The most difficult work of leadership involves learning to experience distress without numbing yourself. The virtue of a sacred heart lies in the courage to maintain innocence and wonder, doubt and curiosity, compassion and love, even through the darkest moments. Leading with an open heart means you could be abandoned and entirely powerless yet remain receptive to the full range of human emotions. In one moment you may experience total despair but in the next, compassion and forgiveness. You may even experience these in the same moment. A sacred heart allows you to feel, hear, and diagnose so that you can accurately gauge different situations and respond appropriately. Otherwise you simply cannot assess the impact of the losses you are asking people to sustain or comprehend the reasons behind their anger. Without keeping your heart open, it becomes difficult, perhaps impossible, to fashion the right response and to succeed. 

Ronald A. Heifetz (L) and Marty Linksy (R) examine the crucifixion as a way of understanding the very real dangers and isolation that can come with a leadership position.

Photograph courtesy Harvard Business School Press

A few years ago, Ron was invited to give a talk in Oxford, England, on a weekend that coincided with the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. The morning after the talk, he and his wife, Sousan, embarked on a short trip through the English countryside en route to London, where they expected to attend synagogue services. Soon they came upon a charming village with a beautiful manor that had expansive lawns and clusters of old trees, and they decided to stay for the night. As evening approached, they wondered how they would celebrate Rosh Hashanah so far from any Jewish community.

Just before sundown they discovered an old Anglican church and wandered in. Ron sat down in front, a Jew in an Anglican church, facing Jesus on the cross. Only weeks before, he and Sousan had attended a Jewish workshop on deep ecumenism. Sacred heart was explained as a reflection of God’s promise not to keep you out of fire and water but to be with you when you were in it.

Ron looked up at the image of a man being tortured for his beliefs. After decades of feeling outrage with the violent abuses of Christianity, Ron found sitting in that church very challenging. He began to wonder what this holiday might have been like for Jesus in his lifetime.

The loneliness and despair leaders experience can leave them hardened and cynical. Yet, by embracing our vulnerability, the authors suggest, we are able to open ourselves, not only to the joy of living, but to the unique opportunities of situations fully experienced.

Caspar David Friedrich, The Cross in the Mountains/Art Resource, N.Y.

View a larger image of the painting. 

Ron stared at Jesus and meditated. “Reb Jesus,” he mused, “will you tell me your experience on the cross? This is Rosh Hashanah, when we contemplate Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac. Will you please give me a message?” After about ten minutes, Ron got very excited and asked Sousan to come with him. He led her outside and asked her to sit by him near an enormous old pine tree.

“Sousan, I need to share this with you, but I can’t tell you, I have to show you. Could you lie down beneath this tree and stretch out your arms?”

Together they lay outstretched, looking up into the tree’s high branches. After a few moments, he asked her, “How do you feel?”

“Really vulnerable,” she answered.

“Me, too. And that’s it! That’s the message. That’s what we learned about sacred heart—the willingness to feel everything, to hold it all without letting go of your work. To feel, as Reb Jesus did, the gravest doubt, forsaken and betrayed near his moment of death. To cry out just when you desperately want to believe that your sacrifice means something, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ But in nearly the same instant, to feel compassion, ‘Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.’ Jesus remained open.”

A sacred heart means you may feel betrayed, powerless, and hopeless and yet stay open and connected to people and the sources of your most profound purposes. Leadership should not mean that you must sacrifice yourself, but you will encounter dangers and difficulties when you are likely to feel as if you are being sacrificed.

A sacred heart is an antidote to a common, destructive “solution” to the challenges of modern life: numbing oneself. An open heart helps you stay alive in your soul, to feel faithful to whatever is true, including doubt, without fleeing. Moreover, the power of a sacred heart helps you to mobilize others to face challenges and endure the pains of change without deceiving themselves or running away.

Virtues of an Open Heart
You choose to exercise leadership with passion because a set of issues moves you, issues that perhaps have influenced you for a long time. Their roots may have been planted before you were born; they may reflect questions that live within you and for which you’ve decided to devote a piece of your life, perhaps even all of it. Keeping a sacred heart is about maintaining innocence, curiosity, and compassion as you pursue what is meaningful to you.

Innocent comes from a Latin root that means, “not to injure or harm.” We use the term in the sense of childlike innocence, naivete—the capacity to think unusual and perhaps ingenious thoughts, be playful in your life and work, even to be strange to your organization or community.

Adaptive challenges require a culture to undergo some change in its norms. Therefore, for change to take place, some idea has to be imported from a different environment or exploited internally by a deviant voice from within. That voice may be wrong 80 percent of the time, but in the other 20 percent, the strange, naive but ingenious idea might be just what’s needed.

When you lead, you often begin with a desire to contribute, to help resolve important issues or improve the quality of people’s lives. Your heart is not entirely innocent, but you begin with hope and concern for people. Along the way, however, it becomes difficult to sustain those feelings when your aspirations are rejected as too unrealistic or disruptive. Results are slow. You become hardened to the discouraging reality. Your heart closes up.

How do we keep the spirit in our hearts open in the midst of difficult work? How can you celebrate your desire to love and care even as you recognize hurtful realities?

