Heifetz on Public Leadership

The popular author applies the notion of adaptive challenges to the superintendency by Amelia Newcomb
Talk to Ron Heifetz for more than a few minutes about school leadership, and it’s clear he doesn’t think those at the helm have an easy time of it. There are those fractious school boards. Parents who want their children transferred to another teacher now. Students’ scores on high-stakes exams.

“Being a superintendent is just about the hardest political job in America,” says Heifetz, a nationally known authority on leadership in the public arena. “You’re a puppet with so many strings attached that it’s not hard to get your arm pulled off.”

But that doesn’t mean conflict—or inertia—is the inevitable result. Develop stronger adaptive skills, Heifetz says, and your organization can adjust and even thrive amid wrenching change. Learn to communicate your aspirations, he advises, and you will better help your colleagues to embrace them. Rethink traditional notions of command and control. Stop expecting a leader to have all the answers. Then you may see genuine reform take root and energize those around you.

Drawing on his wide range of perspectives—lecturer on public leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, co-founder of the Center for Public Leadership, author, psychiatrist and cellist—Heifetz has redefined leadership, loosening it from the traditional moorings of solo initiative and moving it toward a process of engaging colleagues in addressing new demands. It’s an approach that ultimately makes success the responsibility of all a community’s members.

Advice on how to lead is easy to come by—a quick trip through any bookstore will confirm that. But for many school leaders, what separates Heifetz’s work from the pack is its recognition of the demands they confront and the tools it offers for moving forward. “I think the way he breaks down the change process has a lot of resonance,” says Paul Houston, AASA executive director. “Most superintendents see themselves as having to bring about change. As a breed, superintendents feel pretty put upon. Heifetz says, ‘Yes, you are—and you still have to lead.’”

Sitting in his airy office at the Kennedy School in Cambridge, Mass., Heifetz recently shared some of his views with The School Administrator.

Q: The No Child Left Behind legislation has imposed a lot of mandates to be met in a relatively short time. When a superintendent has to take someone else’s vision and put his mark on it, how does he or she start?

Heifetz: I think NCLB represents, at the level of orienting values for the educational system, a major challenge by articulating an aspiration that has rarely if ever been taken seriously in the history of American education. But at the level of this high aspiration, at that abstract and high level of a dream, it probably identifies an underlying truth in the American vision that, even though rarely articulated if ever, has always been there. It’s the same overarching value that Martin Luther King Jr. grabbed ahold of in August 1963 when he said, I have a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

A great company and a great country and a great school system will claim values that generate a gap between current operating reality and those values, rather than claiming minimal values, with which they then can say, we have no gap, we’re successful. I think the federal government has been, by stating such a vision, surfacing the huge gap between the fundamental nature of the American proposition that all human beings are created equal and the reality of how our school systems have been operating, which is that we tolerate perfectly well leaving many children behind. There isn’t any nation on the planet that has figured out how to not leave any child behind. Clearly, that’s a job for a great many institutions in a society, not only the school system.

One of the injustices I’ve observed in working with school systems is that they’re being asked to do the primary job here, letting the other institutions in a community off the hook. In a sense then, they’re being asked to treat this adaptive challenge as if it were a technical problem that can be solved solely through their own instruments. We know that that’s just not true. We have to gear up as a society to help (school systems) do their part of that job. In the end, they still can’t do that job all by themselves—it’s going to require other institutions in the community to collaborate in providing a healthier holding environment for those children.

Q: So where does a school superintendent begin to address this and spell out the challenge?

Heifetz: The tactics of adaptive change always have to be tailored to a particular situation. Different situations call for different qualities of touch: some soft touch, some a harder touch. The essential point, however, is to claim a higher set of aspirations and then to mobilize the people in your building or district to be more creative and collaborative in teaching each other and in working together to discover how to get closer to realizing those aspirations.

In the process, you’re going to end up identifying people who are unwilling to undergo that kind of adaptive change because it involves too much loss, too much disloyalty for them, and they will sabotage the effort. And many of those people will have to leave.

Frequently adaptive processes will require accepting casualties. One ought to try to minimize the number of casualties. The people who can’t change have reasons why they’re deeply invested in their way of doing things, and one can work with them in more innovative ways to release their stranglehold on their creativity. But sometimes you can’t figure out how to do that in a timely enough fashion, and they’ve got to go.

