Quotes from Leadership without Easy Answers, by Ronald Heifetz

- ‘Instead of looking for saviors, we should be calling for leadership that will challege us to face problems for which there are no simple, painless solutions – problems that requires us to learn new ways.’ (2)
- ‘Imagine the differences in behavior when people operate with the idea that ‘leadership means influencing the community to follow the leader’s vision’ versus ‘leadership means influencing the community to face its problems.’ (14)
- ‘The second image of leadership – mobilizing people to tackle problems – is the image at the heart of this book. This conception builds upon, yet differs from, the culturally dominant views.’ (15)
- ‘If we leave the value implications of our teaching and practice unaddressed, we encourage people, perhaps unwittingly, to aspire to great influence or high office, regardless of what they do there. We would be on safer ground were we to discard the loaded term leadership altogether and simply describe the dynamics of prominence, power, influence, and historical causation.’ (18-19)
- ‘In this study I will use four criteria to develop a definition of leadership that takes values into account. First, the definition must sufficiently resemble current cultural assumptions so that, when feasible, one’s normal understanding of what it means to lead will apply. Second, the definition should be practical, so that practitioners can make use of it. Third, it should point toward socially useful activities. Finally, the concept should offer a broad definition of social usefulness.’ (19)
- ‘The common personalistic orientation to the term leadership, with its assumption that ‘leaders are born and not made’ is quite dangerous. It fosters both self-delusion and irresponsibility.’ (20)
- ‘This study examines the usefulness of viewing leadership in terms of adaptive work. Adaptive work consists of the learning required to address conflicts in the values people hold, or to diminish the gap between the values people stand for and the reality they face. Adaptive work requires a change in values, beliefs, or behavior. The exposure and orchestration of conflict – internal contradictions – within individuals and constituencies provide the leverage for mobilizing people to learn new ways.’ (22)
- ‘The point here is to provide a guide to goal formation and strategy. In selecting adaptive work as a guide, one considers not only the values that the goal represents, but also the goal’s ability to mobilize people to face, rather than avoid, tough realities and conflicts. The hardest and most valuable task of leadership may be advancing goals and designing strategy that promote adaptive work.’ (23)
- ‘If we assume that leadership must not only meet the needs of followers but also must elevate them, we render a different judgment. Hitler wielded power, but he did not lead.’ (24)
- ‘As we shall see, a strategy of leadership to accomplish adaptive work accounts for several conditions and values that are consonant with the demands of a democratic society. In addition to reality testing, these include respecting conflict, negotiation, and a diversity of views within a community; increasing community cohesion; developing norms of responsibility-taking, learning, and innovation; and keeping social distress within a bearable range.’ (26)
- ‘In human societies, adaptive work consists of efforts to close the gap between reality and a host of values not restricted to survival.’ (31)
- ‘Some of us may hate or distrust authority, but I doubt that we can do without some form of it.’ (49)
- ‘A study of preschool children in Virginia showed that those who dominated the attention of others also won the most struggles over access to toys. Observers attached the label ‘high-ranking’ to these dominant children. Middle- and low-ranking children focused their attention on those with higher rank than themselves rather than on those whom they could displace at the toy shelf. They also spent much more time glancing at high-ranking classmates than vice versa. Attention focused upward. In addition, the children tended to orient themselves spatially (to find their place) by locating those in their own rank and by staying in close proximity to them.’ (55)
- ‘Dominant children serve other functions in addition to orientation. In a Munich study of four-year-old children, the child that commanded the most attention was also the one who most often initiated and organized games, interceded as a third party to break up disputes, and represented the group when interacting with another group. Children of lower rank tended to obey, imitate, smile, and offer presents to the high-ranking child. In a study of first-graders playing dodgeball, the child who appeared most skillful emerged in time as the dominant individual to whom the rest of the players look for organization. By first and second grade, most children agreed on the individuals with two dominant characteristics: Who is the smartest? Who is the toughest? Yet few agreed on the identity of the least smart and least tough among them. Attention, again, focused upward in the hierarchy.’ (55)
- ‘Once settled on the hierarchy, the rest of the members seem to find their places and roles, and the level of tension within the group diminishes dramatically. As the same time, cohesion increases.’ (56)
