This blog is a companion to Dr. Ron Heifetz’s interview focusing on the importance of building and sustaining vitality for leaders that aired on December 6, 2016 on Voice America “Innovative Leaders Driving Thriving Organizations.”

Ronald Heifetz founded the Center for Public Leadership and is the King Hussein bin Talal Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School. Ron is a sought-after speaker and advises heads of governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations throughout the world. He co-developed the adaptive leadership framework.

Perhaps surprisingly, Ron’s concentration on leadership—how it’s defined and how it evolves—is not his first career. He began as a physician focusing on individual symptoms and issues with his patients. He worked in prisons, then with executives providing assessments and treatment. Through his work, he learned that leadership in high positions of authority could be challenging, difficult, isolating, and lead to behaviors that are not healthy. He studied neurobiology and psychology, along with leadership, to provide himself with a foundation to develop early leadership programs at Harvard. He was in open terrain creating foundational programs.

Leadership is a practice, something one does to address a set of problems in the world. It is not the same as having a position of authority. The field of leadership—how it is interpreted and perceived—is often challenging because it confuses leadership with authority and position power. We know this because we complain about the lack of leadership by people in authority. Anyone can practice leadership with or without authority. The civil rights movement is a good example of effective leaders—with no formal authority—making a significant impact.

Leaders engage people in rethinking their own priorities and by examining contradictions in their value set. Generally, people rectify contradictions by putting them out of sight. People who practice leadership become neutralized when they raise questions that are hard to wrestle with and point out these contradictions.

In times of change, people often try to hold onto the values of their culture that have had personal meaning and significance to them. When dominant cultures are confronted with stresses such as immigrants, they are called to examine their values and often required to take on very difficult integrative work. The leadership required must point out values such as: We stand for freedom and respect for all people, and our policy does not align with what we say we stand for. How do we make space for this evolution? What are the “gives” and “gets” required to evolve cultures? How can we hold steady to our cultural DNA and still evolve?

In nature, when an organism adapts, it builds on its old capacity and generates radically new functionality. Ron suggested that God didn’t do zero-based budgeting in evolution. We honor our past and at the same time determine what can we release in service of adaptation. The losses are significant to those losing.

In the practice of leadership, effective leaders sense and anticipate the losses. The inclination of many people with great ideas and virtuous beliefs tend to devalue those opposing them rather than acknowledging the good in the opposing system. Effective leaders need to be able to speak with compassion to the losses the individuals, organizations, and communities will face as well as acknowledging the virtue in the opposing systems. It is often when we point to the “other” as bad or wrong that we create the polarization that causes pain.  

As an example, in countries where there has been disparity in equal education for boys and girls, parents—often particularly fathers—need to see the benefits of the change to endure the losses they anticipate they will experience when they educate their wives and daughters. People can be mobilized to endure loss created by change IF they see the reason why change. The benefits may be individual and impact the cultural DNA and if they see the change as an improvement to their current system rather than a replacement of their cherished values.

As leaders, we need to help people see that what they gain is important to their core values and how the change will help their tradition in evolving, rather than devaluing their core values and traditions. They maintain their tradition and refine or evolve it. If this evolution causes damages to relationships (as will often happen), the relationships need to be renegotiated as part of the change process.

These changes may impact deeply-held values and identities. Making change can build on, rather than diminishing, the foundation on which the organization or community was built if these values and identities are carefully and compassionately attended to. This attention is often overlooked in organizational and community change initiatives.  

Many changes involve adaptive problems requiring people to build new capacities. To make the change successful, people must adapt themselves to solve the problems. One phrase I have heard that summarizes this is “the problem works the leader as much as the leader works the problem.” Leaders and people must adapt or change. This means individuals need to build their own capacity to resolve problems and leverage opportunities.
To shift from individual to systemic challenges, many of our larger social issues such as climate change don’t have a technical fix. Until there is a technology solution, we need people to change what they do and address the greater adaptive challenges involved in making these changes involving, among others, value systems and identity. Leaders need to mobilize people to change their behavior and develop new behaviors. An example for this might be cutting back on regularly eating meat and instead begin to develop a craving for non-meat meals. These are incremental and small steps, but they mobilize the individual desire to promote collective good.

An important point in the discussion was the shift in focusing on individual desires and preferences currently seen in consumerism (the former Burger King slogan “have it your way”) toward an orientation of citizenship and good for the community. If citizens don’t shift their focus away from the consumer mentality toward the citizen mentality, we will struggle to solve larger societal problems. There is a real need to move toward a view that we are each consumers AND part of a greater community, and it is only through creating a focus on both that we will make these adaptive changes. We own collective responsibility for the global conditions that we impact and that impact us. We will not make these changes based on authority-based leadership, but rather with each of us taking a leadership role.

About the author

Maureen Metcalf, CEO and founder of Metcalf & Associates, is a renowned executive advisor, consultant, author, speaker and coach whose 30 years of business experience provides high-impact, practical solutions that support her clients’ leadership development and organizational transformations. Maureen is recognized as an innovative, principled thought leader who combines intellectual rigor and discipline with an ability to translate theory into practice. Her operational skills are coupled with a strategic ability to analyze, develop, and implement successful strategies for profitability, growth, and sustainability.

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