"Leadership has risks, know your challenges, recognize the players, get up to the balcony regularly and don’t forget, at the end of each day, to recognize the fruits of your labor."

A few weeks back, from January 30 to February 2, the members of the Urban Policy Advisory Group (UPAG), a part of Living Cities collaboration with the Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance on the Project for Municipal Innovation– met for the ninth time in the last five years. The discussion at hand was “Transformative Mayoral Leadership in an Environment of Change.” With dozens of people in the room from 30 of the largest, most creative U.S. cities, the discussion was strong and fruitful.

Ronald Heifetz kicked off the three-day session. He spoke about his latest book, co-authored with Marty Linksy, “Leadership on the Line, Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading.” Among other topics, Heifetz spoke to UPAG about the risks of leadership, technical and adaptive challenges, and the importance of recognizing the differences between allies and confidants.

“However gentle your style, however careful your strategy, however sure you may be that you are on the right track, leading is risky business.”

Leaders pose difficult questions, expecting and demanding change from their followers. Change isn’t easy because of the associated risk of the unknown; someone needs to carry the responsibility for that risk. At home, school, or work, many of us want to lead, but need to be able to balance the risks that come along with the rewards.
It’s no mystery that people like change when it’s good. Heifetz provided an example of a husband and wife team finishing a budgeting exercise the night before they win $1M. Are the husband and wife team likely to say, “Thanks, but no thanks. We just got our budget in line and the extra $1M might require some tweaks to the finished product?” Would you?

“If leadership were about giving people good news, the job would be easy.”

Heifetz spoke about other leadership challenges, more specifically understanding the difference between what he calls technical and adaptive issues. Technical issues can be solved by changing processes. In Heifetz’s example, a doctor can work on a person’s heart to reconstruct arteries or valves. For the most part, it is a known procedure that can solve a mechanical problem. This happens on a daily basis around the world. Adaptive issues, on the other hand, can be resolved by overhauling priorities. These issues are often tougher to overcome. The adaptive issue applies to the heart patient’s recovery, their lifestyle moving forward, and their ability to reprioritize. In a number of cases, the patient must restructure their lifestyle to avoid returning to the same, or even a worse, state of health. Identifying the proper issue type is tough, but necessary, to lead successfully.

Successful leadership also includes being able to differentiate between allies and confidants. Heifetz explained that allies are those stakeholders that are able to advance your work or your organization’s work. Those people that you can depend on to support your professional efforts. He warned leaders to be careful about backing these allies into a corner. Leaders need to be able to balance particular conversations with specific people to achieve success. Allies and confidants are different, very different. Confidants are your friends, your pals, those people you can call up at the end of a tough day to talk about the tough problems and challenges that occurred, said Heifetz. These are the people that are active listeners, lending an ear at a weak moment in time. They help you get “up to the balcony,” as Heifetz refers to it, see things from a different perspective, help you to view the risks and rewards of specific decisions that your allies might not be able to see, or be willing to tell you.

“The only way you can gain both a clearer view of reality and some perspective on the bigger picture is by distancing yourself from the fray.”

Throughout our three-day UPAG session, participants consistently returned back to Heifetz’s talk. During discussions about challenges, successes and best practices, related to everything from education to homelessness to big data in cities, the themes of leadership and the tools to work through leadership application were mentioned. The UPAG session was a great success and Heifetz set the right tone during the Thursday dinner: Leadership has risks, know your challenges, recognize the players, get up to the balcony regularly and don’t forget, at the end of each day, to recognize the fruits of your labor.

“But putting yourself on the line is difficult work, for the dangers are real. Yet the work has nobility and the benefits, for you and for those around you, are beyond measure.”

Jessica Casey is the Associate Director of the Urban Policy Advisory Group