Ronald A. Heifetz

Ronald A.
c. 1955

American Educator, Medical Doctor, Cellist, Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership, co-founder of the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, and co-founder of Cambridge Leadership Associates

Author Quotes

Because making progress on adaptive problems requires learning, the task of leadership consists of choreographing and directing learning processes in an organization or community.

If we leave the value implications of our teaching and practice unaddressed, we encourage people, perhaps unwittingly, to aspire to great influence or high office, regardless of what they do there. We would be on safer ground were we to discard the loaded term leadership altogether and simply describe the dynamics of prominence, power, influence, and historical causation.

Leadership, seen in this light, requires a learning strategy. A leader has to engage people in facing the challenge, adjusting their values, changing perspectives, and developing new habits of behavior.

The common personalistic orientation to the term leadership, with its assumption that ‘leaders are born and not made’ is quite dangerous. It fosters both self-delusion and irresponsibility.

To sustain the stresses of leadership, he needs to know enough about his own biases to compensate for them. If he reacts automatically to reject advice when it is given in a way that appears condescending, for example, he needs to become sufficiently acquainted with that reflex that he can listen and respond flexibly, according to the needs of the situation.

Contrary to common usage, an individual cannot ‘martyr’ himself, even though he sacrifices his life, unless that makes him into a martyr. Why is it lonely on the point? Because those who lead take responsibility for the holding environment of the enterprise. They themselves are not expected to be held. They do the holding, often quite alone.

Imagine the differences in behavior when people operate with the idea that ‘leadership means influencing the community to follow the leader’s vision’ versus ‘leadership means influencing the community to face its problems.

Leadership, with or without authority, requires an educative strategy.

The concept of social contract may be one cornerstone of democracy, yet democracy is not so easily achieved in light of our inclination to look to authority with overly expectant eyes. In part, democracy requires that average citizens become aware that they are indeed the principals and that those upon whom they confer power are their agents. They also have to bear the risks, the costs, and the fruits of shared responsibility and civic participation.

What follows, then, are seven practical suggestions for bearing the responsibility that comes with leadership without losing one’s effectiveness or collapsing under the strain. They are: (1) get on the balcony, (2) distinguish self from role, (3) externalize the conflict, (4) use partners, (5) listen, using oneself as data, (6) find a sanctuary, and (7) preserve a sense of purpose.

Crises provide authority figures with more power because people look to them to provide resolution.

In contrast, Martin Luther King Jr. externalized the civil rights conflict. His strategy did not prevent his assassination, but during his life it kept the public’s attention where it belonged. King repeatedly reinforced the message that the conflict was not between white Americans and him, nor even between black and white Americans. It was a conflict between American values and American reality.

Leading major organizational change often involves radically reconfiguring a complex network of people, tasks and institutions that have achieved a kind of modus vivendi, no matter how dysfunctional it appears to you. When the status quo is upset, people feel a sense of profound loss and dashed expectations. They may go through a period of feeling incompetent or disloyal. It is no wonder they resist the change or try to eliminate its visible agent.

The flight to authority is particularly dangerous for at least two reasons: first, because the work avoidance often occurs in response to our biggest problems and, second, because it disables some of our most important personal and collective resources for accomplishing adaptive work.

When [Gandhi] fasted for justice, people began to pay attention, not because another person was about to die of starvation but because Gandhi practiced what he preached.

Dominance relationships are based on coercion or habitual deference; authority relationships are voluntary and conscious. In reality, however, these types of power relations often overlap.

In fact, many people daily go beyond both their job description and the informal expectations they carry within their organization and do what they are not authorized to do. At a minimum, these people exercise leadership momentarily by impressing upon a group, sometimes by powerfully articulating an idea that strikes a resonant chord, the need to pay attention to a missing point of view. A staff assistant will speak up at a meeting even though she has no authority to do so.

Learning to take the heat and receive people's anger in a way that does not undermine your initiative is one of the toughest tasks of leadership. In this sense, exercising leadership might be understood as disappointing people at a rate they can absorb.

The loyalty and support of team members must be obtained before the leader attempts to implement his or her vision of the future….people can learn to become successful at inspiring and energizing others. The most important responsibility of a leader is to develop people. The ultimate leader is the one who is willing to develop individuals to the point that they eventually surpass him or her.

When Socrates described himself, he drew a crucial distinction between wisdom and a passion for wisdom. Having a passion for wisdom surpassed the attainment of wisdom. Curiosity was a virtue. Indeed, he considered only a life of ongoing examination worth living.

Dominant children serve other functions in addition to orientation. In a Munich study of four-year-old children, the child that commanded the most attention was also the one who most often initiated and organized games, interceded as a third party to break up disputes, and represented the group when interacting with another group. Children of lower rank tended to obey, imitate, smile, and offer presents to the high-ranking child. In a study of first-graders playing dodgeball, the child who appeared most skillful emerged in time as the dominant individual to whom the rest of the players look for organization. By first and second grade, most children agreed on the individuals with two dominant characteristics: Who is the smartest? Who is the toughest? Yet few agreed on the identity of the least smart and least tough among them. Attention, again, focused upward in the hierarchy.

In human societies, adaptive work consists of efforts to close the gap between reality and a host of values not restricted to survival.

Let us face it; to lead is to live dangerously. While leadership is often depicted as an exciting and glamorous endeavor, one in which you inspire others to follow you through good times and bad, such a portrayal ignores the dark side of leadership: the inevitable attempts to take you out of the game. Those attempts are sometimes justified. People in top positions must often pay the price for a flawed strategy or a series of bad decisions.

The myth of leadership is the myth of the lone warrior; the solitary individual whose heroism and brilliance enable him to lead the way.

When we do elect activists, we want them to change the thinking and behavior of other people, rarely our own.

Author Picture
First Name
Ronald A.
Last Name
Birth Date
c. 1955

American Educator, Medical Doctor, Cellist, Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership, co-founder of the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, and co-founder of Cambridge Leadership Associates