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Lead Like a Psychiatrist, Not a Surgeon

Harvard professor Ronald Heifetz gives a lesson on leadership.
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To one Harvard professor, most people view leadership completely wrong. 

“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,” said Ronald Heifetz, professor of public leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School, in an NPR story

Heifetz--who has held his post for three decades--said that this only works in situations where there is a right answer and an expert who has that answer.

Adapt, adapt, adapt.

Heifetz argued that this approach to leadership fails much of the time because most situations require a model of adaptive leadership.

“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 and so you can go off and solve it on your own,” said Heifetz. 

Heifetz spoke a great deal about how this shift in leadership strategy can be used in political situations--drawing on historical examples in the NPR story--but in all situations he stressed that you cannot impose change on people. He argued that ordinary citizens must become the drivers of change, a tenant that rings true in a business environment as well. 

How problems should be solved. 

Heifetz drew on examples in medicine to drive home his point about leadership. He argued that most people approach leadership today like surgeons when they should be acting like psychiatrists. 

“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 deliver back a solution.' In psychiatry, when a person comes to you with a problem, it is not your job actually to solve their problem. It is your job to help them develop their capacity to solve their own problem,” said Heifetz.

The takeaway? Instead of telling people what you want them to do or how you want them to solve a problem--come to a solution together. 




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