fbpx Leadership from Inside Out: Self, Identity, and Freedom–with a Focus on Anti-Black Racism and Sexism | Harvard Kennedy School
Ronald Heifetz Photo

Ronald Heifetz

King Hussein Bin Talal Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership


Leadership can be exercised from many locations in a society–from authority positions and from the streets–yet in general, to lead is to live with danger. It often requires putting yourself on the line, disturbing the status quo, and working with conflict. Those who lead take risks and sometimes get silenced, marginalized, or killed.

To lead through the dangers of change demands diagnostic integrity and skill. Many Kennedy School courses strengthen diagnostic skills by analyzing policy, politics, organizations, managerial processes, or the history and sociology of key issues.  

This course addresses a pre-requisite for those skills--diagnostic integrity. The course is designed to be a personally transformative experience with the aim of strengthening self-knowledge and self-discipline. We want students to know how to anchor themselves and work with the plurality of their identities in the daily diagnostic work of leadership.

This fall, we will focus on two critical challenges: anti-Black racism and sexism. No challenge in U.S. history illustrates the dangers of leadership more fully than the struggle against racism toward Black people; and no challenge is more pervasive around the world than inequity and violence toward women.

Beyond this focus, we also will explore other issues that students nominate and other forms of enculturated prejudice and injustice.

The course has four strands. First, we develop a political psychology to analyze identity as both a profound resource and endangering constraint on the diagnostic work of leadership. Second, students do research in two directions on their own cases: internally on their own identifications and externally on the ecosystem of parties related to racism and sexism. We want to discover the “ask” in both directions. What are we asking of ourselves and others when we seek to change the cultural constructs of prejudice and injustice in general, and for these two injustices in particular? What role does the evolution of people’s identities need to play in developing strategies of change? Third, students explore common hazards of leadership and strengthen the capacity to assess and respond to situations of personal vulnerability. Fourth, students develop ongoing ways to generate the freedom of mind and heart to provide leadership and stay alive, not only in their lives, but also in spirit of their work.

The course draws on multiple disciplines and areas: history, economics, sociology, philosophy, psychology, studies of race and gender, religion, literature, as well as leadership. It complements the systems framework developed in MLD-201, Exercising Leadership: The Politics of Change.  Structured into large and small group discussions, the course draws on student cases and case-in-point teaching – using the classroom dynamics in real-time to understand self, identity, and the dynamics of cultural change.

Interested students should note that this course will be an intensely emotional experience. We explore students’ own cases of failure and success as well as their experiences of trauma and its impact on identity. Students can choose how deeply they explore these experiences, and no one will be pushed to share more than they wish. Nevertheless, students should not take this class if they do not feel prepared to undertake a potentially destabilizing exploration.

Attendance at the first class is required. Please note, students will also participate in weekly section meetings on Fridays at times to be schedu