authority figures are too stupid to understand the reward to risk estimate of the situation that you have made. If your reasoning and insights are sound, then we can expect senior leaders who have been tempered by experience and expertise to appreciate the nuance of your position. They didn’t get to be senior leaders by being stupid. Treating them as manageable objects is not a sound way to enlist their support. I believe it will make you be seen as a political gamester and not one who is genuinely concerned with building new capability and educating everyone around you. I think their advice is dangerous.

Chapter 11 orchestrating conflict

I like their idea of the musical metaphor of creative dissonance to encourage more rapid learning. Studies have shown that by slightly increasing our normal stress level we actually improve learning effectiveness. Too much stress leads to learning breakdowns, but not enough stress prevents rapid learning. There is a sweet spot which is elegantly described as creative dissonance.

I thought it was funny that step for of the seven steps to orchestrating conflict is entitled “orchestrating conflict”.

This chapter once again emphasizes the importance of getting by in upfront from authority figures, but once again this falls into the normal behaviors associated with authority and influence which they explicitly exclude from their definition of adaptive leadership.

On page 154 they use the language of “bad guys” to describe the opposition. This interpretation once again I believe is a tactical blunder because it locks you into a we-they situation and prevents establishing common ground. The whole book has a subtext of manipulation and lack of transparency in engaging other people and other groups which I find distasteful. I believe transparency and education and sharing the nuances of your insights to be more effective and honest in dealing with adaptive change.

On page 154-156 Heifetz extols the positive qualities of off-site meetings, as if he thinks that off-site conferences really accomplish anything in the lifecycle of a typical organization. In my experience in reading, it is far more common for line workers managers and leaders to treat offsites as an annual boondoggle that have nothing to do with the day-to-day operations of their organization. Most of the time in my experience, people can’t wait to get back to the office to resume their work and catch up on what they missed while they were at the off-site. This is a common complaint that can be found in the strategic planning literature, which is not referenced in this book.

Chapter 12: building an adaptive culture

I agree with the importance of developing leadership capacity inside the organization as much as possible, and all the time, and as a stated goal in value of the organization. I believe you cannot afford to wait for the crisis to start developing your leaders. It needs to be part of your ongoing daily focus.

I don’t think they say enough however about balancing risk and rewards when it comes to the idea of honoring risk-taking and experimentation. Not every risk is a good risk. There is a distinction between a business man’s risk and gambling. There is such a thing as a manageable risk whose reward does not justify it.

I find this concept to be of extreme interest to some of the most adaptive businesses that I know: international money managers and hedge funds, whose business survival requires them to be adaptive and whose central focus is precisely on understanding the relationship between risk and reward and effective decision-making. I find this lack of insight troubling in a book dedicated to building adaptive capabilities.

Hunt, chapter 3

the extended multilevel leadership model is complex enough for me to enjoy it. I like the distinctions he makes in the time frames and organizational hierarchy and the relationship between cultures and values and capabilities and the idea of critical tasks that are central to organizational survival. I’m looking forward to seeing how these connections relate.

On page 3100 says that organizational culture is derived from societal culture. I would ask him to go deeper there because we know that there are more than one culture in an organization and certainly within a society and so it is not a matter of mathematical duration, but one that looks more like evolution.

I would question his assertion on page 34 which says that leadership decisions become more complex and higher levels. I believe that the purpose of organizational hierarchies or to simplify subordinate situations in order to provide manageable variables and manageable choices for higher levels of the organization.

As an example, Gen. Eisenhower’s leadership decision was difficult, but came down to answering a single question on D-Day: do we invade or not. There was implied complexity at the lower levels but which were beyond his direct level of management or leadership to consider. There is a limit to human cognitive processing capability and necessarily systems must reduce the complexity of the world to manageable levels for humans to make decisions. I hope to see a discussion of this nuance later in the book.

Chapter 4

the discussion of the incommensurability and critical pluralism on pages 53 through 55, remind me of the theoretical discussions associated with mixed methods research. The parallels are striking. I attribute the lack of that discussion in this book to the fact that this was written in the early 90s, some years before the emergence of the mixed methods theoretical debate. We know that even in 2009 and 2010 from Creswell, that this remains an open issue: how to blend, if possible, research methods and insights from two distinct paradigms

I like the distinction between leaders and managers in this model, which I think is what Heifetz is dancing around when he distinguishes between technical and adaptive challenges. Simply accepting this well known division of labor would eliminate much of Heifetz is unique approach to leadership.

I would ask Hunt the following question about layered cultures which he discusses on page 59. He says that deeply held cultural values perhaps can only be approached through very subjective measures because they deal with deep-seated beliefs. I’m not sure why this has to be so, because it seems to me that if these beliefs are fundamental and persistent than evidence of their existence should be easy to find and objectively measured. It seems to me that centrally held organizational values should be identifiable from multiple perspectives in which case a subjective approach is not the only way to get to them.

Overall I enjoyed chapter 3 and 4 in Hunt, although like me, he would benefit from the work of an editor.

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  1. January 29, 2010 at 12:57 pm

    Thanks for the mention of my work!

  2. February 5, 2011 at 11:29 am

    We are inclined to attribute our problems to our politicians and executives, as if they were the cause of them. We are scapegoating people in authority for their inability to quickly fix our problem without bothering us or involving us in the solution of our problems. Instead of looking for saviors, we should be calling for leadership that will challenge us to face problems for which there are no simple, painless solutions — problems that require us to learn new ways. We have many such problems: uncompetitive industry, terrorism, drug abuse, poverty, poor public education, environmental hazards, and obstacles to constructive foreign and domestic relations.

    People in authority cannot quickly resolve such problems as terrorism. They can rather give us a feeling of satisfaction by skillfully applying ready technical means: bombing known terrorists’ camps in Afghanistan or applying “sleeping gas” and elite soldiers onto the guerillas in the “Nord Ost” theater in Moscow. But this is only cutting the symptoms, this is not enough to solve the problem with the deep roots. The whole world should be mobilized to work on these issues, and when every child on the world can be born into an atmosphere of happiness and freedom, in a society that encourages intellectual growth and humility rather than fanatism and suicide-bombing as a goal of life — then and only then we can consider terrorism to be eliminated.

    Mr. Heifets provides tangible guidance for a leader to solve complex issues without the risk of being scapegoated or assassinated. This book is a good manual without easy answers.

    • February 19, 2011 at 7:30 pm

      i agree with you in just about everything you say; except I will also say that while we are striving to make a the world a place where every child can be born into an atmosphere of happiness and freedom, that terrorists should be killed, in the same way that you dont try to reason with a mad dog. these 2 things are not mutually exclusive

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