Leadership 101

In this leadership class don't expect to the professor to teach.

A hundred students sit in a room waiting for the course to begin. At exactly 10 o'clock the professor stands to read his introductory notes: You will not be late. You will not eat in class. Everything is being taped for your record. You will not disclose what happens in this room to anyone else.

He then falls silent. A minute passes. The students become increasingly uncomfortable. Another minute ticks by.

Eventually a student musters the courage to speak. "Perhaps we should use this time to discuss our thoughts on world affairs," she suggests. Silence. "I've heard too much about that topic," someone else replies. The proposal has failed. More silence.

This is a typical scene from Leadership 101, a course to prepare tomorrow's movers and shakers for the risks of trying to lead.

The unconventional technique is fast gaining respectability in both the public and private spheres, thanks largely to the efforts of Harvard University's Ronald Heifetz, a former lecturer in psychiatry who has adapted methods used in group therapy into a classroom setting. His second book on the subject, "Leadership on the Line," written with Marty Linsky, was published earlier this year.

Dr. Heifetz doesn't think of leaders as individuals with the ability to influence or persuade others. Instead, he wants to help people work through particularly difficult issues, or what he terms "adaptive challenges."

"An adaptive challenge," he explains, "is a problem that can't be rectified by simply drawing on your existing repertoire of solutions."

Students sitting in the classroom, nervously watching their silent professor, are faced with an adaptive challenge. They want to learn about leadership, but the teacher is not playing ball. Their usual responses are suddenly inadequate. To solve this problem they will need to invent and discover new ways of learning.

Reactions to this pedagogical style cover the gamut. "People who like order may move immediately to try to create some sort of structure," explains Heifetz. "Others may thrive in chaos and attempt to upset the equilibrium even more."

However, certain behaviors emerge with surprising predictability. The professor will frequently be criticized for "refusing to teach." Feeling betrayed, exasperated, or just plain bored, students may start to break the simple rules laid out at the start, arriving late, or perhaps bringing lunch to pass the time as the class endlessly debates how it should proceed.

For some, the monotony is broken only when an argument erupts or when the professor sparks a discussion by playing a film or piece of music.

The semester-long course is peppered with unusual components. Weekly meetings bring five or six students together to analyze examples of "leadership failure" – chosen from their own experiences. And then there's the mysterious "music night," an evening event at which students are asked to read a poem or story that "plucks their heartstrings" and then vocalize their feelings in a song – literally – to enable them to "connect with the group."

But the twice-weekly "large-group meeting" – when the 100 students come together – is where the real action happens.

After a couple of weeks, the group begins to use itself as its own case study. The complaints, the gestures of dissent, the arguments – everything becomes fodder for further discussion and influences the ever-shifting dynamics. Why do certain people have more influence than others? How do some get sidelined while others get their way?

The professor acts as a moderator, but occasionally adds his own insights. By examining the group's behavior, students learn about leadership through experience rather than by rote.

At Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where the course has been taught by Heifetz and his team for 18 years, it has earned itself a somewhat schizophrenic reputation: To some, it's the best professional development program in existence; to others, it ranks with staying in bed as a sensible use of time and tuition fees.

Leadership 101 has been dubbed "the cult" by its critics. One student, who asked for anonymity, complains, "You're expected to make a leap of faith – if you can't suspend your disbelief, the course can be rough." The lack of solid "proof" that anyone is actually developing leadership skills is a common cause of frustration. Skeptics point to the intense emotional environment of the course to suggest that students can easily get carried away with the promise of finally "getting it" if they only try hard enough.

Despite these misgivings, the course's popularity appears well-deserved. Alumni tend to gush about the impact it has had on their work.

Carla Cataldo, for example, remembers how the group would personalize issues as a way of sidelining difficult topics. Understanding this dynamic has proved useful in the 14 years since she took the class. Now Ms. Cataldo is managing her own community-development consultancy. "The experience of drawing ire from the class, and being a lightning rod for their frustrations," she says, "taught me a lot about how to deal with hostile communities."

Paul Uhlig, who took the course five years ago, is applying another lesson to his work as a cardiac surgeon: how to make people face difficult issues without feeling threatened.

Dr. Uhlig is concerned that the culture of medicine, with its sharp boundaries between doctors and patients, is in dire need of reform. His team at Concord (N.H.) Hospital has been working toward such reform. Doctors make the ward rounds together. As many as 12 practitioners hold group conversations with patients and families, allowing each participant to express concerns and pose questions.

"The class taught me what to expect when you want people to change," Uhlig says. "You have to create the right level of discomfort, to move people into an area that can be productive without overstepping the threshold." The team was already among the best in the country: Taking risks in an attempt to be better still is a delicate undertaking.

Despite the difficulty, the experiment seems to have been a success. Over the program's first three years, the team cut in half the number of deaths following surgery, and surveys now give the hospital high marks for patient satisfaction – in the 97th percentile on a national scale.

Another common challenge of leadership is bearing bad tidings, not a task that many people relish. But Ian McAuley, a lecturer at Canberra University who took the class in 1986, is teaching the government of Australian state of Tasmania to do exactly that.

Tasmania's economy has entered a period of serious decline. Stemming this decline, says Dr. McAuley, means "getting people to accept certain things: Water is limited; demand for our commodities is down." He argues that the process of adjusting aspirations is itself a prerequisite for renewed growth, freeing people to think in new ways and explore opportunities.

In practice this has meant a change in the way government officials speak to the public. Tasmania's premier, Jim Bacon, is careful not to promise the impossible. Flashy stage-managed events have been replaced with low-profile town-hall meetings. The emphasis is on listening, and acknowledging hardships, rather than on selling a comprehensive manifesto for the future.

In a culture that increasingly celebrates "heroes," nothing could be further from traditional notions of leadership than this. Alumni of Leadership 101 take personal risks for public gains. "It's a strange thing," says one former student, "to see your greatest potentials and your deepest flaws set out in front of 100 other people, and to learn how to use the experience for good."

• Tristan Jones participated in Leadership 101 as a graduate student at the Kennedy School of Government.

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