1: It’s the first day of class at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.  About one hundred graduate students find their seats.  Professor Ronald Heifetz, a popular professor and well-known authority on leadership, sits in a black swivel chair in the front of the classroom.  

He doesn’t take attendance or begin his lecture.  He just sits there, staring at the ground “with a blank, slight bored look on his face,” writes Priya Parker, a former student in the class and author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters.  

“Dozens of students sit in front of him.  He doesn’t welcome any of them.  He doesn’t clear his throat.  He doesn’t have one of his assistants introduce him.  He just sits there in silence, staring blankly, not moving an inch.”

The official start time of the class comes.  And goes.  Nothing happens.  Students shift uncomfortably in their chairs.  The silence grows heavier.  

The collective nervousness grows.  “One person laughs.  Somebody else coughs.  There is a general, unspoken confusion among the students,” writes Priya.  

Someone finally speaks: “I think this is the class?” Others begin to speak up, slowly at first, but then more quickly, like a popcorn popper as the kernels start to warm up:  

“Is he just going to sit there?”

“I don’t have all day.”  

“No, I think this is the point.”  

“So what should we do?”

“Shhhh . . . Maybe he’s getting ready to speak.”

“Don’t shush me.  I have every right to talk.”

2: The nervousness and anxiety build.  “Without the professor leading the way, the students must deal with one another,” Priya writes.  “Any of the hundred of them is, technically, free to speak (or yell or dance or laugh or attempt to take charge).  No one is stopping them.

“But there are unspoken norms discouraging them from doing so.  And even when those norms are put to the test, as Professor Heifetz is doing by hanging back, each student has no idea how the others will react.

“Will one of them be strong enough, charismatic enough, or logical enough to convince the others what to do with the time?  Or will they endlessly argue?”

Side conversations begin.  The room grows louder.  It seems like an eternity, but actually, it is only about five minutes.

“By doing nothing, [Professor Heifetz] is abdicating his command of the classroom, refusing to play the expected role of professor-host—presumably, in his case, given his area of scholarship, for some reason we students do not yet grasp,” she writes.

Eventually, Ronald looks up at the class and to everyone’s great relief, says, “Welcome to Adaptive Leadership.”

3: What exactly is Ronald doing here?  “Launching a course on leadership by showing students what happens when you abdicate leadership,” writes Priya.

As leaders, when we fail to take action, we don’t do away with power.  We just hand it over to someone else.  In this case, the students.  “The students are left to navigate the treacherous road themselves,” Priya notes.

We “are not easing their way or setting them free,” she writes.  “We are pumping them full of confusion and anxiety.”

More tomorrow!


Reflection: Think of a time when a leader abdicated power.  What happened?

Action: Journal about the question above.  What does this have to do with me?

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