Thursday, March 29, 2012

Leadership without easy answers

Ronald A. Heifetz is a leading academic on the subject of leadership. I've been working through his first book  "Leadership without easy answers" looking for--what else--answers!

Here are the crib notes for those that don't want to get into the book itself.

Disclosure: the book was published in 1994; I got if for $1 at a yard sale in 2012. That's more about my shopping for a bargain than it is "why now?" for a book that's 18 years old. Even at 18, it's great stuff.

The big ideas

Heifetz gets into your head a bit with his big  ideas:
  1. Leadership is an activity, less so a thing, with a take action orientation: Set direction, establish cultural values, resolve conflicts, bestow protection and security, and restore/maintain order.
  2. Values and effective activity are separable: This is the "Hitler was a great leader" school.
  3. Leadership can be very technocratic, bordering on--gasp!--management; in effect, leading with the solution (I've got the answer right here; follow me! model).
  4. Leadership is often most innovative when driving adaptive participation, leading with the problem rather than the solution ("it takes a village" model); and
  5. Authority is neither necessary nor sufficient (you know you're a leader when .....), but if you got it (authority of position) you still may not be a leader
 Here's your sign

Of course, sometimes the leader is not the "appointed one" in the corner office. (Indeed, with the open plan, there may not be an office at all to badge the leader)

 Heifetz posits four leadership profiles. The first two (really, the first three) most of us are familar with; but the fourth is less familiar but it actually holds interesting possibilities for everyday project management:

1. Trait—The “great-man/woman” or “history maker” approach. These people are "on a mission". They know who they are; they feel called to a mission. Not content with the small bore of every day issues, they synthesize the big and the bold. And, they are quite capable of leading without authority if need be.

We all have our favorite examples. In business: Donald Trump? or better yet Steve Jobs; in politics: Theodore Roosevelt (the Great White Fleet; the Grand Canyon). More recently: Margaret Thatcher (restore the "Great" in Great Britain)

2. Situational—Times and social forces “call forth” leaders. Such situation leaders usually depend on formal authority. They are put in charge and expected to restore order and set direction. The military always has these figures in the wings, to wit: General Dwight Eisenhower. Without WW II, he likely would have retired as an obscure but competent colonel rather than have led millions in Europe with 5 stars.*

3. Contingency—An attempt to synthesize the first two types: a person, born to leadership, steps forward in times of great stress or demand. Military, political, and religious figures are often contingent leaders.

But, here's the one that shows up day to day in project management:

4. Transactional—“Authority consists of reciprocal relationships.” The appointed leader, but draws authority from the confidence of, and the authority granted by those led; competent to set direction, instill order, resolve conflict. Steady in times of stress, earning the respect of followers. Great CEOs are often transactional leaders: Jeff Imelt, CEO of General Electric. Closer to home: portofolio leaders and project managers.

Situational leadership
Heifetz, at least in this book, keeps his arguments and examples more strategic. It's easy to port his examples into "change the world" projects, strategic portfolios, and the like. He doesn't say too much about might be thought of as "retail leadership". Leadership at the small unit level where person to person relationships count for a lot.

This is the stuff of  what Hersey and Blanchard called "situational leadership". In the Hersey-Blanchard model, leaders have four primary traits on a scale from totally delegating to totally directing. Any one leader has all these traits, but they are selectively applied according the situation set up by followers. Followers, in turn, have four traits from very capable to all but incapable. A matrix between leader and follower forecasts the intersection of leader-follower traits.

Leading without authority

Whether you're a situational disciple or more in Heifetz's adaptive/technocratic transactional corner, either is influenced by whether the leader has postional authority. With positional authority, you can occupy the commanding heights and direct resources towards your mission and passion.

But I'm sort of captured by the idea of leading without authority. This comes up in the agile business quite often. Leading without authority does not mean committee leadership; it doesn't mean the laws of dominance have been repealed. Indeed, someone without portfolio may well dominate the discussion, may be a "great man (or woman)", and may go for bold, even without the corner office.

And, in the case of agile, situational leadership needs may draw forward a natural leader. In Heifetz's view, leadership is an activity, meaning leadership is actionable. Leadership is willingness to take responsbility.  And, if position, authority, and responsibility are not in technical alignment, a true leader presses forward anyway.

Consider the possibilities of "no authority" as summarized in the crib notes:
Without the constraints of authority, one has, ...., more latitude for creative deviance “from the norms of authoritative decision making.” Unfettered from a broader array of concerns and “holding environment” responsibilities, the informal leader can focus on a single issue or selected, limited issues.

The leader without the formal position of authority is also usually on the frontline where he/she can get the “detailed experiences” of stakeholders. And perhaps most importantly, that informal leader has “the latitude to use himself as the embodiment of the issue,” as did Martin
Luther King, Jr.
Summary: leadership is not waiting for the in-box to fill up, whether email, txt, or paper. Leadership is activity.

Photo (Bill Engvall)
*(A wartime rank, equivalent to the European field marshall, held only by Eisenhower, Hap Arnold, MacArthur, and George Marshall in the US Army, and subsequently Omar Bradley; and a similar number of admirals in the wartime US Navy)