No Easy Answers
New Challenges for Leaders and Citizens an
with Ron Heifitz by Steve
Published in YES! Magazine, Beta 2 issue, p. 25
Ronald Heifetz - a surgeon, psychiatrist, teacher, and cellist - spent 10
years writing Leadership Without Easy Answers, a book that distinguishes between
leadership that solves technical challenges - like fixing a toilet or a budget -
and leadership that solves the more complex, adaptive challenges we find in many
organizations, neighborhoods, and nations. He directs the Leadership Education
Project at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He spoke
recently with educator and organizational consultant Steve Boyd, director of the
Washington Leadership Institute.
Boyd: Ron, as we think about our
future and try to make sense of politics and democracy, what do you see as the
adaptive challenge for democracy?
Heifetz: There are at least two
dimensions of the challenge: trust and authority, and citizenship.
First, citizenship. We are seeing the widespread use of business imagery for
understanding the relationships between people in politics and organizations.
The customer is the dominant metaphor, which makes sense in a business context.
By satisfying customers, businesses compete to please; they improve their
product, improve cost margins, and see progress in the marketplace.
customer mindset is wrong for citizenship. It encourages individuals to believe
it is their prerogative to be pleased by politicians, rather than
A second critical challenge considers trust and authority. For the last 40
years, we have seen a very sharp erosion of trust in political institutions and
authority. While this erosion has rekindled interest in egalitarian, flatter
systems, shared responsibility and respect for teamwork, the democratization of
the workplace, it also has fueled deep distrust. There is an unwillingness to
entrust and empower people.
For example, we have situations where everyone has to be at the meeting, even
though it is terribly inefficient for most problem-solving. Everybody fears what
will happen if they are not there. No one is willing to entrust others with
power. Yet we know, if we study history and anthropology, essential to human
civilization is our capacity to entrust each other with power and to expect that
when we entrust a person with power, they will perform a service in a credible
In the aftermath of Stalin and Hitler, which put a real fear of authority
into modern society, and Vietnam and Watergate, people just do not trust
institutions. A "consumer mentality," has forced politicians to pander to the
public and make ever bigger promises. Of course, they cannot really deliver,
because the promises are unrealistic. When they do not deliver, it further
The public responds not by adjusting their notion of
citizenship, but by looking again for somebody else with another set of big
If we keep hoping for leaders who are going to protect us from taking
responsibility, it will continue to corrode our capacity to entrust one another
and to take personal responsibility.
Boyd: Why shouldn't politicians
Heifetz: Because adaptive
challenges like drug abuse, poverty and racism are not going to be solved from
on high by someone who can pull a rabbit out of the hat. They are going to be
solved by people in communities making adjustments in their lives and in the way
they organize themselves.
In the words of my former congressman Tip O'Neill,
"all politics is local." I think our social life and political life, is local.
Our families are within our reach. This is where we should be spending our time;
thinking about nurturing our families and contributing to our local communities.
We are at a juncture where we critically need small communities, local living,
mediating structures like cities, that we invest in and get passionate about. We
also need connectedness to our larger political, economic, social, and spiritual
Boyd: How can individuals or
groups without formal authority exercise leadership?
Heifetz: The central challenge
for leadership is to create a general urgency around an issue - something worth
paying attention to in an already crowded field of people's attention.
Individuals must learn to bring focus to issues through processes of
coalition-building beyond the bounds of one's faction. At times, we must figure
out how to manufacture crises in order to demonstrate and draw attention to the
Boyd: Can you give an
Heifetz: In recent American
history, we might remember Martin Luther King Jr. provoking police brutality.
King was very strategic in dramatizing the civil rights struggle, to ripen the
issue if you will, while news cameras were rolling. King's goal was to expose
the latent brutalities of racism to a national audience - to confront America
with its failing to live up to its creed of freedom and justice for all.
Boyd: Are you generally hopeful?
How do you make sense of these times filled with a lot of behavior that seems
destructive, irrational, chaotic?
Heifetz: I think that
disequilibrium goes hand-in-hand with adaptive growth and development. We are
learning new ways, and it is distressing, causing disorientation and changes in
norms and the structure of relationships that organize our lives. I also think
it's a very hopeful time in history, but there will be plenty of chaos and
conflict associated with it.
Boyd: You've conducted leadership
training over the last 12 years with thousands of people at the Kennedy School,
in different forums around the world. How would you characterize what we are
facing in terms of the world context?
Heifetz: I think it is a very
exciting time in human history. This is the first time we really are beginning
to think as a whole earth system, and in political, economic, social and
spiritual terms. People are learning about each other and developing respect for
diversity at a rate previously unseen in history. Though it feels like a scary
time, it seems like an enormously hopeful time. I think humanity's learning has
a long way to go towards resolving sharp differences and sharing limited
resources. But at least the key questions are being asked, and a global
consciousness is quite rapidly emerging.
Leadership Without Easy
Ron Heifetz here presents two versions of a speech George Bush might have
made on drug problems in America. The first version, essentially as Bush gave
it, shows the "technical fix." The second, which Heifetz believes reflects an
"adaptive" leadership style preferred by some Bush staff, encourages people to
take responsibility for change. "We need to help politicians learn how to
challenge citizens, without losing their political career," Heifetz
|"I'll keep you
|More or less how it happened...
||How it might have
My fellow Americans, there's a scourge in our great land: the scourge is
drugs. This is a war, and it's going to take years, but we can win. I have a
program and I have a leader to make sure we win. We are going to go to Latin
America and nip this problem in the bud. The Medallin Cartel and its leader,
Pablo Escobar, are waging a huge war against our children. We are going to do
everything we can to stop that.
[He outlines his program, puts $9million dollars on the line (demonstrating
power). He introduces his drug czar, Bill Bennett, who, he assures everyone,
will capably handle these resources and beat the bad guys in the drug war, both
assuming and delegating responsibility for solving the problem by fighting the
foreign invaders by land, sea and air.]
We will use everything in our power to stop this evil scourge in our country.
It is my top priority for the American government."
God bless and I'll keep you posted.
My fellow Americans, we are facing a scourge across the land: the scourge is
drugs. Ladies and Gentlemen, there are many problems that a president can solve,
but unfortunately, this isn't one of them. That's because this problem is in
your families, neighborhoods, schools, churches and business practices. Solving
this problem will require some changes on your part.
Your responsibilities as parents are much more difficult than they used to
be, but you're going to have to hold your kids more tightly and effectively to
help them get through the tempting teenage years. Neighbors will have to
organize themselves to help those neighbors whose children are slipping beyond
their grip. Many teachers will have to expand their domain beyond the technical
skills (reading, writing and arithmetic) to draw in extended family, neighbors,
and friends to buttress the support system of at-risk youth.
You clergy, you are becoming irrelevant. Kids to go to the mall on Sunday, as
if it's the modern cathedral. You're going to have to learn community
organizing, to show kids there's more to live for than artificial pleasure.
You business people, you keep trying to hire people who look like you. If you
don't start to make your economy relevant, you're going to lose our youth to
another economy, and you know there's one available.
Yes, the government can help. We can fund local experiments and share
lessons from our failures and successes. We can buffer some of the risks to
business. But ultimately the job is yours. I know you can do it and I am anxious
to see us work together to stop this evil scourge to our communities. It must be
your top priority.
God bless you, and keep me