Maintaining innocence does not mean taking unnecessary grief. We all reach our limits. At times Jesus may have been overwhelmed, too. He tried occasionally to set limits. You too have a choice regarding your limits. You could say to yourself, “I can’t take any more of this today. Time to turn on an old movie, look back at some family pictures, take time off and reacquaint myself with the sweetness of life.” Or you can numb yourself or lose your innocence altogether.

Nearly all the rewards of professional life go to people who “know” rather than those who do not. In the short run people may trust you less when you share your doubts, worrying about your competence; but in the long run they may trust you more for telling the truth.

The dynamic starts early. By the time children have reached adolescence, they have already formed deep attachments to having it “right.” They begin to lose the wonderful curiosity that comes from knowing what they do not know and assuming that people with a different point of view are to be learned from, not just argued with. But the precious sense of mystery and wonder fades.

The unlucky ones keep winning routine debates and become the “best and the brightest.” Their awakenings, like King Lear’s, often come late, after mistakes and waste. Then the deflating of a grandiose self-assurance becomes particularly painful and laced with regret. A few, like Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam war, demonstrate the extraordinary heart to revisit their mistakes and reclaim their doubts. The fact that McNamara would write thoughtful memoirs analyzing his errors of judgment stands as an inspiration to anyone taking on the risks of leadership. How many prominent people could do the same? Instead, layers of self-justification often reinforce one another to protect misguided notions of pride, and lessons for posterity are lost.

If Jesus, at the end of his ministry, could question God, then surely we can question ourselves.

Is it possible to retain our curiosity even as we hone our capacity to reality-test assumptions? Are there ways to maintain a sense of mystery?

To succeed in leading adaptive change, you will need to nurture the capacity to listen with open ears, and to embrace new and disturbing ideas. This is hard because the pressure is for you to know the answers. And in your inspired moments, you may persuade yourself that indeed you do.

Most of the time, however, if you are honest with yourself, you know that your vision of the future is just your best estimate at the moment. If you lack the heart to engage with competitive ideas, how can your organization possibly do the adaptive work needed to thrive in that environment?

The practice of leadership requires the capacity to keep asking basic questions of yourself and of the people in your organization and community. A colleague of ours teaches the difference between assumptions that you hold and assumptions that hold you. The assumptions that hold you constrain you from seeing any other point of view. We have a special, righteous name for them, truths—assumptions for which doubt is an unwelcome intruder. They are held in place by a heart unwilling to refashion loyalties.

The twentieth-century philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel described God as “the most moved mover.” If God is moved, shouldn’t we allow ourselves to be moved, too, by the triumphs, the failings, and the struggle?

At root, compassion means to be together with someone’s pain. There are both practical and transcendent reasons to maintain a reverence for the pains of change. The advice to “keep your opposition close” rests on many strong tactical arguments, for example, but it also draws upon the insight that the people who fight hardest also have the most to lose; and therefore they deserve the most time, skill, and care.

When you lead, you cannot help but carry the aspirations and longings of others. Obviously, if your heart is closed, you cannot fathom those stakes, or the losses people will have to sustain as they conserve what’s most precious and learn how to thrive in the new environment.

Like innocence and doubt, compassion is necessary for success and survival, but also for leading a whole life. Compassion enables you to pay attention to other people’s pain and loss even when it seems that you have no resources left.

As he lay in his hospital bed during what he and everyone else knew was his last week of his life, Marty’s father made extraordinary use of the time he had left to attend to the impact of his death on his family. He arranged a private conversation with each of his four grandchildren, probing them about their values and delivering the benefits of his nearly eighty years of experience. He gave his granddaughter a rousing pep talk before she retook her driving test. He met alone with his former daughter-in-law, who had always felt distanced from him after she and his son were divorced. He told her that he loved her and that he thought she had been a great mom. Finally, an hour before he breathed his last, he asked Marty to get him a beer.

“What kind?” Marty asked.


“Light or regular?”

“Light’s fine.”

Tears streaming down his face, Marty ran down the hospital stairs and across the street to the liquor store. He bought a six-pack and returned to the hospital room so his father could deliver a last gift. He poured a beer for each of them. Father and son clinked glasses one more time to celebrate his life and his love.

We might say Marty’s father led his family, and perhaps himself, too, through the adaptive challenge of his death. Or that Marty’s father, in spite of his own pain and loss, taught everyone he touched that week something about how to live, how to die, about how to take advantage of any opportunity to love and make a difference to people.

Opportunities for leadership are available to you, and to us, every day. But putting yourself on the line is difficult and the dangers are real. Yet the work has nobility, and the benefits for you and those around you are beyond measure. May you protect yourself, keep your spirit alive, and enjoy with a full heart the fruits of your labor. The world needs you.

Those interested in further understanding the perspective of Ronald A. Heifetz are commended to Leadership Without Easy Answers (Belknap Press, 1994). That book, among other strategies, explores nonauthoritative responses to problems that take into account the values of key players.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business School Press. From Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading by Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky. Boston, MA 2002, pp. 224-236. Copyright 2002 by the Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation; all rights reserved.

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