Secret Advice: What Harvard Kennedy School’s Ron Heifetz teaches in his re-entry talk for graduating students

 Ronald Heifetz, King Hussein Bin Talal Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School

Ronald Heifetz, King Hussein Bin Talal Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School

Ron Heifetz is a leadership guru’s guru. Trained as a psychiatrist with a degree from Harvard Medical School, he served as the founding director of Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership. His classes at Harvard Kennedy School, including Exercising Leadership: The Politics of Change, are so popular that they often go for the maximum number of points in the school’s bidding system.

 So what does he have to teach?

 Thankfully, he offers a “re-entry talk” for graduating students, chock full of hard truths and secrets to success. Student pack into every square inch of HKS’s Forum to hear his wisdom, but you won’t find videos of it online. Instead we have distilled the essence here:

1. You are in more danger than you realize.

Students reentering the workforce will find out, quite painfully, that it was much safer for them to be angry or outraged in graduate school than in the real world. Institutions inherently resist change, and as an agent of change, institutions will constantly be looking for ways of neutralizing you. In polite society, this can be accomplished by isolating you if you lack allies, stymieing you if you lack organizational knowledge, or denigrating you if you leave yourself open to personal attacks.

2. Reenter quietly.

People will be incredibly interested what you learned in graduate school. But if they ask you to give them advice based on what they learned – don’t! Prof Heifetz believes “if you do you might as well put a bulls-eye on your chest and say ‘shoot me here’!” Some people may be competitive and resent the credential you have and look for reasons and ways to tear you down. Instead if asked for advice, say “One thing I’ve learned is how to listen.” Ask them to tell you what’s happened in their organization or community since you’ve been gone. They will be flattered that you are showing interest in them.

3. Negotiate your job offer to provide time to learn.

It is far less effective to dive straight into your work than to plan 3-6 months to first get a lay of the land. You’ll want to understand which issues are relevant, evaluate the proper way to sequence issues, identify possible allies, and find best voices to champion those issues besides you. Heifetz says that in leadership, “People die with their mouths open. No one was neutralized for listening too much.”

4. Grasp the limits of your knowledge.

You think you know “your people,” but anyone can only know a sliver of a location, group, people. None of us really know our people and especially not since we’ve been gone. As much as you have had to “represent” your tribe at HKS, now go back and understand more of it.

5. Understand the differences between allies and confidants.

Allies amplify your voice. It is much harder to isolate groups of people clamoring for change than the lone gadfly, so having allies ensures that your message is not easily neutralized. Confidants, on the other hand, are there for venting. To be a confidant, they need to have no conflicting interests with you. They may not even care about the issue!

For example, as you try to gain resources for your team at work, your co-worker may be your ally and your spouse may be your confidant. You can freely vent to your spouse about downsizing the marketing departments to get manpower for your team. After all, he or she doesn’t know these people and has no interest in the conflict. But if you were to do the same with your co-worker, you may put them into compromising position. What of your co-worker has allies of her own in marketing? How could you expect her to your secret from them?

These roles are not static. Take other example: if your mother-in-law comes to visit, your co-worker may become the confidant you vent to while your spouse becomes your ally in dealing with her needs.

The problem with confusing allies for confidants in a given situation is that you will confuse reasonable negative reactions as betrayal: a feeling so bad, as Heifetz notes, that Dante put it in the 9th circle of hell. However, the original sin is yours: putting allies in the bad position.

6. Develop practices to reflect.

Heifetz says that the best basketball players are the ones who can escape the perspective they have in the thick of the game to see the whole court, as if from above. Put another way, good leaders can be both on the dance-floor, interacting with their allies and associates, and on the balcony, seeing all the players including themselves in one view. Develop structures that will help you build this skill, such as journaling.

7. The brain does not distinguish between cognition and emotion.

In addition to logos, use pathos and ethos in all your arguments. (if you’ve been reading this blog, you already know that)

8. Separate yourself from your role.

Much of what you encounter in your job is not personal, but it is easy to take things personally – especially if what happens to your job is that you lose it. Heifetz talks about discussions he had with the King of Jordan. Heifetz asked whether having people constantly praise him ever boosts his ego. The King said no, because when people praise him, they are not praising him, the man, they are praising “the King.” No one cares about him, they care about his throne. Similarly, when there was an assassination plot that nearly took his life, he had to recognize that those people were not trying to kill him, the man, they were trying to kill “the King”. Remember that you are more than any one role, and that no role, however big, is big enough for you to fill it with your full self.