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Leadership on the Line - Book Review

1 February 2008
Dr. Moria Levy
book cover

"Leadership on the Line" is a book by Lynskey and Heifetz, which has garnered considerable acclaim. Early readers, including Eli Horowitz, Chairman of Teva's Board of Directors, President Emeritus of Harvard University, and Lt. Gen. Lipkin Shahak, have offered recommendations that render ours superfluous.

You might wonder about the relevance of leadership and knowledge management. Why have we included this book on the knowledge management bookshelf and presented it to you? The answer is twofold: firstly, knowledge management necessitates management and leadership. Implementing an organizational knowledge management process requires leadership, not just technical competence. Hence, it becomes imperative for all of us to read, internalize, and implement leadership principles in our activities. Secondly, there is another reason, which we will delve into below.

Numerous books have explored the subject of leadership, often focusing on charismatic figures who lead industries, nations, or the world to a better future. However, the definition of leadership and its nature must be analyzed. Heifetz and Linsky, seasoned in leadership, have delved into this phenomenon, and their conclusions, as detailed in the book, are anything but trivial. As stated in the Hebrew introduction to the book, we often confuse leadership with authority. In our language and culture, there needs to be more distinction between formal authority, informal authority, and leadership. While authority may make exercising leadership easier, not everyone who leads possesses authority, and not every authority holder is necessarily a leader.

So, what is leadership, and how does it relate to knowledge management? According to the authors, leadership is an activity, not merely a set of traits or talents. It is the activity of leading a group to effect change management. In the book's words, leadership drives progress by motivating people's adaptability to face complex problems and thrive. This definition establishes a clear connection to knowledge management, which deals with leading significant organizational change to encourage a culture of sharing, preservation, and knowledge development as an integral part of the organizational way of life.

This is not an easy task; it is enduring and sometimes requires excellent courage, leading to exhaustion and a temptation to give up. However, it is a challenge, and ultimately, it is accompanied by success.

The book delves into leadership challenges, offering insights on what to watch out for and how to cope. Each of us can play a part in becoming a bit more of a "leader" tomorrow; the ability lies in our hands, waiting to be exercised.

The book covers various topics:

  • Why change management is challenging

  • Reactions vs. the Change Leader

  • Bystander

  • Political thinking

  • Conflict management

  • Activating people

  • No Waiver

  • Self-control

  • Anchors

  • Why Lead

  • Don't lose hope

In line with our customary recommendation, we suggest reading the entire book for a comprehensive understanding rather than settling for this partial and subjective article from a manager's perspective dealing with change management. Happy reading!

Why change management is challenging

Managing change is undeniably challenging. When tasked with guiding change, it is crucial to acknowledge that people are generally not opposed to change but rather to the loss it implies. Effectively managing change requires delivering messages that may not align with what individuals want to hear but with what they need to hear. Consequently, resistance to change often emerges, and individuals may find themselves opposing the leader of change — those of us assuming the role of leadership.

This book doesn't delve into technical problems; the first-order issues organizations routinely encounter and address using their existing knowledge and methods. Instead, it addresses adaptive or second-order problems, which involve aspects necessitating the organization to learn new approaches to change rather than continuing past practices. As the name suggests, one challenge in dealing with adaptive change is that those ultimately responsible for implementing the solution are the very individuals who face the problem.

Adaptation in nature, exemplified by DNA, follows a three-stage process:

  1. Preserving existing wisdom (DNA in the cell).

  2. Eliminating old cells that no longer contribute.

  3. Renewing and developing capabilities that facilitate adaptation and prosperity in a challenging environment.

"Successful adaptation allows a system of life to take the best out of its past and into the future." Similarly, as an organization, we must adapt to the changing reality. However, what comes naturally to organisms is only sometimes straightforward for organizations. This is where the role of the leader guiding such a transformation becomes evident. The beauty, and simultaneously the challenge, lies in the fact that leadership demands both conservatism and innovation. Leaders must discern what to preserve, what to change, and how to achieve success in doing so. Change management, inherently risky, requires destabilizing the organization to break free from routine and transition from the old to the new. Even when leaders know the way, caution is necessary. Change can only be implemented at a level the organization can withstand; otherwise, neither the organization nor its leader will survive the transition.

The difficulty of managing change also stems from the requirement that leaders relinquish some values instilled by mentors such as teachers, parents, or other revered figures. In formulating new concepts, there is a fear of underestimating these influences and damaging relationships. Adaptive change demands that the organization and its leaders embrace risks without guaranteeing success. Hence, it's no surprise that managing change is a challenging endeavor.

