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.

Female doctor attending to male patient

MLD-636: Managing Transformations in Healthcare with Thomas Glynn

Learning from practice is a hallmark of the Harvard Kennedy School, and our faculty includes numerous talented individuals who have spent significant portions of their careers in public service.  Perhaps the best example is adjunct lecturer Thomas Glynn.

Glynn’s long and distinguished career has spanned across the public-, private- and non-profit sectors, and covered an array of public policy domains, including public health, labor, transportation, and urban development. From 1983 to 1988 Glynn served as Deputy Commissioner of Public Welfare in Massachusetts which included oversight of the Commonwealth’s Medicaid program. From 1989 to 1991, Glynn was the General Manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority which includes subway, trolley, bus, paratransit and commuter rail services for Greater Boston. In 1991 the Mayor of Boston, Raymond Flynn, tapped Glynn to chair the Mayor’s Healthcare Commission with a focus on improving the performance of neighborhood health centers. Then, in 1993, Glynn was nominated by President Bill Clinton to be U.S.  Deputy Secretary of Labor. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate by unanimous consent and served through April 15, 1996. HKS adjunct lecturer Tom Glynn

Subsequently, from 1996 to 2010 he served as COO of Partners Healthcare (now called “Mass General Brigham | Integrated Health Care System”), a network of Harvard hospitals, clinicians, and neighborhood health centers. Stepping down from Partners in 2010, Glynn joined the Harvard Kennedy School for the first time, teaching MLD-101, then the introductory public management course in the MPP core, and serving as the faculty chair of an executive program for new State Commissioners for Public Health.  Called into public service again, Glynn left HKS to serve from 2012-2018 as CEO of the Massachusetts Port Authority which includes Boston’s Logan International Airport, four maritime businesses in the Port of Boston and significant real estate portfolios in the South Boston Seaport and East Boston Waterfront. In 2018 Glynn returned to Harvard, becoming Chief Executive Officer of the Harvard Allston Land Company, overseeing the University’s non-institutional development of its Enterprise Research Campus in Allston, MA. In Fall of 2019, Glynn stepped back into the HKS classroom as an adjunct lecturer teaching courses in on strategic management for public service organizations.  Glynn continues to serve on the Board of Directors of the Pine Street Inn, an agency that serves the homeless, the Massachusetts General Hospital Institute for Health Professions, and several other non-profit healthcare organizations.  For his exceptional service, Glynn was named a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration.

Bringing his wealth of experience into his course MLD-636: Managing Transformations in Healthcare Glynn focuses on how to successfully manage transformations in the U.S. healthcare system. Transformations in healthcare include changing reimbursement models, initiatives to improve quality, and projects to redesign the care delivery system. Unsurprisingly, given his experience, this course will work across sectors – non-profit, private, and public sectors, including federal, state and local levels.  Using primarily the case-method pedagogy, this course will begin with a focus on diagnosing specific contextual, organizational, and cultural challenges faced by organizations delivering healthcare.  Then the course will turn to management tools that can transform the healthcare delivery system. These tools include: 1) managing silos, 2) enhancing the role of clinicians, 3) goal setting and monitoring, and 4) public health campaigns. Glynn also plans to bring into his class several distinguished guest lecturers who are in the heart of current practice.

MLD-636 will be offered at Harvard Kennedy School in the fall semester. If you have any questions about this course, or any other in the MLD curriculum, email Greg Dorchak, MLD Area Administrator.

Make a Difference through Government: Data-Driven Public Management with Elizabeth Linos

In this age of deep societal challenges and growing complexity, when government at all levels is tasked with implementing a wide and growing range of policies to ensure and improve the public good, public managers and those working with governments can find it very difficult to move the needle on important programs and policy initiatives.
With her new course MLD-125 Data-Driven Public Management , Professor Elizabeth Linos introduces graduate students to the central elements of public management and policy implementation, with a focus on three core challenges that public managers face: managing programs; managing people; and managing change.  A sampling of the questions explored in this course include:

  • How can governments use data and evidence to improve program performance and what do you do when the data is bad?
  • How do we reduce administrative burdens in government and why does it matter?
  • How can we recruit, retain, and support frontline workers?
  • What are the big dilemmas around algorithmic decision-making, nudging, participatory government, and other innovations that an effective public manager should consider?

Using academic theory from public management, real-world case studies, and a series of guest speakers who work in and with government, students will learn about the barriers and opportunities to make a difference through government.  While most of the cases studied will focus on federal, state, and local government challenges in the U.S., Linos draws on best practices and studies from around the world.

Portrait photo of Elizabeth Linos smiling
Elizabeth Linos

Dr. Elizabeth Linos joined HKS in July 2022 as the Emma Bloomberg Associate Professor for Public Policy and Management.  Linos is a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard College with majors in Government and Economics. She earned her PhD in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School in 2016, and went on to spend 5 years as Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley
Between college and graduate school, Linos worked directly in government as a policy advisor to the Greek Prime Minister, George Papandreou, focusing on social innovation and public sector reform. While pursuing her doctorate, Linos spent two years as Vice President, Head of Research and Evaluation at the Behavioral Insights Team – North America, working with government agencies in the U.S. and the U.K. to improve programs using behavioral science and to build capacity around rigorous evaluation. In 2021 she was appointed, and now remains, a non-resident Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution.

