Dr. Ronald Heifetz is the King Hussein bin Talal Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership and founder of the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Recognized for his seminal work on both the practice and teaching of leadership, Heifetz speaks and consults extensively throughout the world with heads of governments, companies, and NGOs. Following a recent keynote address he gave at his Columbia College reunion, we had a chance to sit down and talk with him about how the study of Columbia’s core curriculum, built on a Great Books program, taught him how to read, think, feel, and ask the right questions.
GBSP: You’ve said that your early education at Columbia College was a significant influence on how you think and who you are today. Would you talk with some specificity about that?
I arrived at Columbia in 1969 at the height of the Viet Nam War and civil rights protest movements. In our classes we studied all the classics of political philosophy and cultural history and then we would walk outside campus and were immersed in the highly charged political reality of our time. So Columbia taught me the importance of testing theory against its practice. How does a given theoretical idea apply, and does it have relevance today? Does reading Karl Marx, Adam Smith, Kant, Aristotle or Plato apply to the moral dilemmas we were facing on the streets of America in the 1960s and 70s. How does those thinkers help us make sense of the world we live in, how do we apply their theories in practice?
I was also learning to do contextual thinking at Columbia, reading literature and philosophy that was always being placed in its particular historical moment. We were seeking to understand an individual’s life in the larger context of the world he or she were living in. This was a constant intellectual pursuit in our course work and turns out to be essential in the practice of leadership. Because the practice of leadership requires contextual intelligence, the capacity to face into the context of any particular challenge and understand how that individual situation is shaped by the context is essential to identifying options for action.
Which also leads to what psychologists or religious educators might call an empathic imagination. This is the capacity to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and flesh out in your imagination what might be going on in their world. Studying Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, which takes a fragmentary description in just a few sentences in the bible and expounds on it, was one such spectacular example. In it, Kierkegaard imagines the experience of Abraham and his son on their three-day journey to Mount Moriah after God instructs Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.
I learned that when it comes to asking questions, it’s okay to be naïve. To look with a beginner’s mind. In fact, the word naïve has the same root as genius, innovative, native and renaissance. Being “naïve” is not just something to be embarrassed about – because it can be a source of genius, allowing us to be “reborn” and look with fresh eyes. It gives us permission to ask elementary questions, to question basic assumptions and gain insight, so we don’t get caught up in our own beliefs and perspectives. For example, in 1962, in what is called the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy practiced this principal and suffered great criticism because of it from several of his advisors. He asked simple, radical questions of his Generals and other experts that revealed that the course of action they were recommending, to take out the nuclear missiles in Cuba with a “surgical air strike,” was not well thought out. Had Kennedy heeded this advice, the results could have been catastrophic, unparalleled nuclear destruction.
All of these practices have served me well in leadership education. You can’t lead people to transition from one place to another unless you understand where they are. You have to start from where they are. To scope out, figure out where they are, requires real imagination. Asking probing questions in order to understand their perspective and thereby enrich your own, allows you to reshape your vision of what needs to be done; naïve questions and empathic imagination enables you to probe blind spots and apply theory to practice.
GBSP: Was there any single teacher or class that stands out in your mind as being particularly transformative?
Right before my graduation from Columbia, I paid an office visit to one of my professors: Ernst Nagel, the renowned philosopher of science. By then, I had learned that one of the really great questions to ask of people was: “what kinds of questions are you thinking about, what questions are you asking?” I went around with this one question as if it were a magic key, and its answer became a portal to help me gain entrance into many interesting worlds of thought. So I asked Professor Engel that question and he said to me, “I think about what can be measured.”
Having studied Shakespeare at Columbia, I remembered that in Romeo and Juliet, one of them says to the other, “I give you all of my love and yet I have more.” And I said to Professor Nagel, is that what you mean? That there are things that can’t be measured? You give it all away and you still have more? Yes, he said, that’s what I mean.
Measurement is a powerful tool but we make a mistake if we think that all things can be measured using a standard metric. That has been very important to me in working with people in the practice of leadership because when we get caught up in the fallacy of measurement– that everything has a metric–we become vulnerable to thinking that we have to operate on a large scale and make a difference in big, measurable terms. We are at risk of e valuing ourselves in terms of “measuring up.” What Ernst Nagel and Shakespeare were helping me learn is that everything cannot be measured, and most certainly you can’t measure good. As it says in the Talmud, “You save one life, you save the world.”
GBSP: What would you want our students to understand about what it means to be a leader?
Well, that’s a larger question that ties into one of the big challenges in my work over the last 30 years: building leadership theory that can apply to practice based on a shared vocabulary. The practice of leadership is not a mature discipline like engineering, economics, statistics, finance or medicine which have well-organized conceptual frameworks where people can disagree on problem-solving solutions but agree on the meaning of basic vocabulary. In the area of leadership analysis, basic terms of reference like leadership, authority, power, influence, follower, citizenship have all been used differently by different authors and scholars.
