A conversation with Ronald Heifetz: Leadership
without Easy Answers By
article appears in The Healthcare Forum Journal, Vol. 38,
#4, July-August 1995, )
authorities | Leadership when you're in authority | Getting attention
| Facing facts |Leadership and vision | The end of the conversation -
or the beginning? | Setting conflicts in dialog |Adaptive and technical
problems | Can people learn how to lead? | Learning from failure | A learning
strategy | Connection and disconnection | Complexity | Out of control
is a recurring theme in these pages, for an important reason: our times
cry out for it, especially in this difficult and turbulent industry. How
do we lead massive organizations throughrapid change? How do we lead our
communities to a new vision of health? How do we lead?
of the Leadership Education Project, Ronald Heifetz has been addressing
this problem head-on for over a decade in what is reported to be the single
most popular course at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He's a
surgeon, a psychiatrist, and a Julliard-trained cellist, but he has chosen
this as his metier - the practical problems of leadership, a subject which
might be called, "How to make a difference."
Without Easy Answers (Belknap, 1994) focuses on the delicate "modern
ballet" of leading change in our pluralistic society, in which authority
is strictly limited and goals are unclear. Using such cases as Martin
Luther King's civil rights leadership, Heifetz pulls leadership apart
along two fault lines: the difference between leadership and authority,
and the difference between technical answers and adaptive work. M. Scott
Peck felt the book "should be required reading for top managers in all
sectors," and Peter Senge felt it "should go a long way toward clearing
up many confusions about leadership."
is an activity.
is what individuals do in mobilizing other people, in organizations or
communities, to do what I call "adaptive work."
work can mean clarifying a conflict in values, or bridging the gap between
the values that we stand for and the current conditions under which we
operate. When you have a problem or a challenge for which there is no
technical remedy, a problem for which it won't help to look to an authority
for answers - the answers aren't there - that problem calls for adaptive
is a big difference between an authority and a leader. Many people in
positions of authority don't exercise leadership. Many people exercise
leadership without much authority, sometimes without any. But if you want
to exercise leaderhsip, having authority can be both a resource and a
authority can be a set of tools that you can use to mobilize people to
do adaptive work. Yet, in other ways, having authority can actually limit
your capacity to mobilize people.
expect authorities to serve five basic social functions: 1) direction,
2) protection, 3) orientation to role and to place, 4) control of conflict,
and 5) maintenance of norms.
look to those in authority to maintain equilibrium and to provide direction.
They expect this direction, not in the form of questions, but in the form
expect those in authority to protect them from change and painful adjustments,
from facing tradeoffs or gaps between the values they espouse and the
reality that they live.
expect those in authority to keep them oriented to their current roles
and organizational relationships, rather than to generate disorientation.
Yet if you want to make a substantial change, you often need a certain
amount of disorientation.
expect those in authority to control conflict. So people who are in authority
often hesitate to see conflict as a source of creativity and as a necessary
component in a process of adaptive change.
expect those in authority to maintain norms. Yet leadership often requires
changing norms. So people in positions of authority are often constrained
in their exercise of leadership, because they are not expected to disturb
leadership when you have a position of authority has different strategic
requirements from trying to lead people when you don't have any authority,
or trying to lead from below with lesser authority.
try to lead as if you were in a position of authority when you are not
- when you are working with people on the same level, with people above
you, with people in different organizations, or with a public over whom
you have no authority - then you are going to make some classic errors.
is relative. None of us is an absolute authority. A healthcare CEO, for
instance, would be considered an authority within the sytem that she runs.
