Heifetz and Brown walk into a bar…

If Heifetz and Brown had a discussion over a few pints they would likely have much to talk about regarding leadership and complex ecological system challenges. Much of the talk would revolve around ideas and methods for managing adaptive challenges, as these skills rest at the core of each one’s expertise. As a scholar of public leadership, Heifetz would highlight the intricate nature in which a leader must carefully navigate himself and his people through a period of transition. As a leader in the environmental community, Brown would point to extensive statistical data, making a case with hard evidence for urgent change. For the most part I believe they would both agree that adaptive challenges be handled with great precision, but their opinions may diverge when discussing what constitutes the most effective strategies for achieving success.

Considering Heifetz’s Five Challenge’s in Leading Adaptive Change, I believe Brown would be receptive to and most likely adopt most of the processes Heifetz suggests: assessing what is happening from a wider perspective, thinking politically, orchestrating conflict and holding others accountable for making necessary changes themselves. However, Brown may suggest a varied approach to Heifetz’s fifth challenge of holding steady and refraining from immediate action. Heifetz (2002) states, “Leaders often need to refrain from immediate action and understand that the stew of conflicting views has to simmer, allowing conflicts to generate new experiments and new creative ideas.” Relative to his specific field and the array of complex challenges facing the global community, Brown is explicitly adamant that immediate action is our only option. The severe conflicts, as he has depicted, do not require any further simmering.

Having only read chapters 1–2 of Brown’s book, it’s difficult to suggest what advice Heifetz may offer in reply. Though, with those parameters in mind, I think Heifetz might advise Brown to reassess the tone of his message. In the very first sentence, Brown jumps out of the gate with words like decline, collapse, and demise (Brown, 2009). And it only gets more bleak from there. While I do believe, that from Brown’s position, it is important that he presents an honest report of the many crisis the world faces (he does have to get our attention), Heifetz might suggest Brown reconsider whether such a stark approach will resonate with a greater audience. Using Heifetz’s words, I can see how Brown’s message can be perceived as being realistic, of having authoritative knowledge and as being delivered with a thick skin of wisdom. However, I do not believe Brown is leading with a closed heart nor has lost his “capacity for innocence, curiosity and compassion” (Heifetz, 2002). Formulating and presenting a case for change can be just as challenging as deciding how to make the changes themselves.

Vance Gorham, MBA 2013

Brown, Lester.  (2009).  Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to save civilization.  New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Heifetz, R., & Linsky, M.  (2002).  Leading with an open heart.  Leader to Leader, (26), 28-33.

One Response to Heifetz and Brown walk into a bar…

  1. pchandler725 says:

    Brown can be bleak. But perhaps the greatest mistake leaders make is not speaking truth to an issue? I wonder if Heifetz would agree with the frankness of Brown. My guess is since honesty is needed, timing is critical, the Heifetz might very well support Brown. You raise excellent points.

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