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2010 Spring Issue 3 (April 23, 2010)

Ronald Heifetz discusses authority and leadership

April 23, 2010
By Jonathan Lin

Introduced by his two children, Ronald Heifetz – Professor at Harvard Kennedy School – began his presentation “Adaptive Leadership” by stating that to him, the field of leadership studies “was an immature discipline.” His reasoning focused upon the lack of consensus attributed to the meaning of a certain vocabulary, particularly leadership. Thus Heifetz spent most of his career developing a vocabulary that would be more refined and precise for leaders in general.

He started by distinguishing between leadership and authority, and pointed out that the latter represented “a bit of a straitjacket, because it involves fulfilling the expectations of many different constituents.” He highlighted that the two could be mutually exclusive, illustrating that leaders may ultimately not have authority if they are in the hands of the constituency. Heifetz used Martin Luther King as an individual who half a century earlier targeted an audience that gave him no authority to practice leadership. Heifetz highlighted that most people have a lot of ambivalence concerning authority: it commonly entailes abuse and betrayal of trust. On this note, Heifetz said that studying leadership “focuses on renewing the relationship between it and authority.” 

Heifetz emphasized that “many people think leadership is good, and authority is bad.” He debunked the incorrect dichotomy by stating that positions of authority corresponded with expertise, and that it was fundamental to families, businesses and human civilization in general.

He elaborated on the third factor by tracing authority back to natural primeval roots, and analogized it with a pack of silverback gorillas, where a particular member in a position of authority was responsible for food gathering, protection from predators and therefore social order. Heifetz then linked this with human applications worldwide, summarizing that the very basis of authority relationships involved “people putting their trust in those in power in exchange for professional service”. 

Heifetz raised the question about why people should even discuss leadership. He answered that we must study leadership because we live in very unstable environments. The ability to adapt in the face of pressure to change requires individual leadership, because often in the face of change positions of authority suddenly fail due to their shortcomings. Heifetz again drew a parallel to the authoritative silverback gorilla, who in a familiar situation, such as encountering a leopard, falls into a routine of defending its pack by surrounding the predator and thus extinguishing it as a threat. Yet when faced with a machine-gun-wielding human, the same routine would be far from effective. Heifetz drew upon personal experience as a doctor, and discussed that a surgeon could implement the technical processes required to tackle a disease within a patient, because such a procedure would be a familiar routine for him. Yet it would be difficult challenge to convince the patient to change his ways in order to prevent another trip to the emergency room. With this, Heifetz highlighted the importance of adaptive versus technical leadership, for both the gorilla and the doctor have technical, routine leadership, but how well they adapt ultimately determines success in today’s increasingly fluctuating world.  

Heifetz concluded his presentation by addressing a major fault in the mindset of the working adult: “if the next big thing we do cannot be measured on a similar scale to our previous achievements, then it was a failure.” He criticized this way of thinking, and stressed how it is impossible to measure the good that we do. We stay truly alive with the immeasurable feeling that something we’ve done – no matter how small or seemingly unimportant – really matters, and if we carry on seeking ways to comparatively measure these accomplishments to previous ones, personal happiness will never be fundamentally achieved.

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