A conversation with

Ronald Heifetz:

Leadership without Easy Answers

By Joe Flower


(This article appears in The Healthcare Forum Journal,
Vol. 38, #4, July-August 1995,
International Copyright 1995 Joe Flower All Rights Reserved.
Please see our free downloading policy.)





Leadership 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?

As director 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."

Leadership 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."




Leadership is an activity.

Leadership is what individuals do in mobilizing other people, in organizations or communities, to do what I call "adaptive work."

Adaptive 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 work.

Leaders and authorities

There 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 constraint.

Having 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.

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.

People 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 of answers.

They 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.

They 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.

People 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.

People 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 people.

Exercising 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.

If you 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.

And this 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 leadership.

Leadership when you're in authority

Many 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.

When 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 resources.

The first 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.

The second 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.

By virtue 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.

When 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 authority.

Getting attention

Getting 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?

Martin 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.

It took 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.

Sometimes 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.

King 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.

This 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.

Both 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.

Facing facts

With 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.

Often 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?

People 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.

Some 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.

If leadership 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.

Leadership and vision

In our 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.

Envisioning 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.

That 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.

A vision 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.

The end of the conversation - or the beginning?

Going 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 have.

Our current 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.

Think 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 institution.

Setting conflicts in dialog

The leader can help set conflicts set in productive dialog with each other. This is how Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson moved civil rights forward.

Imagine 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.

He says, "Mary, how many times have I told you that this is my time to relax before I start work again tomorrow?"

Mary 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.

Imagine 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.

This 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."

We need 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 takes place.

Adaptive and technical problems

The difference 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?

The Vietnam 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.

The drug 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.

People 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.

Can people learn how to lead?

The notion 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.

When 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 affiliative behaviors.

Different 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.

People 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.

Learning from failure

If we 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.

In my 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 plan.

So you 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 success?

A learning strategy

Leadership 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.

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