Reactions vs. the Change Leader

Resistance to change management serves a distinct purpose: to force a retreat. There are four different shades of resistance, each with its characteristics:

  1. Marginalization of the Leader: This may manifest as a simple disregard for the subject. The change leader, consistently addressing the issue, might find themselves and their words ignored, even on unrelated matters. Marginalization can sometimes be veiled in flattery, with actions not aligning with words, often resulting in symbolic gestures lacking substance. This tactic is often employed more prominently against less senior change leaders but can also occur with senior officials. For instance, President Johnson, amidst the Vietnam War, faced marginalization when advocating for change and eventually relinquished his presidency.

  2. Distraction as a Technique: This technique is "pleasant" and easier. The organization keeps the person it wishes to neutralize occupied with numerous other tasks, diverting attention from leading organizational change. Overloading emails or cluttering meetings is an effective way for an organization to prevent a stakeholder from successfully leading change.

  3. Personal Attack: Perhaps the most blatant method of resistance, personal attacks shift the focus from the problem to the leader of change and their qualities or character. This tactic redirects organizational attention away from dealing with the change itself. It's noteworthy that organizations may not resort to attacking conduct and character when good news is presented, or generous bonuses are distributed. The timing of attacks is often chosen opportunistically.

  4. Temptation as a Strategy: This term describes a process in which opponents entice the change leader to engage in another seemingly more appealing initiative with a high chance of success. This diversion leads the leader away from the original purpose and initiative they aimed to promote. Sometimes, even supporters become tempters by pulling the leader towards an extreme position, causing the change initiative to fail due to an unsustainable pace and scalability. Like other resistance methods, temptation disrupts balance, and it is crucial to be aware of these strategies to manage them effectively when they arise. Change leaders must develop skills not only for positive leadership but also for standing up and coping correctly with the reactions that inevitably come.


The authors advocate the first mode of action for effectively conveying a successful idea, emphasizing a real-time perspective. Throughout the change management process, the change leader is encouraged to occasionally step back, metaphorically "go up to the stand," and observe the situation from a broader viewpoint. Critical self-observation, though not inherently natural or simple, proves crucial in gaining a comprehensive understanding. This vantage point enables the leader to interpret events objectively and respond more effectively to the unfolding dynamics. The skill of moving between the forefront and the sidelines involves:

  1. Distinguishing between technical problems (first order) and adaptation problems (second order).

  2. Empathizing and understanding the perspectives of others.

  3. Listening to the underlying melody behind spoken words.

  4. Examining the behavior of those in authority to glean valuable insights.

Key Highlights:

  • The group typically leans towards a technical interpretation, even when dealing with an adaptation problem.

  • Most problems encompass technical and adaptive aspects, necessitating a distinction and deciding what to address first.

  • The person in authority often reflects the emotions prevailing in the community. It is crucial to view them not merely as independent opinions but as managers responding to pressures from various groups.

  • Addressing risks involves creating nuanced interpretations and attuning oneself to the subtle undertones behind explicit statements.

Political thinking

Political thinking in this book delves into the interpersonal relationships crucial for effective change management. It encompasses six key aspects:

  1. Finding Partners: Identifying partners is not always straightforward. Change leaders may prefer to operate independently, and potential partners might be hesitant to commit until the change's success becomes evident. Partners play a vital role in providing protection, forming alliances, and strengthening initiatives. Collaborating with partners enhances ideas and political influence, but it's crucial to recognize that partnerships are limited in scope and time.

  2. Maintaining Contact with Opponents: While focusing on allies and supporters is tempting, connecting with opponents and understanding their perspectives is equally essential. Opponents are more likely to be hurt by the proposed change, and unmanaged opposition can escalate into an active opposition majority.

  3. Taking Responsibility: Acknowledging one's role in creating the challenges associated with change is essential. Even if the effort seems worthwhile in the long run, leaders must recognize their part in the current situation.

  4. Acknowledging Loss: Change often involves unavoidable losses, such as job dismissals or status changes. Separation from previous values can also be a significant loss. While genuine empathy does not eliminate the loss, it alleviates the impact.

  5. Personal Example: Leading by personal example can be more impactful than merely talking about change. Demonstrating commitment through actions strengthens the message and encourages others to follow suit.

  6. Accepting Casualties: It's crucial to recognize that change can result in injuries and losses, including casualties. Denying the possibility of casualties can undermine the entire process and send conflicting messages to employees. It's imperative to understand that change may cause harm along the way, no matter how positive.

Leading change necessitates addressing the practical aspects of change management and the individuals involved, including partners, opponents, and, introspectively, ourselves.