But in the surrounding community, in negotiations with other organizations,
or within the industry, she deals with peers and publics over whom she
has no authority. So she needs different strategies if she wants to exercise
people in authority simply avoid the risks and hazards that come from
challenging people to tackle tough problems. Instead, they just maintain
equilibrium. Some people in positions of authority find ways to exercise
leadership by generating distress, but within a range that people can
tolerate. They operate on that razor's edge by sequencing the issues,
and pacing the process of adjustment, so that people don't get overwhelmed.
you have a position of authority, you have a variety of important resources
or tools at your disposal. Authority is a power that is given to you in
exchange for performing a service. And with that power comes a set of
resource is what I would call the capacity to manage the "holding environment"
of the organization - that organizational space in which the conflicts
and stresses of adaptive work take place.
resource is attention. Attention is the currency of leadership. Leadership
could be defined as getting people to pay attention to tough problems
that they would often rather avoid facing. When you're an authority figure,
people are already paying attention to what you do and say. So you can
direct attention more easily to a set of key challenges.
of having authority, you have a whole variety of tools at your disposal
for regulating the stresses of an organizational learning process. For
example, you can make yourself a more active presence. That will usually
diminish distress. You can organize the process more tightly to diminish
distress. You can sequence the issues, breaking them down into digestible
pieces of learning work.
you are trying to lead without authority, you don't have control over
the holding environment. You can control your provocation, how much you
stimulate people to change or to face tough questions, but you can't modulate
the response. You can't control how the organizational system responds
in the same way that you have leverage when you are in the position of
people's attention without authority is a whole set of problems on its
own. How do you even get people to pay attention to you, and to the issues
and questions that you want to raise?
Luther King, for instance, had to work extraordinarily hard to get the
nation to pay attention to the huge gap between the values that we said
we stood for as a country - the values of freedom and equal opportunity
- and the reality that we perpetuated, which was far from equal and free.
All President Johnson had to do was stand up and people would pay attention.
A crowd of reporters would be tracking every move, every sneeze, every
statement. That was not at all the case for King.
enormous collaborative effort, not only on the part of King and his supporters,
but on the part of his opponents, for King to get the kind of attention
to the problem that he got at the bridge in Selma, Alabama. He had to
get his opponents to play their part, too.
King failed to mobilize attention because the police would outsmart him
and would refuse to generate a notorious scene. In Albany, Georgia, King
orchestrated a series of demonstrations, but the sheriff understood that
the best way to beat King was to "love him to death." The reporters would
be there, but there would be nothing to report.
got good at scanning the towns and cities of the South for a sheriff and
for a governor that predictably could be provoked to brutal response,
in front of the cameras, as a way of taking the latent brutality of racism,
with which black people were living every day, and bringing it to the
surface, getting the nation to face it in a dramatic form.
is similar to Ghandi, who would organize a march around a relatively minor
issue, such as whether people could make their own salt, and use it to
dramatize the much larger issue.
Ghandi and King were trying to lead their societies toward change, while
large segments of those societies gave them no moral authority, certainly
no formal authority, and wanted to pay them no mind whatsoever. Getting
people to pay attention required a dramatization and an embodiment of
the issues, both in the person and in the behavior of these movement organizers.
or without authority, exercising leadership is risky and difficult. Instead
of providing answers as a means of direction, sometimes the best you can
do is provide questions, or face people with the hard facts, instead of
protecting people from change.
you need to make them feel the pinch of reality. Otherwise, why should
they undergo a painful adaptive learning process? Why should people in
defense industries give up their jobs to learn sets of skills if they
can get the nation to protect them from the loss of that defense industry?
often resist doing adaptive work and painful learning. They resist in
a number of typical ways. If you want to lead others, you need to understand
how to counteract these types of resistance.
resistance strategies are well known and rather obvious, such as scapegoating,
externalizing the enemy, or killing off the leader in the hopes that if
only we had the right leader our problems would be solved. But some organizations
have more subtle mechanisms, such as reorganizing once again, denying
the issue entirely, creating a decoy issue and so forth.
were about telling people good news, if it were simply about giving people
what they wanted, then it would just be easy, it would be a celebration.