- ‘Authority provides direction. If a crisis ensues, the group turns more of its attention to the chairperson, expecting her to solve the problem. If she does not fulfill that expectation, she loses status and sometimes the dominant role. The group expects the person in authority to provide solutions to crises and, as a corollary, the promise or hope that a solution will be found.’ (56-57)
- ‘I define authority as conferred power to perform a service. This definition will be useful to the practitioner of leadership as a reminder of two facts: First, authority is give and can be taken away. Second, authority is conferred as part of an exchange.’ (57)
- ‘Dominance relationships are based on coercion or habitual deference; authority relationships are voluntary and conscious. In reality, however, these types of power relations often overlap.’ (58)
- ‘The threat of coercion is part of the authorization we give to the traffic police, for example, to prevent accidents at dangerous intersections. Not only do we want that threat to inhibit the impulses of other drivers, we also look to it at times to bridle out own.’ (59)
- ‘Often, the deal to confer power in exchange for a service is made so automatically that the phrase ‘social habit’ may fit better than ‘social contract.’ ’ (61)
- ‘The concept of social contract may be one cornerstone of democracy, yet democracy is not so easily achieved in light of our inclination to look to authority with overly expectant eyes. In part, democracy requires that average citizens become aware that they are indeed the principals and that those upon whom they confer power are their agents. They also have to bear the risks, the costs, and the fruits of shared responsibility and civic participation.’ (61)
- ‘While the stress is severe, we seem especially willing to grant extraordinary power and give away our freedom. In a historical study of thirty-five dictatorships, all of them emerged during times of social distress.’ (65)
- ‘In times of distress, we turn to authority.’ (69)
- ‘It should be obvious from reflecting on our daily lives that authority relationships are enormously productive. The human capacity for generating complex systems of authority is essential to our extraordinary adaptability and creativity as social creatures.’ (69)
- ‘The flight to authority is particularly dangerous for at least two reasons: first, because the work avoidance often occurs in response to our biggest problems and, second, because it disables some of our most important personal and collective resources for accomplishing adaptive work.’ (73)
- ‘Going way beyond the perfunctory public hearings mandated by statute to accompany national rulemaking, Ruckelshaus proposed to engage the community at large in facing the problem. He announced the EPA’s intention to solicit actively the views and wishes of the people that would be most affected by the EPA ruling. ‘For me to sit here in Washington and tell the people ofTacoma what is an acceptable risk would be at best arrogant and at worst inexcusable.’ ’ (91)
- ‘First, [the leaders] identified the adaptive challenge – the gap between aspirations and reality – and focused attention on the specific issues created by that gap. Recognizing that they were working with a problem that existing technical expertise could not solve satisfactorily, they shifted from giving authoritative solutions to a plan for managing people’s adaptive problem-solving.’ (99)
- ‘Authority can be divided into two forms: formal and informal.’ (101)
- ‘The term ‘holding environment’ originated in psychoanalysis to describe the relationship between the therapist and the patient. The therapist ‘holds’ the patient in a process of developmental learning in a way that has some similarities to the way a mother and father hold their newborn and maturing children. For a child, the holding environment serves as a containing vessel for the developmental steps, problems, crises, and stresses of growing up.’ (104)
- ‘Attention is the currency of leadership. Getting people to pay attention to tough issues rather than diversions is at the heart of the strategy.’ (113)
- ‘Authorities commonly have the power to choose the decisionmaking process. In essence, they must decide on the presence and relevance of conflict, and whether and how to unleash it. Deciding which process to use – autocratic, consultative, participative, or consensual – requires judgment based on several factors. We have begun to introduce three of these factors already: the type of problem, the resilience of the social system, and the severity of the problem. To these we should add a fourth: the time frame for taking action.’ (121)
- ‘Yet when faced with an adaptive challenge, an authority might still choose a more autocratic mode as a result of other factors. First, the organization or community may have too little resilience to bear the stresses of adaptive work. Giving the work back to people may overwhelm them and run counter to prevailing norms.’ (121)
- ‘Third, in a crisis situation, there may not by enough time to engage in a more participative process.’ (122)
- ‘Exercising leadership from a position of authority in adaptive situations means going against the grain. Rather than fulfilling the expectation for answers, one provides questions; rather than protecting people from outside threat, one lets people feel the threat in order to stimulate adaptation; instead of orienting people to their current roles, one distorts people so that new role relationships develop; rather than quelling conflict, one generates it; instead of maintaining norms, one challenges them.’ (126)
