Heifetz Asks: What Is True Leadership?

by Amelia Newcomb
People often look to leaders in a crisis to be the ones with quick, decisive answers. Parents know this. So do teachers and CEOs. No surprise there. Rapid response can be very attractive amid uncertainty.

But the traditional approach is not always the answer. To Ron Heifetz, co-founder of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, a lasting solution that gets at the heart of a problem may lie in leaders’ ability to wrestle with new strategies and draw their team into developing together a vision for progress.

That’s the less glamorous but ultimately more enduring kind of problem solving that can help an organization, be it a corporation or a school system, rise to a new challenge, according to Heifetz. It’s not a simple or always immediately satisfying approach. Witness the title of his 1994 book, Leadership Without Easy Answers (Harvard University Press).

What’s helpful about Heifetz’s approach to leadership is his sense of humanity. Tinkering with established wisdom is not always warmly embraced, after all, and opponents’ responses may make you feel like you’re trying to turn a battleship in a swimming pool. That’s the kind of day-to-day reality that Heifetz and co-author Marty Linksy take on in Leadership on the Line (Harvard Business School, 2002).

Indeed, it’s not hard to find yourself somewhere in Heifetz’s analysis, whether you’re at the top or on the ground floor of an organization. In Leadership Without Easy Answers, Heifetz walks you through the challenges of well-known figures—Lyndon Johnson in his dealings with civil rights leaders, for example—but also introduces you to everyday people who emerged to make a difference. He provides a framework for understanding the individuals’ actions by plumbing the difference between technical and adaptive challenges, those that require familiar, even prescriptive solutions and those that point to the need for a new template.

Heifetz makes you see how leadership can emanate from all corners, even those without official authority.