What makes leadership difficult, strategically challenging, and personally
risky is that you are often in the business of telling people difficult
news - news that, at least in the short term, appears to require a painful
adjustment. You have to ask people to sustain a loss. It may be that the
loss is only temporary and that the future will be even better. But in
the current moment, when people are experiencing the pressure to change,
those future possibilities are simply possibilities. What people know
is that right now it hurts. And they resist that hurt.
society, we carry a common notion of the leader as the person with the
vision, who then gets people to buy in, to align themselves with that
vision. This notion is bankrupt and dangerous, because the leaders who
have done good for their communities and organizations are not the ones
who came up with the vision. If we picture them as the conductor of an
orchestra, they are good at embodying the soul of the music. These leaders
are good at articulating the transcendant values of the organization or
community. But it's not their vision.
is quite popular in industry these days. A few of the top people go off
for a weekend and come up with the vision - which often is basically a
vision that the CEO has decided on beforehand. Then they come down from
the mountain and give this vision to the masses. But that does not work.
This is a sales notion of leadership.
kind of vision may, in fact, move the institution to a new place, simply
because people in senior positions of authority, particularly in a business
environment, have a lot of power to push the organization in one direction
or another. But it doesn't necessarily lead to a better adaptation between
the organization and its environment, because it relies too much on the
best guesses of a few people operating in isolation.
has to have accuracy, and not just appeal and imagination. Articulating
a vision for an organization or community has to start with an awful lot
of listening, a lot of stimulating of debate and conversation, and then
listening - to distill, to capture, the values. It has to start, as well,
with carefully diagnosing the current problematic environment to which
one needs to adapt.
off on a retreat might be part of the process but here's the difference:
is the vision that you come up with the beginning of a conversation? Or
is it the end of a conversation? Often people view it as the end of the
conversation, telling themselves, "Now I simply need to motivate people
to align themselves so that we get what I want." But what if it's the
start of a conversation? What if we see the retreat as coming up with
a stimulating initiative that provokes a deliberative process amongst
all the key parties in the environment? Then, out of that process, we
can come up with a more coherent strategy that takes into account the
legitimately competing values and perspectives that different parties
notions of leadership are technocratic. They rely on a few people at the
top to come up with the vision, as if they were technical experts, and
provide this solution to the community - when in fact it's the community
that is the problem, and you are not going to change the community without
engaging them in the problem.
about Lyndon Johnson, for instance. He could never have moved forward
on civil rights by simply passing legislation, because racism and civil
rights exist in the hearts and minds of people throughout the land. Top
executive teams have a lot of work to do on retreats. But it's not technical
work. It's the development of a strategy for adaptive change within their
can help set conflicts set in productive dialog with each other. This
is how Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson moved civil rights forward.
a man relaxing at home on a Sunday afternoon after church, at the time
of the incident at the bridge in Selma. He's watching a ball game. Suddenly
his daughter erupts into the living room, saying, "Daddy, you have got
to see what is happening right now on TV." And she goes to the TV and
starts changing his channels.
"Mary, how many times have I told you that this is my time to relax before
I start work again tomorrow?"
says, "But daddy, we just came from church, where they were talking all
about love of our fellow human beings - and you have got to see the brutality
that is happening right now on TV." She insists on changing the channels.
A fight breaks out between father and daughter, a fight ostensibly about
what channel to watch, but really about values. The fight may last for
months, with the daughter in effect challenging the father to live according
to his values.
that conflict played out within each family, millions of times across
the land - that is exactly the process of social learning that King and
his fellow strategists were trying to generate in these demonstrations.
If people don't engage across the divide of their differences, there is
no learning. People don't learn by looking in the mirror. They learn by
talking with people who have different points of view. In a sense then,
conflict is really the engine of adaptive work, the engine of learning.
may not mean fighting. At AT&T they didn't want to use the word "conflict,"
because most organizations have an allergy to conflict. So they called
it a leadership skill: "leveraging disagreements," which is a polite way
of saying, "orchestrating conflict."
to begin to see conflict as a good thing. Of course it's dangerous. It
has to be orchestrated properly. It can't get out of hand. We have to
learn to regulate the level of disequilibrium in the system so that the
level of tension, conflict, and distress does not overwhelm people's learning
capacity. But most organizations err on the side of suppressing conflict
and maintaining such a low level of disequilibrium that no real learning
between an adaptive problem and a technical one is key. There are problems
that are just technical. I'm delighted when a car mechanic fixes my car,
an orthopedic surgeon gives me back a healed bone, or an internist gives
me penicillin and cures my pneumonia. That's a key question: is this a
problem that an expert can fix, or is this a problem that is going to
require people in the community to change their values, their behavior,
or their attitudes? For this problem to be solved, are people going to
need to learn new ways of doing business?
