Opinion

Letter from the editor: Ron Heifetz on leading through the COVID-19 crisis

General Dwight D. Eisenhower speaks with U.S. Army paratroopers at Greenham Common Airfield in England on June 5, 1944, just before they board their airplanes to participate in the first assault in the invasion of France. U.S. Library of Congress
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With many of us back in lockdown and feeling like vaccines are close but not close enough, there is a palpable sense of frustration with political and public health leaders in Canada that—in my networks, at least—seems more desperate than it has at any other time during the pandemic. This applies equally to federal and provincial governments, and to governing and opposition parties. A public health crisis has also turned into a leadership crisis.

How did we get to this point, and what can be done to restore trust in our institutions and leaders? This week I sat down virtually with Ron Heifetz for a 45-minute interview to try and get at some of these questions about leadership in a prolonged state of crisis.

Heifetz is widely considered the foremost living expert on practicing leadership. He is the King Hussein bin Talal senior lecturer in public leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, and founded its Center for Public Leadership. Over three decades, he has advised heads of governments, businesses and non-profit organizations. His 1998 book, Leadership Without Easy Answers, is a stalwart on the bookshelves of global leaders. Some of its lexicon—”a boiling pot,” “the balcony versus the dance floor,” “silverback”—has become boardroom shorthand.

While those in charge bear a lot of responsibility for the rising case counts, vaccine challenges and growing discontent among the populace, Heifetz argues that we all have a role to play in the practice of leadership. 

Whether you’re a politician, a CEO, a civil servant, a schoolteacher or even a parent, I hope you’ll find this lightly edited and abridged transcript of our conversation as illuminating as I did. 

Professor, we are in a moment of crisis. Can you walk me through how your theories of leadership can be applied in this moment?

The pandemic has taught lessons to everyone involved in public problem-solving, which means almost everyone. Certainly all government institutions, public-policy think tanks and education institutions, businesses and the non-profit sector. 

One of the lessons that we’ve learned about public problem-solving from the pandemic is that there are a lot of problems for which we have already designed most everything we need to know about how to solve them. 

There are a whole host of problems that we would call technical problems, because we already have the expertise and the designs in place, organizationally, to process them. That’s what authoritative command in hierarchical systems enables us to do, it generates efficient responses to solve problems at scale.

Health care is an example. A child breaks his leg, you take the child to the doctor, the parents might be really upset, but the doctors know how to diagnose the problem, and prescribe a treatment. And within hours, the parent is taking the kid home with a cast on the arm or leg. Six weeks later, the cast comes off and the kid––with a little bit of rehab––is running around. 

Now, it took a lot of years to create the know-how to process these problems in an efficient way. That was hard won: there was a time when those problems were not known, and therefore fell into the second category of problems called adaptive challenges. 

Most problems fall along a spectrum of being more technical or more adaptive, some problems are at 80-10, 80-20. The thing is that a lot of the harder public problems—the pandemic being one of them—have large components of which are adaptive and not technical.

In a problem like a pandemic, those authoritative responses are important, but not sufficient. They’re not sufficient because in societies that have a political culture, that have doubts about trusting authority, you can’t simply order people what to do and expect them to do it. The pandemic illustrates that, in that set of problems that we’re calling adaptive, people have to change how they’re thinking about things. One of the characteristics of that set of problems is that the people are part of the problem—and therefore, solutions have to be crafted from the people. 

In a sense, the people are the material of the solution. They’re the substrate of the solution. A consulting practice might come up with brilliant recommendations, but they’re not solutions until they’re lived in the new behaviours of people. Which is why many strategy consulting firms may have a brilliant set of 200 slides that propose to be a solution, but none of it means anything until they’re actually living in new behaviours in the company. The failure of knowing how to mobilize that adaptive work is the reason why implementation failures are so common. 

People have good ideas about what needs to be done. But they don’t know how to mobilize people, to have people own the problem and internalize the changes that are needed. The pandemic has illustrated that you can eat massive changes at the most micro level of every parent, child, schoolteacher, small business, large business, school room, school building, as well as local governments and regional and state of national governments.

How does a leader in a crisis offer faith, but also confront the reality of the situation they’re facing? 

The first property of adaptive challenges is that [they require] distributed responsibility, because the problem is distributed amongst a widespread number of people.

So how do you do that? First, you need distributed leadership; you need leadership across the countryside. You need people leading their families, their school rooms, their classrooms, their small businesses, you need people practicing adaptive leadership in local governments. 

When you ask, “What’s the role of leadership?” It depends on where you’re situated. If you’re the uncle of the family, with stressed-out nieces and nephews and a stressed-out brother, then you’ve got to figure out how to step into that breach and sustain people through the changes they need to make. If you’re the principal of an elementary school, there is a leadership challenge for you in mobilizing the adaptations required to help teachers, children and parents develop new capacity so that kids could learn remotely. 

If you mean, “What’s the challenge for national authorities?”—people who we would normally call leaders, I would call them the senior authority figures. They have a critical role to play. Because in a time of crisis, the dependency on senior authorities to reduce panic, to coordinate the adaptive and technical responses, they have to do both. They have to authoritatively use whatever powers of command; they have to efficiently coordinate everything that can be done and instrumented on the technical side. But they also have to coordinate—again with an authoritative voice, but with a different strategy, the mobilization of collective responsibility, of collective problem-solving, of collective learning and adaptation. In a widespread fashion throughout all the other nodes of authority. All of those become apparatuses for mobilizing collective responsibility and coordinated collective changes in behaviour like mask-wearing, generosity to one’s neighbours and so forth—work that the government cannot instrument by command, but it can help coordinate, mobilize and catalyze through widespread, informal processes.

Ron Heifetz, King Hussein bin Talal senior lecturer in public leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, and founder of its Center for Public Leadership.

We’re now into a third wave of this pandemic. Whatever traits of leadership you’re exhibiting—whether it’s at a school or at a mosque, or as a senior authority figure—is there a point where you’ve lost the narrative? And how do you bring it back?

The renewal of trust requires a deliberate strategy from people in the highest positions of authority, because their leverage to get people to pay attention—and to listen to the science, and to not lose faith, and stay in the game, take their vaccines, wait until they can get the vaccine—and continue to do the other things that are necessary behaviour really requires trust. 

In our day and age, people can find some authority who will tell them what they want to hear. And so they’ll turn the channels of the TV, or they’ll plug in different social media feeds, so that they’re listening to this alternative set of authorities telling them that it’s all OK—even when that means they’re at a higher risk of dying—rather than turning to the authorities who are telling them things that they don’t want to hear because it requires more sustained sacrifice. So renewing trust is really critical.

It goes hand in hand that you need to renew trust and you also need to sustain the despair. You somehow need to pump air back in people’s water wings, because they feel like, “I just can’t tread water any longer. I’m going under. So to hell with it. I’m going outside, I’m going to the ballgame. I’m going to the movies. I’m going to do what I want to do.”

That puts enormous pressure on local authorities in government to relax all constraints. So it becomes imperative, both to renew trust and to instill hope at the same time.

The repair required to restore trust will be different depending on the segment of the community that is untrusting, to speak to the sources of their distrust and then to try to repair that trust, so that people do what they’re supposed to do, what they need to do. 

What about those who fundamentally believe that any public health requirements are an infringement on their individual rights?

I think it’s really important to say that we have societies—yours and mine—that believe deeply in the importance of freedom. But we also care about community. We also care about having communities that care for one another; that liberty and community need to go hand in hand. Many of these safeguards—both in terms of vaccination, and in terms of these disciplines of mask-wearing and social distancing—are not on behalf of just protecting yourself; they’re really on behalf of caring for one another. And so you have your freedom, but we are trying to encourage you to take care of your neighbours.

Is it possible to do inauthentic leadership or leadership where you may not believe what you’re saying, but you’re still trying to motivate people to follow that advice? 

It’s easier to gain authority in people’s eyes when you’re delivering the services they’re looking for. Because that’s the basic nature of authority relationships. Party A entrusts power to Party B and says, “You’re the go-to person; you’re the person I listen to, but in exchange for services, and if you stop telling me what I want to hear, I’m not going to listen to you anymore.” That’s the nature of authorization: “I authorize you to fix my car, I authorize you, a politician, to deliver certain services.” 

So it’s easy to gain authorization, if you’re telling people that you’re going to give them the services they’re looking for, particularly if we’re willing to trade off the long term for the short term, and hope that you’re not going to have to pay the piper in the long term. Very frequently, particularly in politics, and to some degree in the social sector, some are willing to take that risk of telling people in the short term what they want to hear and become the go-to person. Even if people discover over time that rather than lead them, you’ve misled them, and therefore haven’t prepared them to deal with the current reality. And depending on when the costs arrive, they may then say, “Wow, I trusted the wrong person” and spit you out. Or, if it’s long enough into the future, you can have a pretty long run at misleading people.

One of the most enduring things about your work is the concept of getting on the balcony or being on the dance floor. How do you possibly get on the balcony when you’re in the middle of a crisis, and everything and everybody around you is on the dance floor?  

By getting on the balcony, we mean zooming out from the scene and seeing it in wide angles, seeing it from a distance, so you can get perspective. So that you can pause.

The first thing it requires is a sanctuary. It needs a place where you can hear yourself think. It could be just a five-minute breather that you take two or three times a day; it could be a place where you pray or meditate on Sunday; it could be a bar that you go to and watch yellow liquid swirl and ice. But we need sanctuaries where we can get out of the fray, where the music isn’t blaring so loud that we can’t hear ourselves think on the dance floor, and where it’s quiet enough that you can recalibrate and ask yourself, “Wait a second. What am I trying to do here? What’s really going on? What’s the short, medium and long term? How do I think about this problem—not just the technical dimensions, but also the adaptive dimensions?” So sanctuaries are really important. And often people in the midst of a crisis treat them as expendable luxuries, rather than anchoring necessities. 

The second thing it needs is two kinds of partners. First, we need allies in the workplace, to sit back and say, “OK, let’s debrief the day.” And the regular habit of debriefing: “Let’s step back on the balcony, and ask ourselves, ‘Where are we now? What are we missing?’” Where you put the pieces together of the mess of your day. And take time to prepare for the next day. That kind of regular debriefing is really essential. 

Because leadership and adaptive context is an ongoing improvisational process, it’s an improvisational art. It’s not like you have a script, and now you’ve just got to stick to the plan. Dwight Eisenhower said it brilliantly when he coordinated the Allied invasion of Normandy, which was the most complex military operation in human history. In 1944, he said we never could have gotten onto the beaches of Normandy without a plan. And the moment we hit the beach, we had to discard the plan. Because you just can’t predict how reality is going to unfold once you’re in action. So to manage the improvisation, you have to keep pausing multiple times during the day, and certainly each day, to debrief. 

A subset of that is debriefing with confidants. These are people generally outside the immediate system, where you don’t have to manage information. These are people who are completely safe because they’re outside the system. These are the people you can cry your heart out to—pull your hair out, you know, have a temper tantrum, put all the mess on the table and say, “Please help me put myself back together.” These could be family members, close friends, counselors or therapists; they could be spiritual directors. We need both kinds of partners—confidants and allies—with whom to debrief. 

And the third thing we need is regular practices. I’ve alluded to this already. The practices could be going to the gym, painting, writing poetry, journalling. Regular practices are also a way of pulling or picking your kids up, you know, having those three hours—this is your time, you’re just forced to go into that infinite space of timelessness. Because with kids, a minute can take an hour, it feels, and those are practices that pull you out of the crisis, and force you into slowing down. 

So we need all three: sanctuaries, confidant partners of both kinds, as well as daily, regular practices to stay anchored. The pandemic has taught us it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

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Among the clients you are working with, is there a through line, or is everyone experiencing things differently?  

The commonality is that we have to do two things at once. We have to strengthen systems to generate resilience to reduce the casualty rate, to reduce the exhaustion, the despair, and then the acting-out of the despair in ways that are going to get you sick. And we also then have to mobilize various kinds of innovations. It may not sound like an innovation to figure out how to manage a family with young children, and work from home with the kids at home, but it is an innovative challenge. It is an innovative challenge almost daily to develop new ways of collaborating with a spouse, new ways of drawing other people into the home to help, new ways of working with a teacher at school. 

What a parent needs to learn, obviously, is different than what the schoolteacher needs to learn and how to teach online. And that’s different from what the mayor of a city or the head of public health is learning. But each of them is involved in working through that problem of innovation and resilience at the same time. 

Have we created new muscle memory? Will we forget these lessons?

I don’t think it’s going to vanish, certainly not entirely. Some of it is going to vanish; some of it will be sustained. It depends on the quality of leadership that we get, distributed across our communities. One of the great tasks of leadership is going to be to capture those lessons and to remind people of their resilience. When things get tough again—because they will get tough again; climate change is going to generate a hell of a lot of catastrophes—the next set of crises demand that we build from what we’ve learned in this last year.