Ronald Heifetz on leadership – Part I: “Leadership is not waiting for the coach’s call to adress hard problems.”

“How can we understand and define leadership, not only in its effectivity, but also in its morality?” “Did Hitler show great leadership?” It’s an easy question to provoke a debate on leadership. The answer to that question is not easy. I read already some books on leadership and most of them are prescriptive: “do this, do that and be successful.” Some of the books inspired me. But Heifetz* is the first author that satisfied all of my questions. Wisdom is deep understanding that enables doing the right things. It creates awareness and enhances systemic power. Heifetz pulled it off: a wise book on leadership.

“Leadership is taking responsibility for hard problems beyond having formal or informal authority.”

Heifetz defines leadership as the process of adaptive work, elevating followers by discussing and aligning value systems to face reality. Leadersihp is putting the finger on the real challenges that threaten our survival and changing the mindset of the followers. This definition allows to measure leadership in many contexts. Heifetz gives cases at micro, meso and macro level: from the doctor who brings bad news and helps her patients to adapt up to president Johnson & Martin Luther King. The definition allows also to look further than effectivity (‘developing vision, mobilise people…’). Are the followers elevated? Do they face reality? Do conflicts in values systems become aligned? These questions allow to discuss the morality of leadership actions.

The definition integrates the systemic nature of leadership. Leadership is needed when the system breaks down. It’s not about the technical problems where expertise and the usual habits do the work. These situations don’t need learning. It’s about disequilibrium: the question is clear but the answer isn’t. Or the question is not clear at all. In these situations the work is adaptive. A process of understanding, exchanging information, working together and learning is needed. This is an uneasy process. People don’t adapt easily. They deny the problem, they resist the pain that is needed to deal with the situation, they avoid the work to be done. That’s where leadership is needed.

Framing leadership like this explains why the current call for leadership is so huge. Europe & America have to adapt to the new world order. They are no longer in charge. The catholic church has to adapt to the emancipation of the people. Their followers are no longer ‘sheep’. Same goes for unions and political parties. Belgium has to solve systemic failures. Organisations have to adapt to the scarcity of talent and the internationalization of business. Countries have to adapt to the huge immigration waves. And to the changing demographics. Children have to adapt to family break downs. Leadership is adaptive work.

Any comment?

* Heifetz, Ronald (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge: Harvard Business Press, 348 p.

Heifetz is professor at Harvard University. His background is medical. He worked as doctor and psychiatrist. This probably explains his deep human understanding of the leadership challenge. He teaches on leadership and does consultations and seminars with people and teams.


About Koen Marichal

Director Future Leadership Initiative at Antwerp Management School
This entry was posted in 6. Responsibility & change, Academic insights & evidence, English and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Ronald Heifetz on leadership – Part I: “Leadership is not waiting for the coach’s call to adress hard problems.”

  1. Pingback: Lady Gaga & het Antwerps burgemeester-/leiderschap van Patrick Janssens | Thefutureleadershipinitiative

  2. Anybody from Administrative Assistant to Project Manager can become a leader at work without the Director or C-suite level title. You need to take action for your own life and make things happen for you. Here is an article detailing my thoughts on branding yourself as a leader at work:

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