Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Ronald A. Heifetz

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

"If no charismatic emerges, people may be truly bereft and lost in a sea of forces and pressures beyond their adaptive capacity. The society may die. If someone does emerge, the people may understandably attribute his rise to “divine grace.” Indeed, if he exercises leadership, he may well save his community and help it to renew itself. First, he binds people together by powerfully articulating their values, hopes, and pains. Second, he weaves their hopes into some image of the future. And third, he provides energy, strategy, and faith that the vision can be realized."

"[Sanger] stood silent before a crowd at Ford Hall Forum with a band of tape plastered across her mouth while the Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. read a brief statement: ‘As a pioneer fighting for a cause, I believe in free speech. As a propagandist, I see immense advantages in being gagged. It silences me, but it makes millions of others talk and think about the cause in which I live.’ King, as well, would have to embody personally the issue he stood for. That meant that he would have to struggle constantly with himself to live according to a very high set of standards."

"1. Identify the adaptive challenge. Diagnose the situation in light of the values at stake, and unbundled the issues that come with it. 2. Keep the distress within a tolerable range for doing adaptive work. To use the pressure cooker analogy, keep the heat up without blowing up the vessel. 3. Focus attention on ripening issues and not on stress-reducing distractions. Identify which issues can currently engage attention; and while directing attention to them, counteract work avoidance mechanisms like denial, scapegoating, externalizing the enemy, pretending the problem is technical, or attacking individuals rather than issues. 4. Giving the work back to people, but at a rate they can stand. Place and develop responsibility by putting the pressure on the people with the problem. 5. Protect voices of leadership without authority. Give cover to those who raise hard questions and generate distress – people who point to the internal contradictions of the society. These individuals often will have latitude to provoke rethinking that authorities do not have."

"A study of preschool children in Virginia showed that those who dominated the attention of others also won the most struggles over access to toys. Observers attached the label ‘high-ranking’ to these dominant children. Middle- and low-ranking children focused their attention on those with higher rank than themselves rather than on those whom they could displace at the toy shelf. They also spent much more time glancing at high-ranking classmates than vice versa. Attention focused upward. In addition, the children tended to orient themselves spatially (to find their place) by locating those in their own rank and by staying in close proximity to them."

"A leader who pushes the authority figure in an attempt to solve important problems should expect the authority figure to strike back, not necessarily from personal motivations but form the community’s pressure on him to maintain equilibrium."

"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.’"

"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."

"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."

"An authority should protect those whom he wants to silence."

"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."

"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?"

"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."

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

"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."

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

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

"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."

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

"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."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"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."

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

"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."

"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."

"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."

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

"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."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"In times of distress, we turn to authority."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"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."

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

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

"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."

"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."

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