Leadership on the Line Book Summary



Several years ago, one of my mentors recommended a book to me.  It was Leadership on the Line, by Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky.

It’s one of the most significant leadership books I’ve ever read …

My mentor recommended the book because he knew I was having a hard time seeing “who has power in the system,” and why don’t people “just do the right thing.”  Most importantly, he wanted me to see the difference between adaptive challenges and technical problems.

Leadership on the Line is for serious leaders and significant change.  It’s a rare book with depth on the true challenges of great change, including dealing with “sacred cows.”

The Single Most Common Source of Leadership Failure

Most importantly, Leadership on the Line tackles the single most common source of leadership failure:

Treating adaptive challenges like technical problems.

With technical challenges, you can apply current know-how, and the authorities do the work.  In contrast, with adaptive challenges, you have to learn new ways, and the people with the problem do the work.  That’s how you create buy-in, while dealing with the tough stuff — the issues around identity, and culture, and people’s sense of competence, and their loss.

Adaptive Challenges are Where True Leadership Happens

Adaptive challenges put people’s habits, beliefs, and values to the test.  Adaptive challenges ask people to take a loss, experience uncertainty, and even express disloyalty to people and cultures.  Adaptive challenges force people to question and potentially redefine aspects of their identity, and challenge their sense of competence.   To address adaptive challenges, it take extraordinary presence, time, artful communication, and trust.

Adaptive challenges are where the heavy lifting of true leadership happens.  Adaptive challenges are about finding a way forward when people don’t want to, or are scared, or really don’t Know how.

Leadership on the Line Goes Well Beyond the Fluff Stuff

Leadership on the Line is THE book that grows your leadership chops well beyond the fluff stuff.  It’s hard-core leadership in action – driving the big, hairy changes and challenges.   And, it’s probably THE best book on how to actually balance connection and conviction, while doing so.

It’s also a very different book.  It’s prose is powerful.  You’ll feel it in your bones.  Strangely, very few people I mention this book to have ever heard of it.  It’s like the unsung heroes of leadership books.

Leadership on the Line is truly a book for leaders who want to take their game to the next level.

Chapters at a Glance

Here are the chapters at a glance:

  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 — The Heart of Danger
  • Chapter 2 — The Faces of Danger
  • Chapter 3 — Get on the Balcony
  • Chapter 4 — Think Politically
  • Chapter 5 — Orchestrate the Conflict
  • Chapter 6 — Give the Work Back
  • Chapter 7 — Hold Steady
  • Chapter 8 — Manage Your Hungers
  • Chapter 9 — Anchor Yourself
  • Chapter 10 — What’s on the Line?
  • Chapter 11 — Sacred Heart

What’s In It For You

Here are some of the challenges Leadership on the Line addresses::

  • How to distinguish technical from adaptive challenges
  • How to engage effectively in costly conflict
  • How to model the leadership behavior that others can follow
  • How to accept responsibility for your piece of the mess
  • How to deeply connect with people and engage them in change
  • How to keep sight of the work and not get caught up on power and control
  • How to manage your hungers, needs, and vulnerabilities
  • How to keep and build your innocence, curiosity, and compassion
  • How to avoid cynicism, arrogance, and callousness

Key Features

The key features of Leadership on the Line include:

  • Engaging.  Story and conversational writing.
  • Examples.  The examples in the book really help light up key points and bring the ideas to life, by putting them into context and using examples you can relate to.
  • Experienced.  The content of the book reflects wisdom and experience.  The book dives deep into areas that many leaders struggle with, and it does an excellent job of framing and naming these challenges, and providing concrete, actionable steps for tackling them.

I’ve included a sampling of some of my favorite nuggets from the book …

The Single Most Source of Leadership Failure

Why do leaders fail?  They fail to recognize adaptive challenges.

Heifetz and Linsky  write:

“Indeed the single most common source of leadership failure we’ve been able to identify — in politics, community life, business, or the nonprofit sector — is that people, especially those in positions of authority, treat adaptive challenges like technical problems.”

Leadership is a Labor of Love

Leadership is a way to contribute to the greater good.