- ‘1. Identify the adaptive challenge. Diagnose the situation in light of the values at stake, and unbundled the issues that come with it. 2. Keep the distress within a tolerable range for doing adaptive work. To use the pressure cooker analogy, keep the heat up without blowing up the vessel. 3. Focus attention on ripening issues and not on stress-reducing distractions. Identify which issues can currently engage attention; and while directing attention to them, counteract work avoidance mechanisms like denial, scapegoating, externalizing the enemy, pretending the problem is technical, or attacking individuals rather than issues. 4. Giving the work back to people, but at a rate they can stand. Place and develop responsibility by putting the pressure on the people with the problem. 5. Protect voices of leadership without authority. Give cover to those who raise hard questions and generate distress – people who point to the internal contradictions of the society. These individuals often will have latitude to provoke rethinking that authorities do not have.’ (128)
- ‘On Sunday, March 7, after the televised beatings in Selma, Dr. King announced: ‘In the vicious maltreatment of defenseless citizens of Selma, where old women and young children were gassed and clubbed at random, we have witnessed an eruption of the disease of racism which seeks to destroy all of America…The people of Selma will struggle for the soul of the Nation, but it is fitting that all Americans help to bear the burden. I call, therefore, on clergy of all faiths, representative of every part of the country to join me in Selma for a minister’s march on MontgomeryTuesday morning.’ ’ (135)
- ‘In the midst of crisis, the first priority is to evaluate the level of social distress, and, if it is too high, take action to bring it into a productive range.’ (139)
- ‘Crises provide authority figures with more power because people look to them to provide resolution.’ (140)
- ‘Thus, authoritative action will tend to reduce stress, while inaction will increase it. This may be true regardless of the content of the action.’ (140)
- ‘Had Johnson intervened as the nation demanded, by mobilizing the National Guard, he would surely have reduced the public’s distress over police brutality against black Americans. Johnson’s action would have directed the nation’s attention to a side issue: protecting the marchers’ right to express their demands. Yet as Johnson unbundled the issues, the point was not the right to march; the point was the right to vote. Had Johnson intervened immediately, the issue might have been understood the wrong way – the easy way.’ (141)
- ‘When a federal court issued a restraining order to delay the march for a few days, Johnson knew that a limit had been reached. Although King had tactically violated local and state law previously to make his point, he relied on national values, politics, and opinion to hold the states and cities in a process of change. Breaching a federal court order would have violated the national structure of authority – the final containing vessel.’ (144)
- ‘By taking the part of the lone warrior who knows best, Johnson sacrificed the political tools at his disposal to reality-test his policy.’ (163)
- ‘Even in retrospect, analysts seem to assume that Johnson’s tasks would be, first, to find a policy solution and, second, to persuade the public. This assumption reflects the constraint on leading from a position of authority. Even in our retrospective analyses, we cannot imagine a President raising hard questions to which he has no decisive answers.’ (166)
- ‘Any authority figure must decide where to place himself in relation to an issue. In general, he has three strategic options: (1) circumvention, with the risk of backing into a potential crisis; (2) frontal challenge – getting out in front and becoming the ‘bearer of bad tidings’ by introducing the crisis; or (3) riding the wave – staying just in front of the crisis, anticipating the wave and trying to direct its power as it breaks.’ (166)
- ‘Our forum was the Presidency, and their forum was the Eastern Establishment press, and since they ‘managed’ the news we would be better off discrediting the news media.’ William Safire, Nixon speechwriter (171)
- ‘Nixon might have reached out to the public and to Congress. For example, he could have moderated a presidential series of discussions on nationwide television between heads of prowar and antiwar factions on the practicalities of the war in the context of emerging trends in Soviet and Chinese affairs, or on the moral dilemmas posed by the war.’ (176)
- ‘As a columnist noted in late 1975, ‘Today it is almost as though the war never happened. Americans have somehow blocked it out of their consciousness. They don’t talk about it. They don’t talk about its consequences.’ Vietnam was barely mentioned in the presidential campaign of 1976. It took us nearly a decade before we even began to face the sacrifices, mistakes, and costs of the Vietnam War, before we began to build monuments, make documentaries and films, embrace the soldiers who fought the war, and capture its lessons.’ (177)
