No Easy Answers

No Easy Answers
New Challenges for Leaders and Citizens an interview
with Ron Heifitz by Steve Boyd
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.
But the customer mindset is wrong for citizenship. It encourages individuals to believe it is their prerogative to be pleased by politicians, rather than challenged.

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 way.

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 corrodes trust.
The public responds not by adjusting their notion of citizenship, but by looking again for somebody else with another set of big promises.

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 please citizens?

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 systems.

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 issues.

Boyd: Can you give an example?

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 Answers

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 says.