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

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.

An authority should protect those whom he wants to silence.

Even if the weight of carrying people’s hopes and pains may fall mainly, for a time, on one person’s shoulders, leadership cannot be exercised alone. The lone-warrior model of leadership is heroic suicide. Each of us had blind spots that require the vision of others. Each of us has passions that need to be contained by others.

In monitoring levels of distress, any leader has to find indicators for knowing both when to promote an unripe issue and whether the stress generated by an intervention falls within the productive range for that social system at that time.

Never get involved in the dark side of office politics, such as maligning associates, practicing deceit, manipulating others or withholding information to enhance your position. Although you may be successful in doing these things for a while, it will not take long for your colleagues to identify your true nature and turn against you. However, it is natural and normal to be an active participant in the political process that occurs in ever organization, which involves trying to influence others, networking, and exercising power.

The point here is to provide a guide to goal formation and strategy. In selecting adaptive work as a guide, one considers not only the values that the goal represents, but also the goal’s ability to mobilize people to face, rather than avoid, tough realities and conflicts. The hardest and most valuable task of leadership may be advancing goals and designing strategy that promote adaptive work.

While the stress is severe, we seem especially willing to grant extraordinary power and give away our freedom. In a historical study of thirty-five dictatorships, all of them emerged during times of social distress.

Any authority figure must decide where to place himself in relation to an issue. In general, he has three strategic options: (1) circumvention, with the risk of backing into a potential crisis; (2) frontal challenge – getting out in front and becoming the ‘bearer of bad tidings’ by introducing the crisis; or (3) riding the wave – staying just in front of the crisis, anticipating the wave and trying to direct its power as it breaks.

Even in retrospect, analysts seem to assume that Johnson’s tasks would be, first, to find a policy solution and, second, to persuade the public. This assumption reflects the constraint on leading from a position of authority. Even in our retrospective analyses, we cannot imagine a President raising hard questions to which he has no decisive answers.

In October 1962 the world avoided nuclear war in part because John F. Kennedy had the capacity to distinguish role from self during the Cuban missile crisis.

Of course, organizations, like all human systems, are highly complex. And the structures, culture, and defaults that define and maintain them prove tenacious. But they are tenacious for a reason. It took a long time for them to develop into self-reinforcing systems. They would have perished already if they were not fit to thrive in at least yesterday’s world.

The politics of inclusion are not faint-hearted efforts at making everybody happy enough. Inclusion means more than taking people’s views into account in defining the problem. Inclusion may mean challenging people, hard and steadily, to face new perspectives on familiar problems, to let go of old ideas and ways of life long held sacred.

Wrenching organizational transformation” is adaptive change, which require individuals throughout the organization to find the solutions to challenges within themselves and change accordingly. This requires the organization to “accept a solution that may require turning part or all of the organization upside down.

As a columnist noted in late 1975, ‘Today it is almost as though the war never happened. Americans have somehow blocked it out of their consciousness. They don’t talk about it. They don’t talk about its consequences.’ Vietnam was barely mentioned in the presidential campaign of 1976. It took us nearly a decade before we even began to face the sacrifices, mistakes, and costs of the Vietnam War, before we began to build monuments, make documentaries and films, embrace the soldiers who fought the war, and capture its lessons.’

Exercising leadership from a position of authority in adaptive situations means going against the grain. Rather than fulfilling the expectation for answers, one provides questions; rather than protecting people from outside threat, one lets people feel the threat in order to stimulate adaptation; instead of orienting people to their current roles, one distorts people so that new role relationships develop; rather than quelling conflict, one generates it; instead of maintaining norms, one challenges them.

In the midst of crisis, the first priority is to evaluate the level of social distress, and, if it is too high, take action to bring it into a productive range.

Often, the deal to confer power in exchange for a service is made so automatically that the phrase ‘social habit’ may fit better than ‘social contract.’

The scarcity of leadership from people in authority, however, makes it all the more critical to the adaptive successes of a polity that leadership be exercised by people without authority.

Yet however much King embodied civil rights, he never became the issue. The distinction is important. King only represented the issue, and most people, I think, could tell the difference. The context of his activity was clear. Few people thought King was the source of the civil rights perspective, even if they knew him as chief spokesman and strategist… President Johnson’s behavior illustrates the other side of the distinction. Johnson went way beyond representing the cause of the Vietnam War. By virtue of taking on the role of solitary decision-maker, he became the issue – his judgment, his dishonesty, and style.

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.

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