Pioneering Leadership Development | Adaptive Leadership courses at the Harvard Kennedy School

Since 1983, when Ronald Heifetz fielded his first leadership course here, the Harvard Kennedy School has been at the forefront in the field of leadership development. All those years ago, outside of military academies, the scholarly study of leadership was a rarity. But in the years since, Heifetz and his HKS faculty colleagues have spent decades analyzing the personal leadership cases of political, social, and business leaders, and especially those of HKS students themselves. Lessons from these thousands of cases inform and continue to shape the theory of practice and pedagogy of the Adaptive Leadership courses being taught this year at HKS.

MLD-201 Exercising Leadership: The Politics of Change is the foundational course introducing students to key concepts and frameworks for understanding leadership. Taught in the fall by Farayi Chipungu and Tim O’Brien, and in spring by Hugh O’Doherty, MLD-201 provides a diagnostic and strategic foundation for leadership practice.  Applying theory to practice, these instructors help students learn, and understand the relationship among key concepts:
What is leadership?  How is “leadership” distinguished from “authority” in a given context, system, or organization?  How can one exercise leadership without authority, whether from inside a system, or from outside? What are the available diagnostic tools for analyzing the complexity of change in social systems, and formulating strategies of action?

Students in MLD-201 employ multiple frameworks for analyzing the challenges leaders face. Principally, how can one understand the distinctions between straightforward “technical” challenges and the array of “adaptive” challenges that most often lead to the seemingly inevitable failures of leadership.

“Adaptive work is needed when both the challenge itself and its potential avenues for progress are unclear, if new ideas and new learning are required, and if hearts and minds must shift for progress to occur.”1

Given ever-present, adaptive challenges and concomitant risks of failure, students aspiring to lead must learn reflective practices to become thoughtful and resilient. Using an action-based pedagogy, MLD-201 instructors and course coaches enable students to engage and experience the exercise of leadership. Then, using extensive, scaffolded feedback and reflective activities, students learn and improve their personal leadership practice. Thus, students come to understand what is “the work” of leadership.

Two courses taught by Heifetz build upon these foundational frameworks and practices.

In his January-term, intensive course MLD-202 Leadership from the Inside Out: The Capacity to Lead and Stay Alive–Self, Identity, and Freedom, Heifetz asks students to make a pivot from the contextual, external dimensions of leadership to focus on personal, internal dimensions of leadership.  As complicated as the external context may be, Heifetz has come to understand that of equal importance is a leader’s own self-understanding. “We want to zoom in on YOU as a complex system,” he states. Young and developing leaders must be able to read and comprehend their own multiple identities – e.g., family, political, racial, national, sexual, etc. – and the activation and interplay of these at any given leadership moment.

Ronald Heifetz standing and smiling
Ronald Heifetz, King Hussein bin Talal Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership, at Harvard Kennedy School.
(Photo by Tom Fitzsimmons)

Heifetz has learned that sometimes identity-based frames of reference cloud and confuse leaders, leading them to poorly or incorrectly diagnose situations, putting them into danger and contributing to their own neutralization.  In the course, students undertake a deep exploration of their own internal habits, guided by analytical structures, frameworks, and conceptual methods of analysis, with the goal being to strengthen their sense of self and to become less reactive when identifications are activated to their detriment.  Understanding what students bring into a given leadership situation, and developing a practice to remain flexible, keep curious, open to information and change, but still maintain integrity is the goal of MLD-202. Referencing the U.S. Civil Rights activist and longtime U.S. Congressman John Lewis, Heifetz says, “We want you to become a smart ‘troublemaker’!”

As in MLD-202, Heifetz’s fall course MLD-204 Leadership from the Inside Out: Self, Identity, and Freedom – With a Focus on Anti-Black Racism and Sexism asks students to look inside themselves and to develop a practice of analysis and reflection, but with a special application to the distinctive challenges  – both internal and external – that leaders might face in combating anti-Black racism and sexism. Focusing on these two discrete, but admittedly huge, challenges to the practice of leadership, students can draw lessons about fighting other forms of enculturated injustice, as well as any other challenge for which they are willing to engage in the dangers of leadership.

“We want you to become a smart ‘troublemaker’!”

The course has four strands that weave through the semester:

In the first strand, through political psychology, Heifetz leads an exploration of the nature and sources of identity and analyzes identity as both a profound resource and endangering constraint on the practice of leadership.

The second strand consists of intensive casework. Students analyze leadership cases from their experience in two directions: externally on the ecosystems of anti-Black racism and sexism they have known; and internally on their own identities.

In the third strand, students investigate their vulnerability, as a product of their own unique identities and experiences, to key dangers of leadership and professional life: the temptations of significance, belonging, and validation; authority, power, influence, and control; and intimacy and sexual gratification. Students will strengthen their capacity to assess dangerous situations that can play to their weaknesses and then learn to respond to these with self-awareness and discipline.

In the fourth strand, students explore ongoing ways to generate the freedom of mind and heart to engage fully in the diagnostic and action work of leadership and stay alive in their lives and in the spirit of their work.

As is true of all the adaptive leadership courses described here, MLD-204 draws on multiple disciplines and areas of study: history, economics, sociology, philosophy, psychology, studies of gender and race, religion, literature, as well as organizational and political leadership.

Special note on MLD-202 and MLD-204:  These courses are designed to generate a personally transformative education. Interested students should note that these courses will be an intensely emotional experience. They explore students’ own cases of failure and success as well as their experiences of trauma and its impact on identity, especially MLD-204. Students can choose how deeply they explore these experiences, and no one will be pushed to share more than they wish. Nevertheless, students should not take these classes if they do not feel prepared at this time to undertake a potentially destabilizing exploration.

The personal frameworks in MLD-202 and 204 complement the systems framework developed in MLD-201 Exercising Leadership: The Politics of Change, so it is strongly recommended that students take MLD-201 first, or, at a minimum, concurrently with 202 or 204.

Any of the above mentioned courses will nicely complement other courses in the range of leadership focused courses taught in the MLD Area. For questions about these courses, or any other in the MLD curriculum, email Greg Dorchak, MLD Area Administrator.

1. Source: The Adaptive Leadership Network.

Williams’s New Book Offers Guidance for Boundary Spanning Leaders

Photo of Dean WilliamsLeaders today—whether in corporations or associations, nonprofits or nations—face massive, messy, multidimensional problems. No one person or group can possibly solve them—they require the broadest possible cooperation. However, in his recent book Leadership for a Fractured World (2015, Berrett-Koehler Publishers), HKS MLD Area scholar Dean Williams argues that our leadership models are still essentially tribal: individuals with formal authority leading in the interest of their own group. Williams goes on to outline an approach that enables leaders to transcend internal and external boundaries and help people to collaborate, even people over whom they technically have no power.

Drawing on what he’s learned from years of working in countries and organizations around the world, Williams shows leaders how to approach the delicate and creative work of boundary spanning, whether those boundaries are cultural, organizational, political, geographic, religious, or structural. Sometimes leaders themselves have to be the ones who cross the boundaries between groups. Other times, a leader’s job is to build relational bridges between divided groups or even to completely break down the boundaries that block collaborative problem solving. By thinking about power and authority in a different way, leaders will become genuine change agents, able to heal wounds, resolve conflicts, and bring a fractured world together.

The book features a forward by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Book Cover of Leadership for a Fractured World by Dean Williams