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Published: October 10, 2002


Best Business Books 2002: Leadership

In the book’s final — and quite profound — chapter, the authors raise a more subtle question: “Why are some people able to extract wisdom from experience, while others become its victims?” It seems all the Geek and Geezer leaders they interviewed had one thing in common: Each was able to tell a story about a defining experience in his or her life. The authors describe these “transformational” events that were “a test and a decision point, where existing values were examined and strengthened or replaced, where alternative identities were considered and sometimes chosen, where judgment and other abilities were honed.” Moreover, at this juncture all of the individuals displayed a marked “openness to experience.” In essence, “they were eager to learn” and, in parallel, were eager teachers.

Bennis and Thomas explore the implications of their findings for corporate processes of selection, training, mentoring, job rotation, and the like, and conclude that, for all the talk about — and dollars spent on — such activity, little of it is truly useful when it comes to leadership development. Hence, they reluctantly advise would-be leaders to learn how to develop themselves. If Geeks are even remotely as underdeveloped as they are portrayed to be in the book, they can look forward to a lifetime of serious self-help.

Up and Down the Line
Geeks and Geezers is about learning how to change yourself in order to become a more effective leader. In contrast, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading (Harvard Business School Press, 2002), by Harvard professors Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky, is about learning how to help others change themselves (in order to change their organizations). The authors warn readers that attempting such leadership is “dangerous” because we “put ourselves on the line” when we disturb the easy assumptions of others, raise important questions they would rather not face, and surface unresolved conflicts they try to keep buried. Elaborating on the theory Heifetz introduced in his Leadership Without Easy Answers (Harvard University Press, 1994), the authors argue that effective leaders don’t solve problems for others; instead, they create conditions under which people learn to solve problems for themselves. The rub is that organizations “serve to maintain the familiar, restore order, and protect people from the pain of the adaptive work” involved in such change efforts. So, when someone tries to lead, others resist with the force of the entire organization. In that sorry process, the would-be leader of change is systematically “marginalized, diverted, attacked, or seduced.”

What is powerful about this book is its ready acknowledgment that not all leadership comes from the top. Indeed, most of the authors’ examples concern people down the line who go beyond the bounds of their authority to lead change. Although business readers may find some difficulty connecting these examples (often drawn from the worlds of medicine and government) to their own leadership challenges, the lessons presented are useful nonetheless. Of particular value is the exposition of some 10 strategies for overcoming resistance to change. In these, the authors show that leaders are more likely to enlist followers when they “keep in check their own hungers” for power, control, affirmation, and importance — and, above all, when they avoid personalizing a change effort. The trick is for leaders to remember that the purpose of leading change is to help their followers create a better end for everyone in the organization — and not to make themselves rich, famous, or powerful (as too many leaders assume). Here the Bennis and Heifetz models overlap on a key dimension: the creation of meaning. In both models, leaders are said to infuse an enterprise with a higher purpose (for example, realizing the potential of all its members).

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