Heifetz and the Notion of

by James H. Lytle
For two years, through last spring, I had the extraordinary opportunity to be one of 12 superintendents participating in a seminar at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where we convened every three months with Ron Heifetz and his colleagues at the Center for Public Leadership for three intensive days of dialogue, discussion, reflection, introspection and self-critique.

Each of our districts had received a Leadership for Educational Achievement in Districts grant from Wallace/Reader’s Digest Funds. Our group included several superintendents who were well known in professional circles nationally, including a former AASA president and others whose careers were regularly chronicled in Education Week. Others of us were relatively new in our positions and had spent most of our career in a single district. Although our districts were considered urban, they ranged in size from 14,000 to 160,000 students.

Our knowledge of Heifetz, a lecturer in public leadership at the Kennedy School, was restricted to what we had read on his two book jackets: Leadership Without Easy Answers and Leadership on the Line. What we learned in our first session with him was that he had trained to be a neurosurgeon but became interested in psychiatry while moonlighting as a prison doctor. As his practice in psychiatry developed he became increasingly aware of the challenges faced by those who lead organizations. Over time he turned his attention to the study of leadership.

Our sessions with Heifetz began in fishbowl settings. Heifetz taught the basic concepts in his books, relating them to the work of the superintendents. As the program progressed, the center consultants began making site visits to their superintendent case loads, learning the settings and challenges of each superintendent and providing counsel on problems the superintendent identified. In a sense the consultants served as intermediaries, bridging the boundaries between the Kennedy School and the districts. Their connectedness helped reduce the resistance of the superintendents and inform the Heifetz team of the real-world problems we faced.

Personal Scenarios

We moved to case studies, but the cases were our own. Our colleagues and the Harvard faculty helped us deconstruct the cases and work on solutions. As in using a therapist, the cases often opened a doorway to other problems and revealed how directly our own personas and predilections were factors in the case.

One superintendent told of dealing with a retrograde and majority-white school board in a district where a substantial majority of the students were Hispanic. The challenge was to learn how to deal with the board in sympathetic ways while also advocating for the students, their parents and their community — and while simultaneously managing budget crises, teacher contract negotiations, No Child Left Behind and other pressing matters.

A second colleague had recently applied for a superintendency in another district, was publicly announced as a finalist and then was not selected for the position. But this “repudiation” of his home district during his first term in office cost him the support of his mayor and school board members, who made it clear he was no longer welcome. He was coping with the imminent loss of his position and status.

A third was making dramatic progress in shifting her school district from an employment culture to a performance culture, with strong support from the corporate and political sectors, when a change in the governorship caused a major shift in her support base. She had to quickly adjust from the euphoria of a string of very real and public successes to being on the defensive.

Another of us was dealing with a seemingly innocuous matter — the naming of an elementary school. But the city’s Hispanic community insisted the school be named after an Hispanic political activist, while the white community wanted a neutral, happy valley name. The issue rapidly polarized the community, generating contentious board meetings and newspaper editorials. The superintendent had to help board members understand they needed to lead the community through this problem, not act from personal preference.

In my case, I described how our district had long fostered a culture of dependency of teachers and principals on the central office and that the state’s highly prescriptive reform agenda had served only to shift the dependency from central office to the state department of education. We needed to develop the capacity to solve problems ourselves, not implement the solutions of others. But how was I, a relative newcomer, going to help district leadership accept the risks inherent in setting one’s own direction?

Gaining Perspective

As our group worked its way through these cases, the emergent themes were ones central to Heifetz’s writing and research: the differences between adaptive and technical work; the ability to hold steady while a complex issue ripened; the necessity of giving the work back, of not assuming that as superintendent I needed to have the solutions; the need to “get on the balcony,” in Heifetz’s words, in order to gain perspective; and perhaps most important, the dangers of leading.

We came to see what we knew intuitively — that the price of leadership, particularly when change and disruption are part of the agenda, can be both emotional and physical and can take a heavy personal toll. We also acknowledged the isolation intrinsic to the position. And we were learning to be resources to each other, increasing the power and value of our trips to Harvard. For their part, Heifetz and his colleagues were beginning to understand the complexity of the superintendency.

We also worked through the predictable stages of group development — resistance, fight, flight — and on to an acknowledgement that this experience was very much worth our time. As one of the most experienced and traveled superintendents in the group commented, “This is the first time I’ve developed enough trust in the faculty, the group and the process to really admit to the challenges I face and my own uncertainties, and because I’m able to do that, I’m gaining more from this experience than any I’ve ever been involved in.”

The faculty of the Center for Public Leadership acknowledged it was moving into the land of invention. Although they were experienced in doing executive training programs and situational consultations, they never had worked with a single group over an extended period. As their understanding of the superintendency deepened, they called on colleagues from other parts of the university to introduce concepts that were outside their own province but relevant for us.

The first was Barry Jentz, a consultant who specializes in communication for leading and learning. Through a set of brief videotaped role plays in which we all took part, he provided each of us powerful feedback on how quickly we stop listening when we are in conversations and start planning our responses. As a result we miss clues and vital information, and we limit our opportunities to influence those with whom we interact.

The second was Robert Kegan, who took us through an introspection exercise that helped each of us see how we work against our own commitments and espoused priorities and how we have unarticulated assumptions that block our ability to act even when we intend to do so. (The November 2001 issue of Harvard Business Review carries a more complete representation of Kegan’s insights.)

Working with us and participating in the exercises was Jerry Murphy, former dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, whose research and practice have persuaded him that the real barriers to effective leadership are intrapersonal. In his view, superintendents get to be superintendents because they have been able to lead effectively in other situations and organizations. But their success or failure in the superintendency is dependent on the degree to which they can access their own competencies and fears, be honest with themselves and ask for help when they need it.

New Self-Awareness

This leads me to my notion of “I, Superintendent.” Certainly none of the participating superintendents anticipated that much of the adaptive work of our experience with Heifetz and colleagues would be personal. We expected to be challenged — this was Harvard, after all — and we expected we might get help with the hot and thorny dilemmas of our school districts. But the emergent truth was unanticipated: The answer was within us. We had to act on what we were learning.

For me, this has meant dealing with people and situations I’d rather avoid; acknowledging my discomfort with conflict; recognizing my tendency to intellectualize and analyze rather than just do it; admitting that for all my espoused comfort with chaos and complexity, I still have a need to be in control (better to lead than follow); and sensing when I am reverting to my comfort zone.

It’s also publicly acknowledging my own mistakes and shortcomings and accepting that many of the things I’ve done during my six years in Trenton have made a real difference for the kids and the city.

For me, the experience with Heifetz and his colleagues has helped me become more self-aware and hopefully more effective in providing the leadership our community deserves.

James Lytle is superintendent of the Trenton Public Schools, 108 N. Clinton Ave., Trenton, NJ 08609. E-mail: