Leadership: It's not what you think...

Leadership: it’s not what you think...

I have recently returned from study at the Harvard Kennedy School, both inspired and humbled by my time there. The program, the Art and Practice of Leadership Development (APL), led by Professor Heifetz was both unlike and far more than I ever expected. My dream of an intellectual feast, soaking up knowledge delivered by eminent Harvard Professors, and coming back to share my new found knowledge was quickly dashed amidst the chaos of 60 students from different countries and cultures grappling with a program in which we were the ‘case in point’.

The first few days of intense disequilibrium seemed to be summarised by the recurring question, ‘what are we talking about anyway?’ Confusion, frustration and challenge seemed to be the order of the day. Yet in the midst of this, often groping blindly, we began to distinguish leadership from authority and to see how a group’s immunity to change has us avoid the work to be done. Slowly we stopped looking to the authority figures to give us the answer. We began to address the real questions, to listen to each other and to build our very public learning into collective knowledge. True leadership began to emerge and, along with it, the most extraordinary sense of group identity, as we moved from ‘I’ to ‘we’.


It was raw, it was challenging, it was deeply engrossing and it was life changing.


Unlike most programs, the APL doesn’t look to the attributes or the skills of leaders as the core of its development work. Rather, it looks to the work itself. Leadership is a verb rather than a noun. It is the act of mobilising people to face and solve an adaptive challenge. These are the challenges for which there is no simple (even if highly skilled) technical solution. It is where the problem is complex, where there are many competing factions and where the solutions are beyond our existing skills and resources.

And that leadership work is not the romantic, noble and inspiring vision we are so often sold. It is heart led for sure, but the true work is gritty and uncomfortable and risky. The work of adaptive leaders is to ‘mobilise people to tackle the hardest of their problems’ - the very problems we generally avoid. And this uncomfortable space takes all of us beyond the edge of our competency and challenges our values, our loyalties and even, at times, our identity.

Disequilibrium is the space in which true solutions can be found. The act of leadership is to provide the holding space in which this can occur. But this is a difficult and uncomfortable space. Even willing groups may work hard to avoid the real work, look for easy and temporary solutions or seek to blame someone else for the problem. Too often the leader themselves becomes the target of this blame.

We were given no simple strategies or solutions because there are none. But we came away with a deeper understanding of how to diagnose the real problems. We learnt about the importance of holding steady in the face of resistance and avoidance and that our job is to create a holding environment for productive disequilibrium. We learnt about the power of the different voices we all carry and the importance of engaging all factions. We learnt about the importance of sanctuary and confidantes to sustain us in the leadership journey. We experienced intense learning as a group and now, from our separate countries, continue to share our ongoing learning. And now, as I see how this is already being applied to the truly wicked problems around the world, I am once again both inspired and humbled.

What are your thoughts about leadership in the face of adaptive challenges? I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas in the comments below.

– Helen Rees is Director of Frameworks for Change – a company dedicated to transforming workplace culture.