Notes from the CRANE library: “Leadership on the Line” by Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky

Notes from the CRANE library” will be a regularly occurring feature 
of In the Fold, as various CRANE team members share their thoughts, 
reflections, and insights on what we’ve been reading 
and why it is (or isn’t) relevant. 

by Pam Mason-Norsworthy  
CRANE strategic partnerships manager

Principled leadership seems a rare commodity these days. Political candidates shift viewpoints to better align with the latest polls. There’s the boss (you may have met one) who reverses course based on the last person to buttonhole him behind a closed door – only to shift again if prevailed upon by someone else. Companies hire consultants (imagine!) to provide direction, thinking it better for outside experts to direct change and absorb the aftermath lest it be poorly received.

Have we reached the point where it’s simply safer to NOT stand for anything – at least, nothing too specific?

Lship_lineIn Leadership on the Line (Harvard Business Press, 2002), Harvard Business School faculty members Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky say “Not so fast,” proclaiming that “to lead is to live dangerously.” To reform and re-energize a failing school, company, or other system, a courageous, steady leader equipped to engineer adaptive change – not simply a technical fix – isn’t just preferred, but required.

For our purposes, let’s imagine Amazing Academy has an enrollment challenge. Insiders mumble that the stern and strident admissions officer doesn’t help matters. A technical approach to solving this problem might involve hiring a smiling face to greet families more warmly, installing more user-friendly software for applicant families to use, or improving the coziness of the waiting room décor.

The tougher approach, which Heifetz and Linsky’s model strongly endorses, would be to ask questions that extend far beyond the admissions office–questions that get to what’s really going on. While it’s certainly germane to ask What is the experience applicant families have with us?, more telling and useful answers might result from a broader consideration of the issue:

What does our community say about who we are? What might they misunderstand? Are we delivering on our mission? Do families understand our pedagogy? Our school culture?

Suddenly, we have framed the enrollment challenge in a much more profound, if unsettling, way. Solving our problem now will require a meeting of the minds from across the school to honestly assess what’s happening not just in admissions, but in the classroom and elsewhere. Faculty and staff members and administrators alike will need to examine their contributions to the current challenge. It may mean comfortable, familiar roles must be reinvented, adapted, restructured. And none of that comes easily.

Walking individuals successfully into this new reality will require a skilled leader equipped to design a thoughtful process. A leader who understands the issue cannot be solved by edicts and mandates emanating from the Headmaster office. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger put it this way: “The task of the leader is to get their people from where they are to where they have not been.”  Therein lies the peril—and the solution.


Problems requiring adaptive change, say the authors, are inherently more complex, more riddled with minefields. They cross departmental boundaries and prompt resistance in a way that problems that can be solved by a technical fix do not. But they can also be long-reaching and transformative—a shift of course rather than a stop-gap. The wise and respected leader knows that ignoring the issue and leaving it for the next guy is simply not an option.

Heifetz and Linsky provide an engaging how-to manual to help each of us muster the courage to do the right thing for the institutions we serve and love. It’s a useful tool for anything from strategic planning to leadership retreats to staff professional development. And don’t let the book’s slightly older publication date scare you off—the principles of adaptive change remain strikingly relevant today.