Ronald Heifetz* on leadership – Part IV & conclusion: “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

We easily associate leadership with personal courage. Why is that? Why is leadership personal at all? The answer lies in the definition of leadership. Setting the agenda for change is a personal choice. As Heifetz quotes Max Weber: “Here I stand, I can do no other.’ Leadership provokes stress and loss  because it’s necessary. And the leadership role remains dangerous and heavy as long as the people don’t take up the adaptive work. It is a real burden, which explains the myth of the lone warrior.

What can help to carry the burden? Heifetz gives 6 advises for strengthening personal leadership. This is not the strongest part of his book, but the call for personal & conscious leadership is crystal clear.

  1. Getting on the balcony. The capacity to take distance, ‘to get on the balcony’ and reflect on the what’s happening is key in leadership. Reflection is the source for identifying the real challenge, to monitor the stress levels, to direct attention consistently through resistance and to give the work back to the people. This includes self-awareness: being conscious of one’s emotions and mindset and using that as source of information.
  2. The role/self distinction. The leader is not the solution. The leader is not the issue. If a leader completely personalizes with the issue, he’s in danger of becoming himself the problem. He will interpret resistance personally and react personally. This is what happened with President Johnson and the Vietnam  war.
  3. Developing partnerships. The lone-warrior model of leadership is heroic suicide. Leadership needs partners. These can be confidants, ‘who can put people attempting to lead back together again at the end of the day.’ or allies, operating across the line of authority or organizational boundaries.
  4. Self preservation. Having and maintaining a personal sanctuary is important to deploy and restore own’s spiritual resources. Self preservation is also feeding and sustaining the sense of purpose, as source for courage and energy.


The wisdom of Heifetz is that he integrates all dimensions of leadership in a natural way to explain the phenomenon of leadership. It’s about authority, power, needed change, people, the system and it’s personal.  At the same time his holistic approach doesn’t turn into spiritual or esoteric descriptions of leadership. He analyzes the parts without reducing the whole and makes them concrete with inspiring cases.

Any comment?

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


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 IV & conclusion: “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

  1. neildenny says:

    A brililant summary of a challenging book – thank you for taking the time to prepare this.

    I followed up my reading of this with Heifetz’ co-authored The Practice of Adpative Leadership [Harvard Business Review Press] This latter book, I believe, is beautifully crafted. It takes the full range of thinking from “Without Easy Answers” and provides practical analytical and active exercises. The result, I believe, is that the rather academic and remote voice of the first book is brought to life in a way that many leaders (both authorised and not), managers and those longing for change will be able to grasp and start to experiment with.

    I am currently working on a program drawing upon Heifetz’ thinking to challenge the alternative dispute resolution and collaborative practice community here in the UK and possibly America and Canada. I’ll be happy to report back on that if you think that would be helpful.

    • Dear Neil, thank you for your wonderful comment. I’m also ‘digesting’ Practice of Adaptive Leadership, but have somehow difficulty to translate it to real life leadership development. I’m happy that you take the challenge to do just that and am more than willing to keep in touch on your experiences! Keep in touch, Koen

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