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

As a model of leadership, this neglects human truths. The learning required to accomplish adaptive work is not simply conceptual. Logical argument is rarely sufficient. Sifting through the old and fashioning something new takes emotional work. To move at the pace of logic alone, people would need an unusually high level of rationality and intellectual freedom from habit, tradition, and pride. The leader as educator has to engage the parties in a process of inquiry that accounts for their fear or pain, if learning is to be produced.

Exercising leadership is an expression of your aliveness... But when you cover yourself up, you risk losing something as well. In the struggle to save yourself, you can give up too many of those qualities that are the essence of being alive, like innocence, curiosity, and compassion.

In this study I will use four criteria to develop a definition of leadership that takes values into account. First, the definition must sufficiently resemble current cultural assumptions so that, when feasible, one’s normal understanding of what it means to lead will apply. Second, the definition should be practical, so that practitioners can make use of it. Third, it should point toward socially useful activities. Finally, the concept should offer a broad definition of social usefulness.

Once settled on the hierarchy, the rest of the members seem to find their places and roles, and the level of tension within the group diminishes dramatically. As the same time, cohesion increases.

The second image of leadership – mobilizing people to tackle problems – is the image at the heart of this book. This conception builds upon, yet differs from, the culturally dominant views.

Yet those who do lead usually feel that they are taking action beyond whatever authority they have.

As we have seen, an adaptive challenge consists of a gap between the shared values people hold and the reality of their lives, or of a conflict among people in a community over values or strategy. 1. What’s causing the distress? 2. What internal contradictions does the distress represent? 3. What are the histories of these contradictions? 4. What perspectives and interests have I and others come to represent to various segments of the community that are now in conflict? 5. In what ways are we in the organization or working group mirroring the problem dynamics in the community?

Finding a Sanctuary…To exercise leadership, one has to expect to get swept up in the music. One has to plan for it and develop scheduled opportunities that anticipate the need to regain perspective. Just as leadership demands a strategy of mobilizing people, it also requires a strategy of deploying and restoring one’s own spiritual resources.

In times of distress, we turn to authority.

Partners come in two general types: the confidant and the ally. The confidant is the person to whom one can cry and complain. A confidant can provide a holding environment for someone who is busy holding everybody else.

The strategic challenge is to give the work back to people without abandoning them. Overload them and they will avoid learning. Underload them and they will grow too dependent, or complacent. Thus, an authority has to bear the weight of the problems, for a time.

Yet when faced with an adaptive challenge, an authority might still choose a more autocratic mode as a result of other factors. First, the organization or community may have too little resilience to bear the stresses of adaptive work. Giving the work back to people may overwhelm them and run counter to prevailing norms.

As we shall see, a strategy of leadership to accomplish adaptive work accounts for several conditions and values that are consonant with the demands of a democratic society. In addition to reality testing, these include respecting conflict, negotiation, and a diversity of views within a community; increasing community cohesion; developing norms of responsibility-taking, learning, and innovation; and keeping social distress within a bearable range.

First, [the leaders] identified the adaptive challenge – the gap between aspirations and reality – and focused attention on the specific issues created by that gap. Recognizing that they were working with a problem that existing technical expertise could not solve satisfactorily, they shifted from giving authoritative solutions to a plan for managing people’s adaptive problem-solving.

Instead of looking for saviors, we should be calling for leadership that will challenge us to face problems for which there are no simple, painless solutions – problems that requires us to learn new ways.

Some of us may hate or distrust authority, but I doubt that we can do without some form of it.

The term ‘holding environment’ originated in psychoanalysis to describe the relationship between the therapist and the patient. The therapist ‘holds’ the patient in a process of developmental learning in a way that has some similarities to the way a mother and father hold their newborn and maturing children. For a child, the holding environment serves as a containing vessel for the developmental steps, problems, crises, and stresses of growing up.

At an extreme, war has been used as a means to mobilize adaptive work. When Abraham Lincoln went to war with the South, he clearly had no authority, formal or informal, in the eyes of seceding Southerners. Indeed, in ten states he won no popular votes in 1860 because he was not even put on the ballot. He led across the newly formed boundary, challenging Southerners to solve rather than flee from the problems of reconciling differences within a union that their recent forebears had played dominant roles in producing.

For Gandhi to challenge these ways of life demanded knowing them deeply, by experience, by operating close to the frontline, where the stakeholders of India lived. Gandhi could speak to people, to their hopes, fears, weaknesses, and needs because he spent time knowing them. He could touch and inspire people because they touched and inspired him.

It should be obvious from reflecting on our daily lives that authority relationships are enormously productive. The human capacity for generating complex systems of authority is essential to our extraordinary adaptability and creativity as social creatures.

Steering an organization through times of change can be hazardous, and it has been the ruin of many a leader.

The threat of coercion is part of the authorization we give to the traffic police, for example, to prevent accidents at dangerous intersections. Not only do we want that threat to inhibit the impulses of other drivers, we also look to it at times to bridle out own.

Attention is the currency of leadership. Getting people to pay attention to tough issues rather than diversions is at the heart of the strategy.

Having been denied formal authority roles in most societies, some women have learned strategies for leading without authority, and some have learned not to try leading at all. The same can be said of many disempowered groups.

Leaders have the courage to face inevitable conflict openly and head on. Whenever strong willed people interact on a frequent basis, there will be occasional disagreements and conflict. The effective leader recognizes this as a fact of life and does not shy away from conflict because of the tension and stress involved.

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