So first, let me start by defining what leadership is not. Leadership is not the same as authority. We know this intuitively because we frequently complain about the lack of leadership by people in high positions of authority. We say, “Leaders aren’t exercising any leadership.” What we mean to say more precisely is that people in high positions of authority aren’t exercising any leadership, that the people in charge are not exercising leadership , so we intuitively know that there is a difference. And yet, we also confuse these two ideas of leadership and authority. Every day, journalists do, writers do, and we do in our common language when we talk about the leader of a company, the leader of a country, or even the leader of a school. So it’s very important to distinguish between leadership and authority because when we do we can begin to analyze why it is that many people in powerful and high positions of authority don’t lead.
Many people practice leadership and provide leadership in their organizations and communities, without much, if any, authority. We don’t have to be in positions of authority to lead. Many people lead without being elected, appointed, anointed, or without the coach calling them into play, because they see problems in their midst and they want to make things better. There are a lot of people like that who are practicing leadership every day, and it is significant leadership even though they don’t have positions of power, are not in charge, and have little authority.
And then there is a related idea that many cultures teach — that leadership requires a socially dominant personality. We see that social dominance relationships begin to emerge as early as preschool — because older children tend to be more socially dominant, and then later so are kids who look a certain way, are particularly athletic, or come from socially dominant parents. A doctor or an executive, for example, often raise children who learn to be more socially dominant, independent of the predisposed personality of that child. This quality of social dominance is often seen in a person who is in charge of an athletic team, or has been elected to a school position, or is a mentor or monitor to other kids in a classroom. These are two types of roles of authority, but again just because a person holds a position of authority or has a more socially dominant personality, it doesn’t mean that they will lead with that authority.
That’s very important to know so that everyone understands that there are opportunities for leadership even if you are not or were not a socially dominant type of child. These opportunities for leadership happen every day because there are problems in our groups, classrooms, and clubs for which people can show initiative and take action without authority or a socially dominant position to mobilize collective problem-solving.
So, I define leadership as the activity of mobilizing collective action on collective problems. And not necessarily from a position of authority or social dominance. If you link this term leadership to the mobilization of collective problem-solving rather than to a position of authority, that expands the opportunity sets for everybody, for kids as well as adults. The idea is that people can and do lead with and without authority, with or without positions of social dominance, everyday.
Second, it’s important to understand that roles are social constructs. The roles we take up in life are not the same as who we are as human beings. There is an important distinction between role and self.
As we grow up we take on a variety of roles. Roles become part of our identity but they don’t necessarily define who we are as a human being. What it means to be a human being transcends particular role identities, which are parts of our overall identity. The role of sister, brother or friend, or white, black, or Hispanic person, or Christian, Jew, or Muslim, or American, or Patriots fan or Jets fan or Yankee fan, all of these are role identities and they are precious and important and critical parts of who we are because we express and know ourselves through these roles, but they do not essentially define who we are. These various roles are an important part of anchoring ourselves, but as human beings we can deploy each of these roles rather than the have the roles define and constrain us.
For example, depending on whether you are a boy or girl, whether you live in Louisiana or New York City, the culture tells us a lot of things about who we are supposed to be. It’s kind of like a software program made up of millions of lines of code where each line of code operates on the principal: if this then that, if this then that. That’s how software code is structured. So in a sense, each individual’s personal set of role identities is made up of those kinds of lines of code. From the moment you are born you are trained to behave, look, and talk a certain way. The same goes for if you’re the oldest or youngest child or the wealthier kid in the community or poor kid, there are a lot of lines of code that tell you this is how you are supposed to be and act.
Each culture has its socially constructed idea of what it means to be a boy or girl, or man or woman. So we have to be able to transcend these lines of code and to say I like a lot of what I’m getting in these definitions of being a boy or girl, but on the other hand I have to renegotiate some of these lines of code. I have to figure out how to apply the tradition and wisdom in that code to what I think are my values and my sense of freedom and my sense of agency.
So distinguishing self from role and imagining the self as a place that cannot be violated, as your most essential nature from which you end up managing and deploying these different roles, is key. And this idea then gives you the freedom to ask: What are the lines of code that I want to accept and those I want to re-negotiate. Distinguishing role from self gives you the freedom to say I’m not going to just be that person, play that role, because everyone expects me to, I’m going to find a way to do it my way as well as a way that takes advantage of the wisdom and the traditions of the culture I come from. Because there is a lot of wisdom that comes from all of our cultures that say, this is what it means to be an American, this is what it means to be a boy, a girl, a responsible older sibling, and so forth. But there are also departures each of us want to make on behalf of inventing and creating and composing our own life and figuring out who we ought to be. Not to simply reproduce the world as it has been but to make the world anew according to the wisdom we begin to generate and the perspectives we begin to adopt and the questions we begin to ask in our lives and for our times.