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An Antidote to Callousness

Second, stakeholders will be looking to you to project certainty and thereby diminish their worry that the costs they will pay might not be worthwhile. Empathizing with your opponents might lead you to ask yourself, “Am I really doing the right thing?” If you start doubting your cause, you may end up revising your plan or even abandoning it, or undermining the confidence of some allies.

So why force yourself to spend time with your resisters? First, you will never seem as evil in person as you can be in people’s imagination. Simply spending time in their presence can help take the edge off their hostility and thus soften their determination to block your efforts. For just this reason, when Marty [Linksy] was advising clients on media relations, he always encouraged people to accept invitations to go on hostile talk-radio shows or speak before opposition audiences.

There is another reason to make yourself spend time with resisters: by meeting with them, you can acknowledge the sacrifices you are asking them to make and how difficult and painful those sacrifices may be. For some people, that is all they need to hear in order to begin feeling less hostile toward you and your idea. Some may actually become supporters, while others may at least tone down their opposition.

Finally, spending time with the opposition enables you to assess firsthand how much pressure they feel from your initiative. You can then calibrate your tactics accordingly. For example, suppose you meet with union officials to discuss a cost-saving initiative that would require greater employee contributions to their generous health benefit plan. Watching body language and nonverbal cues in informal conversations might well give you information that you could not get in a more formal setting to indicate the importance to the membership of maintaining the current benefit as compared to other potential cost-cutting measures.

— Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Press. Excerpt from The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World. Copyright 2009 Cambridge Leadership Associates. All rights reserved.

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This Reviewer

  1. Barbara Kellerman is the James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. She has also served as the founding executive director and research director of the Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership. A prolific speaker and writer, her books include Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters (Harvard Business School Press, 2004) and, most recently, Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders (Harvard Business Press, 2008).

This Excerpt

  1. The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Techniques for Changing Your Organization and the World, by Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky (Harvard Business Press, 2009)
  2. Ronald Heifetz is the King Hussein bin Talal Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School and founder of its the Center for Public Leadership. He is the author of Leadership without Easy Answers (Harvard University Press, 1994) and cofounder of Cambridge Leadership Associates.
  3. Alexander Grashow is a managing director of Cambridge Leadership Associates and formerly cofounder and director of the Bridging Leadership Program at the Synergos Institute. He has served on the executive education faculties at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, Duke Corporate Education, and Harvard’s Kennedy School.
  4. Marty Linsky is an adjunct lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School and was chief secretary/counselor to Massachusetts Governor William Weld. He is cofounder of Cambridge Leadership Associates and coauthor with Ronald Heifetz of Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading (Harvard Business School Press, 2002).
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