Ronald Heifetz has been a professor of public leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School for three decades, teaching classes that have included aspiring business leaders and budding heads-of-state. Each year, he says, the students start his course thinking they’ll learn the answer to one question:
As leaders, how can they get others to follow them?
Heifetz says that whole approach is wrong.
“The dominant view of leadership is that the leader has the vision and the rest is a sales problem,” he says. “I think that notion of leadership is bankrupt.” That approach only works for technical problems, he says, where there’s a right answer and an expert knows what it is.
Heifetz trained as a psychiatrist, and describes his view of effective leadership with an analogy from medicine. “When a patient comes to a surgeon, the surgeon’s default setting is to say, ‘You’ve got a problem? I’ll take the problem off your shoulders and I’ll deliver back to you a solution.’ In psychiatry, when a person comes to you with a problem, it’s not your job actually to solve their problem. It’s your job to develop their capacity to solve their own problem.”
Many intractable political issues, such as civil war, poverty or ethnic tension are complicated, and solving them may require a whole nation of people to change their mindset. As they approach these sorts of “non-technical” problems, Heifetz says, leaders should think less like surgeons, and more like psychiatrists.
In such cases, “the people are the problem and the people are the solution,” he says. “And leadership then is about mobilizing and engaging the people with the problem rather than trying to anesthetize them so you can go off and solve it on your own.”