- ‘When we do elect activists, we want them to change the thinking and behavior of other people, rarely our own.’ (183)
- ‘The scarcity of leadership from people in authority, however, makes it all the more critical to the adaptive successes of a polity that leadership be exercised by people without authority.’ (183)
- ‘Having been denied formal authority roles in most societies, some women have learned strategies for leading without authority, and some have learned not to try leading at all. The same can be said of many disempowered groups.’ (184)
- ‘In fact, many people daily go beyond both their job description and the informal expectations they carry within their organization and do what they are not authorized to do. At a minimum, these people exercise leadership momentarily by impressing upon a group, sometimes by powerfully articulating an idea that strikes a resonant chord, the need to pay attention to a missing point of view. A staff assistant will speak up at a meeting even though she has no authority to do so.’ (185)
- ‘At an extreme, war has been used as a means to mobilize adaptive work. When Abraham Lincoln went to war with the South, he clearly had no authority, formal or informal, in the eyes of seceding Southerners. Indeed, in ten states he won no popular votes in 1860 because he was not even put on the ballot. He led across the newly formed boundary, challenging Southerners to solve rather than flee from the problems of reconciling differences within a union that their recent forebears had played dominant roles in producing.’ (186)
- ‘Because making progress on adaptive problems requires learning, the task of leadership consists of choreographing and directing learning processes in an organization or community.’ (187)
- ‘Leadership, with or without authority, requires an educative strategy.’ (187)
- ‘The absence of authority enables one to deviate from the norms of authoritative decisionmaking.’ (188)
- ‘When [Gandhi] fasted for justice, people began to pay attention, not because another person was about to die of starvation but because Gandhi practiced what he preached.’ (190)
- ‘The advantage of formal positions of authority is breadth. The disadvantage is distance from raw and relevant detail.’ (193)
- ‘For Gandhi to challenge these ways of life demanded knowing them deeply, by experience, by operating close to the frontline, where the stakeholders of India lived. Gandhi could speak to people, to their hopes, fears, weaknesses, and needs because he spent time knowing them. He could touch and inspire people because they touched and inspired him.’ (193)
- ‘In [Margaret Sanger’s] day, many women in America were desperate for a safe means of contraception, yet birth control of any sort was illegal. Indeed, even writing about birth control fell under state and federal laws against obscenity.’ (194)
- ‘Like Gandhi and King, [Sanger] became expert at using the press.’ (200)
- ‘Yet those who do lead usually feel that they are taking action beyond whatever authority they have.’ (205)
- ‘I suspect that they continued to experience leadership as an activity performed without authority, beyond expectations.’ (206)
- ‘In monitoring levels of distress, any leader has to find indicators for knowing both when to promote an unripe issue and whether the stress generated by an intervention falls within the productive range for that social system at that time.’ (207-208)
- ‘To King and his colleagues, the country had to face its own internal contradiction: the gap between what it said and what it did.’ (213)
- ‘[Sanger] stood silent before a crowd at Ford Hall Forum with a band of tape plastered across her mouth while the Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. read a brief statement: ‘As a pioneer fighting for a cause, I believe in free speech. As a propagandist, I see immense advantages in being gagged. It silences me, but it makes millions of others talk and think about the cause in which I live.’ King, as well, would have to embody personally the issue he stood for. That meant that he would have to struggle constantly with himself to live according to a very high set of standards.’ (226)
- ‘Yet however much King embodied civil rights, he never became the issue. The distinction is important. King only represented the issue, and most people, I think, could tell the difference. The context of his activity was clear. Few people thought King was the source of the civil rights perspective, even if they knew him as chief spokesman and strategist.’ (226-227)
- ‘President Johnson’s behavior illustrates the other side of the distinction. Johnson went way beyond representing the cause of the Vietnam War. By virtue of taking on the role of solitary decisionmaker, he became the issue – his judgment, his dishonesty, and style.’ (227)
- ‘A leader who pushes the authority figure in an attempt to solve important problems should expect the authority figure to strike back, not necessarily from personal motivations but form the community’s pressure on him to maintain equilibrium.’ (228)
- ‘The accumulation of evil never resides in one person at the top because no one gets to the top without representing the interests of the dominant factions in the system. The evil, if it is evil at all, lives in the routine ways in which people throughout the system collude in maintaining a dysfunctional status quo.’ (238)