Q: Is part of that process empowering teachers, principals and others, working your way through the system to get a broader variety of people to take on leadership roles?

Heifetz: Different classrooms even within the same building are going to require different adaptations because different teachers bring to their work different talents and weaknesses. The job of the principal is to say, “Here are my aspirations.” In that regard, I think the federal government has provided a huge assistance to principals and school superintendents all over the country in saying we’ve got to meet this aspiration; we can no longer leave children behind. That’s fabulous fuel for the fire—and they’ve got to use that fuel.

Now they’ve also got to find ways to reshape the policy so they can reshape it to the adaptive requirements of their community. Ultimately, you want teachers to discover how to increase the yield of success within any classroom. And teachers in individual classrooms will have to go against the grain of certain inculcated habits in the system to learn how to do that.

What we need is a culture in which teachers invite colleagues into each other’s classroom. The superintendent has to set that as a process goal and create structures that will encourage that to happen…. Teachers are going to need help to figure out how do I respond to a given situation? The teacher might say, “I took off 10 minutes to talk to the student, but I didn’t get anywhere.” One has to help that teacher learn how to optimize that 10 minutes. Or if you can’t get anywhere, what are some other resources you could bring to bear from outside the community?

In the long term, it is more debilitating to the teacher to neglect that student than it would be to discover a way to help that student. In the short term, there’s an added amount of investment the teacher needs to make so you get resistance.

What we need to develop are processes and procedures to change the culture within buildings in order to make it not only permissible but strongly encouraged for that kind of collaborative learning to take place.

Q: What are some effective ways to bridge gaps and create a community where people can take a risk?

Heifetz: There’s the rewarding of experiments, and the response to failure that’s an inquisitive response, saying, “OK, what can we learn from what just happened?” which begins to change the norm in the culture, rather than saying, “How the hell could this have happened?” Because the “how the hell could this have happened,” people know that already. What they don’t know is that anyone’s willing to learn anything from what’s happened.

The superintendent needs to be a public leader on education. The superintendent has to ask: “Who needs to learn what in this community for us to make progress for kids?” Then the superintendent has to develop a strategy that addresses those various constituencies: the retired people, some of whom don’t see a stake in paying taxes; employers who could be doing more; parents who need to be doing a better job; clergy; social service agencies; the police.

The public leadership job for the superintendent is to be the champion for the children within each of those so that each of those communities begins to bear the weight of the responsibility. The natural inclination within many of those communities is to throw the monkey back on the back of the school system. And the job of the superintendent is to say, “We’re going to carry that monkey as best we can, but we can’t carry it by ourselves.”

Q: What are the benefits to school leaders of being able to join a community of their peers to discuss leadership issues? You have talked about the Wallace Foundation project, which brought such a group together. Did the school leaders involved find a new sense of community, and did having this outlet make their job more manageable?

Heifetz: It wasn’t until about the third workshop that they began to let down their guards—that was six or eight months into it. The first retreat was five days, and all the subsequent ones over two years, every quarter, were three days, and we structured a fair amount of time each gathering to have them present cases of a leadership dilemma to each other in small groups for consultation. It took several workshops before they began to see what an opportunity it was for them to have this kind of conversation.

Q: Were there any leadership dilemmas that you saw that you didn’t necessarily anticipate?

Heifetz: Nearly all were ones I wouldn’t have entirely anticipated. I think the most dramatic findings were twofold: They seemed to find it enormously helpful to have a leadership framework that took into account the political complexities of their jobs and that distinguished the technical expertise that all of them had from the adaptive challenges. It was quite liberating to them, I think, to have those adaptive challenges as the focal point of our attention.

This is different from the authoritative expertise that they were predisposed to exercise: “Here’s the problem, I’ll give you the solution.” Even when you’re supervising a teacher in the classroom, and you may see all sorts of potential solutions, none of them are solutions in truth until they are realized in her behavior or his behavior. So what you think are your solutions are really just your proposals until they are internalized and lived.

This was a new way of thinking, and it liberated quite a lot of creativity on their part. It named something they had all experienced, but they had not had an analytical framework for beginning to get their heads around their task in mobilizing adaptive work.

