Lessons In Leadership: It's Not About You. (It's About Them) It takes more than a decisive vision to solve intractable world problems, says Harvard leadership expert Ronald Heifetz. Instead, he advises his students — including budding heads-of-state — to think less like surgeons and more like psychiatrists.

Lessons In Leadership: It's Not About You. (It's About Them)

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm David Greene. Good morning. International disputes can seem impossible to solve. Certainly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or think about the civil war in Syria. And Iran. There's been some progress in the dispute over its nuclear program, but Secretary of State John Kerry said recent talks in Geneva were just the first step in a longer process.

At Harvard University, one professor teaches that intractable political problems need to be approached differently - with a different style of leadership. He says leaders usually approach these kinds of disputes like surgeons when they need to operate more like psychiatrists. NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam explains.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: This Harvard professor calls his brand of leadership Adaptive Leadership. He is Ronald Heifetz, and he's been professor of public leadership at Harvard's Kennedy School for the past three decades. His students are aspiring business and political leaders, and each year they 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.

RONALD HEIFETZ: The dominant view of leadership is that the leader has the vision and the rest is a sales problem. I think that notion of leadership is bankrupt.

VEDANTAM: Ron Heifetz believes conventional leadership only works for technical problems, where there's a right answer and an expert knows what it is. Adaptive problems are problems that require people themselves to change.

HEIFETZ: In adaptive problems, the people are the problem and the people are the solution. And leadership then is about mobilizing and engaging the people with the problem rather than trying to anesthetize them so that you can just go off and solve it on your own.

VEDANTAM: Heifetz says leaders cannot impose change on people. That's something he learned firsthand in his own life. He used to be an emergency room doctor. A woman kept coming in, battered by her boyfriend. Ron Heifetz behaved like experts do. He patched her up and told her to leave her abuser. It didn't work. Within weeks she'd be back with more bruises.

HEIFETZ: It wasn't until the third time when she came in and I finally asked her why are you still with him and sat down with her for an hour that I discover the complexity of change.

VEDANTAM: The woman's father had battered her mother for years. Her mother had stayed with her father. If she left her boyfriend, it would feel like she was repudiating her parents.

HEIFETZ: What is she supposed to say to her mother? You know, mother, you shouldn't have stayed with father. You modeled for me tolerating abuse that no woman should tolerate. How can she face her father and say to her father, you know, you never abused me, but what you did to mother was intolerable?

VEDANTAM: Heifetz understood why his original advice hadn't worked. The woman had to come to terms with her past and she had to do it her way. Heifetz says it was an epiphany, not just about this one woman but about the nature of leadership. He describes it using an analogy from medicine.

HEIFETZ: 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.

VEDANTAM: Now, individual and family problems are one thing and national or international politics is quite another. Heifetz acknowledges it's hard to imagine how adaptive leadership can work in politics. But he says there are plenty of examples. And he introduced me to a world leader who has used these techniques.

He's George Papandreou, the former Greek prime minister, and he once took classes from Heifetz at Harvard. His story about Adaptive leadership goes back to 1999, when he was Greece's Foreign Minister and Greece and Turkey were almost at war. Decades of mistrust were boiling over in disagreements about sovereignty, about natural resources.

Papandreou and Heifetz put their heads together. Panadreou says they quickly agreed that none of those issues could be tackled without first changing the deep hatred ordinary Greeks and Turks felt toward one another.

GEORGE PAPANDREOU: What does it mean to change when you've been living all your life knowing the Turks as an enemy? How do you change? That's adaptive, really. That's not a technical question.

VEDANTAM: Papandreou decided the first step to meaningful change was to show the Turks a friendly face. So he did something pretty gutsy. He went to Turkey and offered an olive branch. Heifetz went along. Papandreou offered to help Turkey get into the European Union, something the Turks really wanted. Through the media, he talked to Turks about a shared future. At every turn he acted like an ally. Heifetz says it made a big impact.

HEIFETZ: The Turkish papers had big banner headlines saying: Bravo Jorgo - which is Turkish for George, Bravo George, applauding his move.

VEDANTAM: At the same time, Papandreou and Heifetz knew the Greek public was strongly against any direct dialogue with Turkey. By the time Papandreou got home, the knives were out.

PAPANDREOU: There were quite a few of those who were saying, this minister, this foreign minister, is living in a different world. He doesn't understand. He's - and even people who were saying: You're a traitor.

VEDANTAM: Papandreou says it was at this very moment that a massive earthquake struck Turkey.

PAPANDREOU: I came out of my office. I was - I heard the news, and the media immediately asked me: Have you sent a statement? And I said, you know, I sent a statement, but I want to say something more. Why don't we help the Turks? Why don't we give blood?

VEDANTAM: Greek blood for Turkish victims, something friends would do for friends.

PAPANDREOU: I felt this was a real issue, but it was also a political act. The idea of blood, of course, has a much deeper symbolism. But the interesting thing, which I hadn't expected, was that there was an outpour of help. We didn't know what to do.

VEDANTAM: It was a moment of emotional catharsis. In the weeks and months that followed, Papandreou says ordinary Greeks and Turks took over forging ties between the two nations.

PAPANDREOU: So then, all of a sudden, you saw things coming out which, you know, we would never have expected - so cookbooks that are Greek-Turkish cookbooks. Of course. Why not? We have competitions: Who makes better baklava? Then we had TV serials, where a Turkish man or a Turkish woman would fall in love with a Greek woman or Greek man. And so there was a big, you know, these, you know, soap operas that were - became very popular.

VEDANTAM: Exactly as Papandreou and Heifetz had hoped, ordinary citizens had become the drivers of change. Now, the Greek-Turkish rapprochement is not the only time in recent history where adaptive leadership has made a political difference. Another academic leader in this field - Richard Pascale, of Oxford University - points to South Africa.

Nelson Mandela invited ordinary South Africans to share their experience of Apartheid in a process called Truth and Reconciliation. It didn't tell people what to say or do. It offered a framework for people to come to terms with history in their own way.

RICHARD PASCALE: The process itself brought people together, really owning up to what you'd done and forgiving someone for it. Now, that's big time behavioral, mindset, emotional, cultural change.

VEDANTAM: So there are successes, but Pascale says the risk of failure is always high when it comes to meaningful political change.

PASCALE: Being an adaptive leader is a danger sport, big time.

VEDANTAM: Here's proof of that: After Papandreou became prime minister of Greece in 2009, he again enlisted the help of Harvard's Ron Heifetz. Together, they tried to apply adaptive leadership techniques to the Greek debt crisis. Greeks were blaming banks and foreign institutions for their problems. Papandreou called for steep austerity measures, and asked how Greeks themselves could take responsibility for the crisis.

Greeks hated the message. Deep partisan fissures emerged, and policymaking was paralyzed. Papandreou says he turned again to his advisor. But as an adaptive leader himself, Ron Heifetz handed the problem right back.

PAPANDREOU: Ron Heifetz isn't a person who will tell you what to do. I think the last thing he would want - not only for himself, but for anyone else - is to be able for me to say: Oh, Ron, you've told me to do this and that. You know, it was a bad decision, and you're to blame. So...


PAPANDREOU: No, it's my decision, in the end.

VEDANTAM: Papandreou realized he could be leader of a paralyzed Greece, or he could exercise adaptive leadership and help his country move forward. He agreed to step down if Greece's warring political factions would come together. They finally did in 2011.

Shankar Vedantam, NPR News.

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