Conflict management

Conflict is bound to arise when dealing with adaptation problems, overtly or covertly. Our natural inclination may be to ignore, reject, or downplay conflict, but this is not always the most effective approach. The authors present four ideas on how to manage conflict properly:

  1. Create a Supportive Environment: This term encompasses various options to facilitate the resolution of challenging problems and positively redirect energy. A supportive environment can take the form of a physical space outside the organization where discussions on issues occur. It may involve an external consultant providing a broader perspective and solutions. Additionally, a supportive environment can exist within the organization in a designated room or floor where leaders and other organizational figures are present.

  2. Control the Temperature Level: Changes inherently generate tensions and warm the organizational atmosphere. Controlling the temperature level involves two stages: raising it to a sufficient level to ensure organizational alertness and readiness to face challenges, lowering it when necessary to keep tension within the organization's endurance range, and preventing a counterproductive environment. Raising the temperature involves addressing difficult questions, assigning greater responsibility to those concerned, fostering conflicts, and protecting dissenting voices. Lowering the temperature entails focusing on technical aspects, creating an orderly work plan, clarifying roles, diverting discussions from adaptive problems, and slowing down the process.

  3. Timing the Process: Even if the public appears enthusiastic, organizations require time to absorb and internalize changes. The process must be paced appropriately to allow for effective integration.

  4. Sketching the Future: Change leaders must find ways to remind and illustrate the positive vision they aspire to for employees. The ability to connect to the future facilitates a smoother transition in the present. On a personal level, embodying hope for the future rather than fear aids in navigating the journey.

Activating people

One of the most common mistakes leaders make is the desire to shoulder greater responsibility and provide all the solutions individually. This inclination stems from a wish to minimize risks, control the situation, and dictate its timing. However, this approach needs to be revised: It is challenging to sustain over time and risks turning the leader into the conflict itself rather than a mediator. Moreover, it complicates the organization's ability to engage in change management as a collaborative partner effectively. As mentioned earlier, adaptation problems necessitate solutions realized by the individuals involved. The correct approach is to externalize conflicts, present them to the people affected, and empower them to resolve the issues independently. Guidance can be provided to steer them in the desired direction if needed. It is crucial to place the problem in the proper context, not one convenient for the leader or a particular group. In between, short, simple interventions are employed to steer the ship. Four recommended techniques for intervention include:

  1. Distinctions: Making statements that reflect the group's behavior or describe the pertinent conditions momentarily brings individuals to the metaphorical stand, allowing them to step back and gain perspective.

  2. Asking Questions: Questions serve the same purpose as distinctions, providing a way to step back without being as forceful. While less potent than distinctions, questions often reflect the leader's position while keeping them out of the direct line of conflict.

  3. Providing Interpretation: Interpretation is riskier but has advantages as an alternative to distinctions. While not always accurate and potentially provocative, it can be suitable for audiences less accustomed to self-reflection or when a hidden issue is challenging to externalize.

  4. Taking Action: Direct intervention through action is the most immediate approach, but it has drawbacks. It must be executed judiciously, conveying clear messages. Any ambiguity can be counterproductive, and exaggeration of actions may bring the conflict and its resolution back into the leader's domain.

No Waiver

Leading change often resembles a slow, calculated dance, with no direct line from the problem to the solution but endless twists and turns. In this dance, navigating the winding paths requires strength and steadfastness. It's essential not to give up, but the manner of persistence matters: too much hesitation or overly hasty activity can instantly crush initiatives. Here are some tools to help stand resolutely and persist in the right way:

  1. Anger Absorption: Change inevitably involves losses and frustrations. People seeking an outlet for their frustration may target change leaders. Absorbing this anger is a natural part of the process. While it's challenging to absorb criticism from supporters, it's crucial to be prepared for occasional expressions of frustration from them as well. Anticipating and being immune to the absorption of anger from supporters and opponents is vital.

  2. Ripening Time for the Issue: The impulse to move quickly can be a substantial obstacle. Patience is vital as issues take time to develop at their own pace. Pushing issues onto the agenda before the public is ready can harm their proper handling. Organizations often face internal resistance, and giving them the necessary time and space is crucial. When right, act decisively and place the issue on the agenda. Sometimes, a crisis may arise, and handling it with preparation can provide a learning opportunity. Patience and sensitivity are paramount.

  3. Focusing Attention on the Issue (Not on Us): Ensuring focus on the issue rather than the leader is challenging. Distractions and evasions, such as denial, can sidestep the real issue. Leaders must stand firm against these diversions and focus on the core problem. In situations where the change leader needs more authority, there is an added risk. Mitigate this risk by finding ways to reduce it or posing direct questions to achieve the same goal. While authority and leadership are not synonymous, authority can certainly facilitate practical leadership activities.


