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Leadership Can Be Taught: A Bold Approach for a Complex World Hardcover – October 18, 2005

4.6 out of 5 stars 12 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Readers seeking an atypical business book may like Leadership Can Be Taught. Its author, Sharon Daloz Parks, has a conventional enough background: She's taught at various Harvard graduate schools, including its Divinity School, the Business School, and the School of Government--the book itself comes from Harvard Business School Press--and she now heads a leadership institute in Washington state, just outside Seattle. Parks' approach to leadership development, though, springs from a decidedly non-traditional philosophy.

Unlike others who lionize strong leaders and decisive, authoritative personalities, Parks looks for her leadership lessons to Ronald Heifetz, a humble, almost meek instructor at Harvard. The book opens with a transcript of Heifetz's typical class at Harvard, and illustrates his free-flowing banter with students. There's something of a biblical, storybook-like quality to this narrative, as it shows Heifetz's Socratic style in drawing out students and leading them to truths. Heifetz's approach carries over to the book, which has an indirect, oblique style, and shuns the reductionist, simplifying, bullet-point orientation of most business books.

Through the course of the book's nearly 300 pages, Parks argues that leadership is less magical and yet more important than we usually believe. Drawing on Heifetz's ideas, she explains her belief that leaders are formed gradually, over time and through deliberate effort--not born with special traits. Four key themes run through the book: first, that true leadership differs from the kind of formal authority typically conferred by organizations; second, that leaders have less of a role solving technical problems than in helping teams of individuals deal with adaptive challenges; third, that conventional power--meaning authority over people and budget--is less important than "presence"; and fourth, that this mysterious quality of "presence" rests less on innate personality than on a style of interacting with others in an organization.

Parks' concept of presence becomes a key axis on which the book turns. It's an intriguing concept. As she defines it, presence is "the ability to hold steady and to improvise in the midst of the conflict and tumult of adaptive work depends on cultivating an inner consciousness of the connectivity of which one is a part--especially when there is a high degree of voltage on the wires. It requires the ability to recognize and intelligently manage strong feelings--one's own emotions and the motions in others….It requires an understanding of one's self in relationship to audience, the ability to pay close attention, to listen, to feel, and to bring one's own heart-mind into the present…."

Not all of this book rests on such dense academic language. Much of the writing describes anecdotes of students' interactions with Heifetz, as they learn his (and Parks') concept of leadership. Still, this is a challenging work, and not one that all readers will enjoy. Those who enjoy new paradigms of leadership, such as those advanced in Resonant Leadership or The Leadership Wheel, will be best suited for the unusual ideas, and style, of this book. --Peter Han

About the Author

Sharon Daloz Parks is Director of Leadership for the New Commons--an initiative of the Whidbey Institute in Clinton, WA. She has held faculty and research positions at the Harvard Divinity School, Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard Business Review Press; 1 edition (October 18, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1591393094
  • ISBN-13: 978-1591393092
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #207,721 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By M. Pardee on July 5, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Ron Heifetz is clearly one of the seminal leadership scholars, practitioners, and teachers in the field today. This superb volume, by Sharon Daloz Parks, takes off from where his two previous books ("Leadership Without Easy Answers" and "Leadership On the Line") leave off. "Leadership Can be Taught" takes its readers through Heifetz's Harvard Business School course "PAL 101--Exercising Leadership: Mobilizing Group Resources."

For those of us who have studied Heifetz's two previous books and taken courses modeled off his HBS course (as I did at Columbia Teachers College almost a decade ago), "LCBT" provides an excellent refresher. My Columbia TC Professor (who must have TA'd for Heifetz when she was teaching at Harvard's Graduate School of Education) ran an outstanding version of his course in her own right.

Using all of Heifetz's key principles and pedagogical techniques (and a very similar curriculum), she put us through our paces in teaching leadership "adaptively." It was a watershed learning experience of invaluable practical value to me. Although my field is leadership development in secondary-school education (for both teachers and students), I borrow heavily from Heifetz's theory and work at the graduate level.

Although I doubt they were intended this way, I see these 3 works as a sort of trilogy on adaptive leadership. Heiftez's "Leadership On the Line" (co-written with Marty Linsky) is probably the most accessible of the three: clearly the place for any reader to start learning about H's powerful approach. "Leadership Without Easy Answers" is the most scholarly and thoroughly developed (with extensive historical examples, etc.).

Daloz Parks's "LCBT" concentrates on Heifetz's leadership course itself.
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Format: Hardcover
I love some of Sharon Daloz Parks' thinking. I really think she is helping define a new way of looking at leadership in a world of flatter hierarchies and lack of deference to authority, where people expect to 'lead their own lives' increasingly, rather than take their lead from outside.

I love a phrase she coined a while back - 'Leadership for the New Commons' - building on Laurence Lessig's work on defining the new open world of free intellectual exchange and lack of hierarchy that characterises how people interact through the web in particular, but increasingly in real life, too.

The shape of things is changing so fast, I think she has argued, that people need to take responsibility for working it out themselves and reaching common agreements on the way forward - learning how to lead the definition and the way forward - rather than waiting for a leader to emerge and define the way forward for them.

In an increasingly complex and chaotic world, she seems to argue, we all need that internal compass and our own rudder controls firmly switched to 'on' at all times to navigate the complexity.

Harvard's case study methods have been criticized for being too slow. By the time they've taken a year to put together their case study of Google and prepare it as a teaching case, I heard one critical academic say recently, Google has bought YouTube and it's whole business model has moved on.

I tend to agree. And the alternative case-in-point approach Sharon Daloz Parks describes helps break from the lumbering, slow-moving case studies that other business schools ponderously work their way through.

There is a well-known quote from Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus about how anyone can be taught leadership and I've never quite believed it.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Parks' Leadership Can Be Taught is an examination and illumination of Ronald Heifetz's teaching method at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. She not only gives the reader an in depth experience of being in Heifetz's classroom, but she also translates his methodology into transferrable principles for leadership and teaching. She does this by dissecting the case-in-point approach that Heifetz uses. She also dismantles the notion that an individual is born a leader, and plots a way to develop presence - "the ability to intervene, to hold steady, inspire a group, and work in both verbal and nonverbal realms" (13). In the second half of the book, Parks addresses the transferability of this approach to a variety of different situations, such as the workplace or different classroom settings. She then places herself in the shoes of a teacher, and examines the principles that teachers need to learn in order to teach with this methodology. The book closes with a critique on our culture's myth of leadership and an evaluation of this method's strengths and limits. In a sense, Leadership Can Be Taught is a hybrid-workbook or pathway to help leaders, teachers, and organizations rethink leadership, teaching, and how to learn.

Parks presents an integrative framework where the theory of leadership and practice of teaching are woven together seamlessly (231). Through this new methodology, the traditional roles of teachers are reimagined, and students now have a different approach to learning. Leadership is less about an individual's talent and exercise of power, and more about empowering a group of individuals to work through, and learn from, their toughest issues.
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