Heifetz and Linsky  write:

“Exercising leadership is a way of giving meaning to your life by contributing to the lives of others.  At its best, leadership is a labor of love.  Opportunities for these labors cross your path every day, though we appreciate through the scar tissue of our own experiences that seizing these opportunities takes heart.”

How to Avoid the Traps that Snare People

Heifetz and Linsky share four diagnostic tasks to help you avoid the more common traps that snare people:

  1. Distinguish technical from adaptive challenges.
  2. Find out where people are at.
  3. Listen to the song beneath the words.
  4. Read the behavior of authority figures for clues.

How To Forge a Winning Team

If you want to inspire the inner-heroes in us, paint a picture of a better world, and call upon our desire to take on big challenges and make an impact.

Heifetz and Linsky  write:

“In the words of Phil Jackson, ‘The most effective way to forge a winning team is to call on the players’ need to connect with something larger than themselves.’ 

For Maggie Brooke, it was saving her Native American community by helping her friends and neighbors give up alcohol. 

For Itzhak Rabin, it was mobilizing the Israeli community to adjust to the reality that they could not have both all the land of their biblical roots and the peaceful existence they so deeply desired. 

For John Patrick and David Grossman at IBM, it was helping a once-great company — a community in which they worked and for which they cared deeply — adapt to a changing world so that it might thrive anew.”

How To Stay Connected, During the Tough Stuff

One of the toughest things in leadership is staying connected during deep conflict.

Heifetz and Linsky  write:

“You can constructively raise the temperature and the tension in two ways.  First, bring attention to the hard issues, and keep it focused there.  Second, let people feel the weight of responsibility for tackling those issues.  Conflicts will surface within the relevant group as contrary points of view are heard.

By contrast, there are many ways to reduce the heat, since organizations are more practiced at cooling things down than intentionally heating them up. 

Any method for reducing the heat may also be used as an indirect way of increasing the upper limits of tolerance for it within the organization.  To reduce heat you can start on the technical problems, deferring adaptive challenges until people are ‘warmed up.’  A little progress on a partial, relatively easy problem may reduce anxiety enough that the tougher issue can then be tackled. 

Negotiators commonly use this tactic: Strengthen the relationships — the holding environment — by creating shared success.”

How Roles Help Us Save Ourselves

Roles can help us act out in the ways we need to, while staying true to who we are.

Heifetz and Linsky  write:

“Remember, when you lead, people don’t love you or hate you.  Mostly they don’t even know you.  They love or hate the positions you represent. 

Indeed, we all know how quickly idealization turns into contempt when suddenly you disappoint someone … By knowing and valuing yourself, distinct from the roles you play, you gain the freedom to take risks within those roles. 

Your self-worth is not so tightly tied to the reactions of other people as they content with your positions on issues. 

Moreover, you gain the freedom to take on a new role once the current one concludes or you hit a dead end.

No role is big enough to express all of who you are.  Each role you take on — parent, spouse, child; professional, friend, and neighbor — is a vehicle for expressing a different facet of yourself.  Anchored in yourself, and recognizing and respecting your distinct roles, you are much less vulnerable to the pains of leadership.”

Get the Book

Leadership on the Line by Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky is available on Amazon:

Leadership on the Line, by Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky

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  1. You certainly paint a compelling picture, J.D. I’m reminded of a similarly unheralded recommendation, “How to Run Successful Projects III: The Silver Bullet”. If this book even remotely approaches the powerful utility contained therein, it must be a winner!

    Just today meeting with peers on this beautiful Saturday afternoon to discuss our progress toward an advanced certification, one of them lamented the need for soft skills, wishing he could focus solely on his geekly skills for success. I reminded him that we live in a different world today, & that not only are soft skills vital for career advancement, there are benefits which transcend work, e.g., improved relationships with family & friends.

    This book may be his 1st class ticket—and mine—to success. I’ll let you know how it works out.

  2. @ Jimmy — It’s a book that I’ve found myself reading again and again.

    Interestingly, when I very first read the book, I was too hungry for immediate action steps. Over time, I realized the power of the book is the constellation of ideas, interspersed throughout it.

    “here are benefits which transcend work”
    Very well put, and so true.

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