Linos’ research focuses on how to improve government by focusing on its people and the services they deliver. Specifically, she uses insights from behavioral science and evidence from public management to consider how to recruit, retain, and support the government workforce, how to reduce administrative burdens that low-income households face when they interact with their government, and how to better integrate evidence-based policymaking into government. To those ends, Elizabeth founded and now directs The People Lab at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government with a mission to empower the public sector by producing cutting-edge research on the people of government and the communities they are called to serve. For more information, follow the work of The People Lab on Twitter.

MLD-125 will be offered in the fall semester. For questions about these courses, or any other in the MLD curriculum, email Greg Dorchak, MLD Area Administrator.

MLD-304: The Science of Behavior Change with Todd Rogers

Leverage insights about human decision making to develop interventions that improve societal well-being.

This is the primary learning goal of MLD-304 The Science of Behavior Change taught by Professor Todd Rogers.
The fast growing research field dubbed “behavioral economics” or “behavioral science” examines the mechanisms of, and influences on, human judgment and decision making, especially in the areas where our choices differ from the rational and the optimal.  Insights from this research has provided a new set of tools that complement standard economics and policy levers for influencing behavior (namely, incentives and information) and allowed us to improve implementation of interventions promoting the public good.  These new tools and ideas have relevance across fields ranging from healthcare, education, criminal justice, social welfare, electoral politics, personal finance, and beyond.
In addition to learning more about the science of how humans make judgments and decisions, students in MLD-304 will also be taught how to improve the quality of their own judgments and decisions by identifying areas of thinking prone to errors and cognitive biases. Some of these errors are particularly important for real world problems.  This course will also increase students’ familiarity with randomized experiments, enabling them to be smarter consumers of claims that interventions cause certain outcomes.

Watch Professor Rogers describe an example from his work on voter mobilization:

Read an extensive piece the HKS alumni magazine about Todd Rogers’ recent work.

Join other students at HKS and across Harvard interested in behavioral science in the Behavioral Insights Group which brings together an outstanding group of decision research scholars, behavioral economists, and other behavioral scientists. BIG’s staff are always happy to talk with students. Please feel free to reach out to Program Manager, Maja Niksic (maja_niksic@hks.harvard.edu), follow BIG on Twitter, check out BIG’s LinkedIn Network where behavioral science-specific jobs are posted, or access the resources of the Behavioral Insights Student Group.

MLD-304 is offered at Harvard Kennedy School in the Spring semester. If you have any questions about this course, or any other in the MLD curriculum, email Greg Dorchak, MLD Area Administrator.

MLD-352: The Leadership System: Leaders, Followers, Contexts with Barbara Kellerman

History attests that leadership has never been just about single individuals perched at the top of the greasy pole. It has always been more complex a process than the leader-centric leadership literature would seem to suggest,” says Barbara Kellerman, the James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership. In her Fall 2020 course MLD-352: The Leadership System: Leaders, Followers, Contexts, Kellerman and her students explore that notion by examining the interconnected dynamics that followers and context play in the story and success (or failure) of a leader.  Through her many years of reading and writing on leadership Kellerman has developed a novel framework to help students analyze situations in which leaders (and followers) find themselves, and to understand what roles they can, should, and (perhaps) should not play. “This is not in any conventional sense a ‘how to’ course. Rather it is an intellectual journey into the heart of leadership,” explains Kellerman. Portrait photo of Barbara Kellerman

Drawing on a breadth of thought from Confucius and Machiavelli to James MacGregor Burns, and examples from Nazi Germany to modern leaders like Angela Merkel and Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, this course covers concepts of the leadership “industry,” our ideas about authority, the dynamics of contextual change, and varieties of leadership, good and bad. Harvard students can view a video course preview with Kellerman.

Learn more about Barbara’s approach:

View a (~10min) video with Barbara describing her 2012 book The End of Leadership and summarizing her view of the Leadership System and the Leadership Industry.

Read her regular blog on current events and issues of leadership in the news, or explore her latest books Leaders who Lust (Cambridge Univ. Press)  Professionalizing Leadership (Oxford Univ. Press).

Listen to a Leadership Perspectives Webinar from the International Leadership Association about about how and why leadership and followership have changed over time, especially in the last forty years. She also raises questions about leadership as both a scholarly pursuit and a set of practical skills including: Does the industry do what it claims to do—grow leaders? Are leaders as all-important as we think they are? What about followers? Isn’t teaching good followership as important now as teaching good leadership?

MLD-352 will be offered at the Harvard Kennedy School in Fall of 2020.  Kellerman’s other course MLD-349M: Bad Leadership: Leaders, Followers, Contexts will be offered in Spring of 2021, respectively. For questions about these courses, or any other leadership courses in the MLD curriculum, email Greg Dorchak, MLD Area Administrator.