The concluding chapters, spearheaded by the authors, delve into the personal aspects of leadership and the strategies that fortify the leader and their inner self to tackle the challenges of change management. The easiest way to court failure is through self-sabotage, leaving no one else to blame. How can we set ourselves up for failure? Several factors contribute to this: Firstly, there are moments when we convince ourselves that we are truly "different." Fueled by adrenaline, we may feel invincible, immune to the human weaknesses that affect everyone else. However, this mindset leads straight to failure. Working long hours daily might seem like a viable solution in the short term, but it eventually leads to exhaustion, lack of focus, and restlessness. Excessive focus on others' needs at the expense of attending to our own can create vulnerability.

Our thirst for power, which many of us harbor, creates a clear path to failure by blurring the line between means and ends. It also makes it challenging to admit mistakes, diverting us from the right track. A sense of grandiosity and self-importance is easily attainable. While positive reinforcement and appreciation are essential, overestimating ourselves can hinder self-criticism and lead to complacency. A sense of grandiosity disconnects us from reality and diminishes our capacity for doubt, accelerating deterioration. Having someone on the sidelines who can temper our enthusiasm is crucial.

Intimacy and happiness are fundamental needs for everyone. The authors highlight grim statistics indicating that many leaders, particularly men, seek these satisfactions outside their marriages when entangled in their sense of power and self-importance. The challenge lies on both sides, as people easily find excitement around someone "special" or essential, tempting them to connect with a leader. The advice is to maintain a high level of awareness, practice vigilance, and seek the assistance of an impartial observer to navigate these challenges.


Understanding how to delineate the professional role from the personal "self." Achieving this separation is challenging because the world in general and colleagues, subordinates, and bosses tend to perceive the professional "self" as the essence of the personal "self." The significance of separation becomes evident not only in the face of criticism but also when receiving praise. There's a risk of losing one's authentic self and merely playing the expected role, neutralizing the safeguards necessary for the job. The authors illustrate this with the example of Yitzhak Rabin, whose reluctance to wear a bulletproof vest on a personal level, despite professional responsibilities, resulted in a shared loss.

The repercussions of non-separation are profound, even in less extreme cases when people conclude their duties. A complete alignment between the role and the person can leave an individual feeling adrift, unable to transition to their identity or perhaps a new professional identity. The authors don't advocate for complete detachment between the personal and professional selves. While compatibility is essential, there shouldn't be complete identity.

To navigate the pressures leaders face and avoid heroic sacrifices, the authors recommend having confidants. Confidants, distinct from allies, are individuals unaffiliated with the organization and free from conflicting loyalties. They provide unconditional support, often being close friends, family members, or colleagues from the past. The role of confidants is dual: they offer strength and encouragement when we're on the verge of giving up, and they also serve as mirrors, reflecting our mistakes and guiding us back on track.

Additionally, the authors propose the concept of a refuge. This refuge could be a bath, gym, or any place that provides genuine physical and mental rest. The challenge lies in making this a consistent practice, not just an occasional escape – a daily getaway is emphasized.

Why Lead

After numerous chapters meticulously describing the intricacies and challenges of leadership, it's natural to question whether the exertion is worthwhile. Why lead? Why take risks? The resounding answer lies in our collective desire to infuse our lives with meaning while we have the opportunity. As humans, an inherent inclination exists to establish connections with others. "Leadership can provide a profound sense of meaning beyond the mundane—beyond friendships, material gains, or immediate success—because, as a practical art, leadership enables us to connect meaningfully with others."

Attempting to quantify the essence of what renders our lives and organizations valuable is futile through any measurement favored by the managers we often admire. Such measurements would inevitably divert our focus from the essence of the matter. "The form, as I mentioned, is inconsequential. Any form of service to others essentially embodies an expression of love. Given the constant opportunities for service, there's no reason not to cultivate a rich and profound experience of meaning in life." Leadership is an embodiment of the values we hold dear.

Don't lose hope

As the conclusion nears, the members emphasize another personal aspect that could hinder progress: the protective armor we don around ourselves. While armor serves the purpose of shielding us, as extensively elaborated earlier, there exists a peril in its application. It can erode our internal well-being. The armor we don might lead to a loss of innocence and hope. Caution is imperative to prevent innocence from morphing into cynicism veiled as realism, to avoid transforming curiosity into arrogance masquerading as authoritative knowledge, and to ensure that compassion doesn't evolve into callousness camouflaged as the thick skin of life experience.

According to experts, it is paramount to preserve the positive qualities that safeguard the "holy heart." In doing so, we will exhibit the wisdom to practice effective leadership and become true leaders.

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