War was an adaptive problem which Robert McNamara and the other authorities
of the time insisted on treating as a technical problem. Right now we
are treating the problem of crime as a technical problem, by debating
how much we should pay for more police, rather than addressing the underlying
forces that produce criminal behavior.
abuse problem is an awful example of an adaptive problem treated as if
it were technical. When President Bush came into office it was the hottest
problem in the land. Because he was the president, all eyes turned to
him, as the most senior authority, to solve the drug problem. He brought
his experts together and they devised a $9 billion plan. They appointed
a powerful chief executive, Bill Bennett, and called him the "Drug Czar."
And in September of 1989 Bush gave his debut speech in which he told people
basically not to worry. We have got a plan. We are going to win this war.
It is going to take time but we are taking action.
were delighted to hear that. They did not want to be told that the problem
of drug abuse comes from us, from our being stretched too thin as parents,
and not knowing how to parent teenagers. It comes from our lack of community
spirit, from the fact that the weave of our neighborhoods has been shredded,
so that we don't help each other raise our kids. Our teachers want to
teach reading, writing, and arithmetic; the technical skills. Our churches
no longer provide sustaining sources of meaning during times of distress
and pain. The adjustments required to solve the drug problem are not adjustments
in Bolivia or Panama, but are adjustments in each and every one of our
own families and communities. And the nation does not want to hear that.
that leaders are "born, not made," that we cannot learn to lead, is entrenched
in our culture and in the way we think. And it's a dangerous idea.
we talk about leadership we don't distinguish between leadership, authority,
and dominance behavior. The capacity for gaining dominance in a social
situation is one of the skills that enable people to gain authority. Dominance
isn't a product, in human societies, of physical prowess. Even in chimpanzee
societies, dominance is a product of political alliances. It means being
able to win the hearts of your fellows through a variety of favors and
situations, different cultures, different organizations, at different
moments in their life, call for different characteristics and require
different skills in a leader. A person may be terrific at exercising leadership
in her church and awful in exercising leadership in her business environment.
This happens all the time. Some terrific business leaders exercise no
leadership in their families, their neighborhoods, or their church groups
- not just because they choose not to, but also because they don't know
how. Those other settings have different sets of norms, different authority
structures, and different sets of adaptive challenges with which they
are unfamiliar. They just don't know how to get their talents around them.
can learn a great deal about how to deploy whatever skills they do have
in different contexts. People can learn a great deal about how to use
those skills appropriately. So leadership education is a bit like violin
teaching. You take whatever talent a person has and you teach them how
to maximize that talent and how to deploy it appropriately given the kind
of music they want to play. Somebody may be a terrific player of Bach
and an awful player Brahms.
want to learn better leadership, a powerful source of learning is our
own failures. Sometimes the most difficult thing about learning from failure
is noticing that we have failed.
classes people spend a lot of time analyzing their own failures in their
efforts to exercise leadership. It's important for people to get desensitized
to facing their failures, because leadership in the context of an adaptive
challenge means improvising. People may want you to have a clear critical
path and a plan of action. But the plan is just today's best guess. Tomorrow
you are going to learn things that are going require a deviation in the
have to be willing to face failure every day. Sometimes these are small
tactical blunders - I spoke to this person wrong, I put too much spin
on that argument, I sequenced the agenda improperly. Sometimes they are
larger strategic errors. But if you can't face failure, then how can one
possibly do mid-course corrections in this improvisation toward adaptive
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. If you are an authoritative person with pride
in your ability to tackle hard problems, this may come as a rude awakening.
But it should also ease the burden of having to know the answers and bear
the uncertainty. To the person who waits to receive either "the vision"
to lead or the coach's call, this may also seem a mixture of good and
bad news. The adaptive demands of our societies require leadership that
takes responsibility without waiting for revelation or request. One may
lead perhaps with no more than a question in hand.