- ‘The politics of inclusion are not faint-hearted efforts at making everybody happy enough. Inclusion means more than taking people’s views into account in defining the problem. Inclusion may mean challenging people, hard and steadily, to face new perspectives on familiar problems, to let go of old ideas and ways of life long held sacred.’ (239-240)
- ‘Leadership is a special sort of educating in which the teacher raises problems, questions, options, interpretations, and perspectives, often without answers, gauging all the while when to push through and when to hold steady.’ (244-245)
- ‘As a model of leadership, this neglects human truths. The learning required to accomplish adaptive work is not simply conceptual. Logical argument is rarely sufficient. Sifting through the old and fashioning something new takes emotional work. To move at the pace of logic alone, people would need an unusually high level of rationality and intellectual freedom from habit, tradition, and pride. The leader as educator has to engage the parties in a process of inquiry that accounts for their fear or pain, if learning is to be produced.’ (245)
- ‘Contrary to common usage, an individual cannot ‘martyr’ himself, even though he sacrifices his life, unless the a makes him into a martyr.’ (246)
- ‘Why is it lonely on the point? Because those who lead take responsibility for the holding environment of the enterprise. They themselves are not expected to be held. They do the holding, often quite alone.’ (250)
- ‘The myth of leadership is the myth of the lone warrior; the solitary individual whose heroism and brilliance enable him to lead the way.’ (251)
- ‘The strategic challenge is to give the work back to people without abandoning them. Overload them and they will avoid learning. Underload them and they will grow too dependent, or complacent. Thus, an authority has to bear the weight of the problems, for a time.’ (251)
- ‘What follows, then, are seven practical suggestions for bearing the responsibility that comes with leadership without losing one’s effectiveness or collapsing under the strain. They are: (1) get on the balcony, (2) distinguish self from role, (3) externalize the conflict, (4) use partners, (5) listen, using oneself as data, (6) find a sanctuary, and (7) preserve a sense of purpose.’ (252)
- ‘As we have seen, an adaptive challenge consists of a gap between the shared values people hold and the reality of their lives, or of a conflict among people in a community over values or strategy.’ (254)
- ‘1. What’s causing the distress?
2. What internal contradictions does the distress represent?
3. What are the histories of these contradictions?
4. What perspectives and interests have I and others come to represent to various segments of the community that are now in conflict?
5. In what ways are we in the organization or working group mirroring the problem dynamics in the community?’ (258)
- ‘In October 1962 the world avoided nuclear war in part because John F. Kennedy had the capacity to distinguish role from self during the Cuban missile crisis.’ (264)
- ‘In contrast, Martin Luther King Jr. externalized the civil rights conflict. His strategy did not prevent his assassination, but during his life it kept the public’s attention where it belonged. King repeatedly reinforced the message that the conflict was not between white Americans and him, nor even between black and white Americans. It was a conflict between American values and American reality.’ (265)
- ‘Even if the weight of carrying people’s hopes and pains may fall mainly, for a time, on one person’s shoulders, leadership cannot be exercised alone. The lone-warrior model of leadership is heroic suicide. Each of us had blind spots that require the vision of others. Each of us has passions that need to be contained by others.’ (268)
- ‘Partners come in two general types: the confidant and the ally. The confidant is the person to whom one can cry and complain. A confidant can provide a holding environment for someone who is busy holding everybody else.’ (268-269)
- ‘An authority should protect those whom he wants to silence.’ (271)
- ‘To sustain the stresses of leadership, he needs to know enough about his own biases to compensate for them. If he reacts automatically to reject advice when it is given in a way that appears condescending, for example, he needs to become sufficiently acquainted with that reflex that he can listen and respond flexibly, according to the needs of the situation.’ (271)
- ‘When Socrates described himself, he drew a crucial distinction between wisdom and a passion for wisdom. Having a passion for wisdom surpassed the attainment of wisdom. Curiosity was a virtue. Indeed, he considered only a life of ongoing examination worth living.’ (271)
- ‘Finding a Sanctuary…To exercise leadership, one has to expect to get swept up in the music. One has to plan for it and develop scheduled opportunities that anticipate the need to regain perspective. Just as leadership demands a strategy of mobilizing people, it also requires a strategy of deploying and restoring one’s own spiritual resources.’ (273-274)
- ‘Leadership, seen in this light, requires a learning strategy. A leader has to engage people in facing the challenge, adjusting their values, changing perspectives, and developing new habits of behavior.’ (276)


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