The second big thing is the excitement that was unleashed when they discovered each other. They knew each other, but they hadn’t had these kinds of collaborative conversations where they were helping each other figure out, “What’s the next leadership move I should make? How should I have this conversation with this person?” They got very nitty-gritty, very tactical. They delighted in teaching each other. They wanted more of it.

You know, the isolation and aloneness at the top is really unnecessary. These people will by default move into a lonely position in relation to their job by virtue of the politics of their job, the organizational dynamic of their job. You fight it by calling colleagues on the phone in other districts who have no competing stakes and with whom you can start getting real. The more real you get, the less lonely you feel.

The key here is distinguishing self from role. There are some rich opportunities to create within various regions forums in which superintendents might come together to talk periodically and begin to share cases.

Q: How do you address it when something goes wrong and people shoot arrows your way? You’re the flashpoint within the system for discontent.

Heifetz: There are at least three aspects to this. One is the strategic aspect: How should I respond to the complaint? In my books, we discuss a strategic framework for responding to leadership challenges of that. Another dimension is the interpretive dimension: How do I make sense of what’s coming at me? There’s an important diagnostic part of the work. The third piece: How do I not take it personally? That is hard to do when the stakes are high because you generally care with your gut.

I’ve found that because the stakes are high, school administrators are more inclined to be brittle in their response to opposition. By brittle, I mean not only that they are reacting, but they are too ready to discount the quality of the opposition. I don’t mean they’re too ready to discount the political strength of the opposition or the import of the opposition from an organizational point of view. But they’re quite ready to discount that there are any legitimate values in the opposition.

You can’t negotiate very well with an opposition nor mobilize an opposition if you discount the values they stand for. You have to have some reverence for the pain of change that you’re asking your opposition to sustain if it were to take any steps toward your agenda. Allies come cheap; it doesn’t cost them anything. The opposition has the most to lose. So when you distinguish yourself from your role, you can begin to depersonalize the attacks, and that also helps you depersonalize the people who are attacking you. You can begin to understand what’s really at stake for them, for their jobs, their competency.

You need to get inside the head of the opposition, and then work with it, figure out how to negotiate with it. This is usually necessary because rarely do you have the political capital to just blow them out of the water, and even if you did, it might not be the right thing to do.

Q: How recent is the shift in the conception of leadership that moves people away from a more “silo” mentality?

Heifetz: I think it’s recent, over the past 20 years. Certainly to conceptualize leadership in this way, in which leadership is distinguished from authority and in which technical is distinguished from adaptive work. So you can begin to understand what kind of leadership is going to be required to mobilize new adaptation within a system. How do you do that with authority and beyond your authority?

Superintendents or principals have a realm of authority, but they also have critical constituencies who lie outside their authority. Parents, for example, or for the superintendent, school board members or taxpayers or the mayor or the chamber of commerce or the teachers’ union. Key aspects of his or her reality that they have to contend or negotiate with—they’ve got to find ways to exercise leadership into those constituencies beyond their authority.

So this is a relatively new way of thinking. It’s also consonant with a trend in the business community in which people are thinking more about boundary-less organizations.

Q: In your discussions with superintendents, do you find a defensiveness about their work?

Heifetz: I think they are defensive, appropriately and inappropriately. I think there’s an appropriate level to this defense because underlying the attack on public schools is a set of assumptions about children and about how a society should work that are the antithesis of leaving no child behind. Assumptions in which it’s perfectly all right to leave children behind, they’re a lot who are incapable. I think people in the public schools who are trying to defend the disenfranchised children are reacting defensively in a totally appropriate way.

At the same time, improving the public school system is going to require experimentation because it’s the nature of adaptive progress that experimentation is required. Genetic diversity is what drives adaptability in a species. And genetic diversity is another word for multiple experiments being run in a gene population in the hope that in a changing environment, one segment of that population will have the keys to the future. So we need multiple experiments to be run in a community, and it may be that, for example, some of the charter schools will generate lessons that can then be applied in the regular public school system much more broadly.

Some of the defensiveness is inappropriate in the sense that we do need multiple experiments to be run. The challenge is to run these experiments without investing even less in our public schools, which to my mind are underinvested in even now.

Amelia Newcomb is a staff writer with The Christian Science Monitor in Boston. E-mail: newcomba@csmonitor.com