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

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.

Successful leaders manage conflict; they don’t shy away from it or suppress it but see it as an engine of creativity and innovation. Some of the most creative ideas come out of people in conflict remaining in conversation with one another rather than flying into their own corners or staking out entrenched positions. The challenge for leaders is to develop structures and processes in which such conflicts can be orchestrated productively.

There are lots of things in life that are worth the pain… Being a leader is one of them.

Authorities commonly have the power to choose the decision-making process. In essence, they must decide on the presence and relevance of conflict, and whether and how to unleash it. Deciding which process to use – autocratic, consultative, participative, or consensual – requires judgment based on several factors. We have begun to introduce three of these factors already: the type of problem, the resilience of the social system, and the severity of the problem. To these we should add a fourth: the time frame for taking action.

I define authority as conferred power to perform a service. This definition will be useful to the practitioner of leadership as a reminder of two facts: First, authority is give and can be taken away. Second, authority is conferred as part of an exchange.

Leadership is a special sort of educating in which the teacher raises problems, questions, options, interpretations, and perspectives, often without answers, gauging all the while when to push through and when to hold steady.

The absence of authority enables one to deviate from the norms of authoritative decision-making.

This study examines the usefulness of viewing leadership in terms of adaptive work. Adaptive work consists of the learning required to address conflicts in the values people hold, or to diminish the gap between the values people stand for and the reality they face. Adaptive work requires a change in values, beliefs, or behavior. The exposure and orchestration of conflict – internal contradictions – within individuals and constituencies provide the leverage for mobilizing people to learn new ways.

Authority can be divided into two forms: formal and informal.

I suspect that they continued to experience leadership as an activity performed without authority, beyond expectations.

Leadership means influencing the organization to face its problems and to live into its opportunities.

The accumulation of evil never resides in one person at the top because no one gets to the top without representing the interests of the dominant factions in the system. The evil, if it is evil at all, lives in the routine ways in which people throughout the system collude in maintaining a dysfunctional status quo.

Thus, authoritative action will tend to reduce stress, while inaction will increase it. This may be true regardless of the content of the action.

Authority provides direction. If a crisis ensues, the group turns more of its attention to the chairperson, expecting her to solve the problem. If she does not fulfill that expectation, she loses status and sometimes the dominant role. The group expects the person in authority to provide solutions to crises and, as a corollary, the promise or hope that a solution will be found.

If we assume that leadership must not only meet the needs of followers but also must elevate them, we render a different judgment. Hitler wielded power, but he did not lead.

Leadership means influencing the organization to follow the leader's vision.

The advantage of formal positions of authority is breadth. The disadvantage is distance from raw and relevant detail.

To King and his colleagues, the country had to face its own internal contradiction: the gap between what it said and what it did.

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.

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