Ronald Heifetz on “The harsh realities of effective leadership: when to assert authority and when to lead”

HeifetzThe world is in the throes of perpetual and permanent crisis – political, financial, ethical, health. Leadership, says Harvard University’s Ronald Heifetz, is both the problem and solution. It’s dangerous work and there are no easy answers, but it can be taught and done well.

Part of the challenge is fuzzy understanding of leadership versus authority. They are not one and the same; they may even be mutually exclusive. Authority is given to provide order, direction and protection while leadership centers on creating distress and disturbing the status quo, explains Heifetz, co-creator of the groundbreaking Adaptive Leadership model and founding director of the Kennedy School of Government’s Center for Public Leadership. The trick is to discern when to assert authority and when to lead, and that’s not as simple as it sounds.

The role of those who lead is ever-evolving, he argues. Their job is to “help people face reality and mobilize them to make change.”

Let’s face it: reality bites and change can be painful. “Exercising leadership generates resistance – and pain. People are afraid they will lose something worthwhile. They’re afraid they’re going to have to give up something they’re comfortable with,” says Heifetz, whose seminal book, Leadership Without Easy Answers (Belknap/Harvard Business Review Press), rocketed him and his leadership theories to prominence.

It’s this candidness about the definition of leadership and what it demands that make Heifetz and his authentic approach to teaching it so compelling. He’s one of the world’s leading authorities on the subject for good reason. His Harvard course – “Exercising Leadership” – is legendary for its popularity with students and its influence on their careers. Outside the classroom, Heifetz’s hands-on lectures and workshops with executives and government leaders from around the world are equally impactful as he brings them to the edge of truly understanding the difference between leadership and authority. It’s a taxing experience, but it’s also a life- and career-altering one.

The world is hungry for more and better leaders. A thorough understanding of Heifetz’s work increases the likelihood you will be one.

You might be interested in this Harvard video of Heifetz presenting his leadership framework. To learn more about Heifetz and his work, please click here.

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