I had a big surprise earlier this month. I enrolled in Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading, a course at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to be taught by Ron Heifetz. It was described as a two-week immersion in the theories outlined by Heifetz and Marty Linsky in their book of the same name. My goals were to learn more about teaching leadership, to understand better how to analyze a leadership challenge, and maybe to learn a little bit more about myself along the way.
I realized from the moment I entered the large lecture hall that I would be challenged in ways I had never been before. The whole world seemed to be there. In addition to the minority cohort of American students, there were men and women from India, Pakistan, China, Japan, Korea, Tibet, Israel, Palestine, Germany, France, Lebanon, Belgium, the Netherlands, the Ukraine, Kosovo, Great Britain, North Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya, Mexico, and many others, most in mid-career positions in their home countries. Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists. Students were young, middle aged, or mature, representing experience in business, public service, government, politics, environment, construction, education, media, engineering, and the arts.
A primary premise of Heifetz’ work is that we usually confuse leadership with authority. Leadership can come from any level of society. It is an action, not a role or position. The act of leading, according to Heifetz, is to disappoint people at a rate that they can handle. What he means is that to lead is to hold people through difficult periods of change. It is a dangerous act, one that requires both knowledge of the issues as well as knowledge of the self. This course was about knowledge of the self.
The group slowly began to open up. One intense Lebanese told of fighting with the rebels against Assad’s regime in Syria, recounting the atrocities he had witnessed on both sides. An Israeli spoke of his grandmother being the “living dead” for fifty years. A Pakistani spoke of how villagers continue to use water from a poisoned lake near his ancestral lands, a lake that had sustained his people for generations. A student from Kosovo told the story of the Ottoman Empire conquering his homeland in 1389 and how that battle continues to be refought to this day. Heifetz pushed everyone, challenging the notion that we have to act in the ways that our ancestors acted. He posited that we have no self, just responses to three layers of loyalties: our professional loyalties, our current social loyalties, and our ancestral or cultural loyalties. Many people resisted this notion, defending their belief that they could act independently of past influences.
I reflected on “the magic if,” a phrase from the work of Constantine Stanislavsky, the early 20th century Russian theater director whose experiments inspired what we now call Method Acting. A character in a play is merely a construct of current and past “given circumstances.” The actor uncovers as many of the “givens” as possible in order to understand the how and why of behavior. For example, using “the magic if,” if I were born in Moscow in 1850 to aristocratic parents who lost their fortune, my actions, habits and beliefs would be very different from those that I’m using now. What if this kind of work became a part of leadership training? Could we examine our loyalties by using this template from the the theater? If we acknowledge the power of our “given circumstances,” we can choose how to respond to a situation, rather than reacting the way the voices of the past pressure us to.
I observed others’ and experienced my own reactive behavior again and again during the two weeks of the course. A participant would say something provocative, or even helpful, and the room would erupt. I began to understand how quickly our loyalties set our inner chimes ringing. I could also see how national character was manifested in this microcosm of the world. Even if we don’t perceive of ourselves as personally perpetrating current injustices, we do represent the history of our ancestors and cultures to each other. I could see the American role as it played out in the room, which I described to a fellow student as big-hearted, bossy and invasive. I experienced how the best of intentions could be interpreted as arrogant intervention when coming from one nationality, but as kind assistance from another.
Heifetz continued to challenge the group. He proposed a method of understanding others that he called empathetic imagination. He went on to describe imagining what a day in the life of your enemy was like, the details of getting up, dressing, kissing the children, going to war. This humanizing concept confused several participants. “How do we learn how to do that?” hung in the air. Again, I thought of Stanislavsky. An essential part of the actor’s craft is to bring specificity and richness to the role by filling in the details of a character’s daily life without judgement. When actors create an “etude,” an improvisation inspired by a moment that might not be in the script but may be essential to the story, they are exercising their empathetic imagination. I became excited about bringing another set of theater techniques to this leadership model.
Anger, confusion, and frustration were still present, but people began to talk to each other. The Chinese participants organized a dinner with the Japanese participants to make tentative steps toward a conversation about deeply held mutual antagonisms. They began to sit next to one another in the lecture room. The Israeli whose grandmother had recently passed away spoke to a young German woman with compassion for her guilt and distress in bearing her ancestors’ crimes. Then a woman from North Sudan spoke up.
“I had always heard that the people of South Sudan were animals,” she began. “I had never met anyone from there. I knew nothing. Then I heard a story about the Lost Boys.” At this point, she looked directly at the man from South Sudan. “I heard how they escaped from the war, walked to Ethiopia and lived in a refugee camp for three years. I heard how they were kicked out of that camp and walked all the way back to South Sudan.” Here she paused. “Akol spoke of how he buried many of his friends on the way back.” The room was silent. “But there was no place for them when they got home. So they walked to Kenya, where they lived in a refugee camp for thirteen years.” She paused again. “I knew none of this. We were told nothing.”
Akol spoke. “After Aisha heard my story, she reached out to me. She asked if she could buy me a cup of coffee. Every bone in my body said no. I would betray my people if I talked to her. Would I sell my whole country for a cup of coffee?” Not a sound in the room. “I am learning. I accepted her invitation.”
I started to understand the scale of what Ron Heifetz was trying to do. Of course, he wanted us to acquire some knowledge about leadership. It was bigger than that, though. If quiet conversations between ancestral enemies can begin within the relative safety of a classroom, those conversations might ripple out beyond its confines. If we can recognize that the voices of our loyalties are telling us (or perhaps screaming at us) how to behave, we can understand how cycles of reprisal and revenge continue to be replayed. It then becomes possible to negotiate with those voices in order to make a better choice about how to respond, to be present with compassion and curiosity rather than hiding behind judgement and defense.
I want to be a part of this negotiation with the past so that the future may be different. I may never be in a traditional position of authority, but the contributions I can make may have meaning. I can pass on practices of the theater artist in a new context, one that can alter how we behave with each other even in our simplest interactions. I also now understand how making theater can be can an act of leadership when it is imbued with a sense of service, whether it’s to bring laughter, delight, revelation, reflection or cartharsis. As Stanislavsky writes in My Life in Art, “The theatre is the finest medium of intercourse between nations. It reveals their most cherished hopes. If only these hopes were revealed more often … then, instead of training guns on one another, nations would shake hands and lift their caps together.”