Summary of Leadership on the Line

Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading

Harvard Business Review Press, more...

Leadership on the Line book summary
Great leaders ask hard questions, demand change, stay in touch with their constituents and value relationships above all.


9 Overall

9 Applicability

10 Innovation

7 Style


The top is precarious. True leaders cannot settle for maintaining the present state; the pressure is on to guide their followers through significant, sometimes uncomfortable changes. Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky, faculty members at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, provide an engaging guide to a world fraught with risk. When leaders demand change, many people who have a stake in the status quo feel threatened, including the very people leaders entrust to carry out change. Heifetz and Linsky define the four faces of danger leaders must stare down when they steer a transition. The first is “marginalization” – leaders find their position of authority suddenly stripped of its full power. This can be overt or subtle, and may happen, for example, when a predecessor hesitates to release the reins after formally stepping down. The second is “diversion” – opponents distract leaders with ancillary issues or unrelated tasks. By bombarding leaders, opponents may distract them from a contested agenda. “Attacks,” often personal, are the third face of danger, demonstrated by the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Rather than address your agenda’s merits, foes focus on your character and personality. The last danger, “seduction,” comes from leaders themselves – most often from their need for approval. Advocating for their strongest supporters may cost leaders credibility and control of their agenda. Avoid these roadblocks, the authors suggest, by thinking politically. Leaders falter when they lose touch with or can’t assess their follower’s moods or the fluctuations in their power. Successful leaders recognize when change raises tensions; they know when to pull back and keep the situation from boiling over. They delegate well, forge alliances and strategically relinquish control at the right time. The authors’ rules of thumb can be too general, but their tales of real-world leaders offer a useful resource for the inevitable trials you’ll undergo in the corner office. getAbstract recommends their practical advice to anyone facing a difficult leadership situation.

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