When Susana Orrego Villegas took “Exercising Leadership: The Politics of Change” at the Harvard Kennedy School in the fall of 2022, she did so despite a series of personal alarm bells.
The first came from the course’s Canvas page, which promised a “transformative experience,” but one that could “generate unpleasant or painful emotions.” The second was a confidentiality agreement students were required to sign, pledging that they would not share what other students had discussed during class sessions. And the third was the opening lecture.
Lectures were not a place for the instructor to deliver the material, as in a typical course. Instead, instructors made provocative statements, which Orrego Villegas felt were designed to challenge and elicit defensive reactions from students. Students were prompted to discuss failure cases — instances in which they failed as leaders — which would then be intensely scrutinized by their peers.
About three weeks in, she contemplated dropping the course. She had begun calling the Mondays and Wednesdays she had class her “overwhelming days.”
Orrego Villegas decided to stick with the class but took a step back from participating. Still, her experience worsened as the course progressed — the angry reactions and arguments during the class deeply troubled her, to the point that she wrote in her final paper that she’d had a nightmare about a classmate bringing a gun to class.
“Exercising Leadership” is part of a set of internationally renowned courses at the Kennedy School known collectively as the school’s Adaptive Leadership courses. The majority of alumni recalled positive experiences, citing the course’s transformative effect on their lives, but some have said the stresses of the course have had a lasting negative impact on them.
The Crimson spoke with 23 students who participated in the curriculum over the last two years to discuss their experiences with the course.
HKS spokesperson James F. Smith declined to address specific criticisms about the Adaptive Leadership courses, but commended them for a “40-year track record of appreciation” from alumni, noting that some have described it as having a “life-changing positive impact.”
“Our faculty have designed these innovative courses in line with the School’s mission to prepare leaders for the world’s most difficult challenges,” Smith wrote.
Smith noted that the course syllabus contains a “cautionary explanation” about the class experience, adding that faculty and staff provide additional support to students when needed.
“In all courses at Harvard Kennedy School, protecting student well-being is a core goal for faculty and staff,” Smith added. “Any concerns raised by students in those courses are reviewed by the School, as is true for all our courses.”
The Harvard Kennedy School hosts a wide range of courses, but the policy school is best known for its courses on leadership.
Public servants, military leaders, and government officials come from around the world to the Kennedy School, many of them drawn in by the most storied class at the Kennedy School, Adaptive Leadership, a series of classes developed and taught by HKS professor Ronald A. Heifetz.
“For decades of students at HKS, Ron Heifetz is revered as a legend,” Graham T. Allison ’62, the founding dean of the Kennedy School, wrote in an emailed statement. “In his unconventional, indeed unique, style he has created a course that for thousands of students in degree and executive programs has been the highlight of their education at Harvard.”
“Ron likes to tell the story of how a bold young dean took what some criticized as a reckless chance in giving him the opportunity to show what he could do,” added Allison, who first hired Heifetz to the Kennedy School. “It was a big bet — but it has paid off handsomely for students and HKS.”
The course admits 102 students per section out of hundreds of applicants, making it one of the most selective courses at the Kennedy School. Some students come to HKS out of the sole desire to take Heifetz’s class, which is internationally renowned.
“The leadership classes are like the crown jewel for HKS,” said Shady T. ElGhazaly Harb, who took the class in 2022. “This is a framework that you cannot find anywhere else.”
“It teaches us how to engage, and not just escape away from the challenges that we face, but engage with it and have the courage to face our fears,” he added.
The class pioneered a teaching style called the case-in-point method, centered on real-time reflection and adaptation prompted by direct challenges from the professor. The process is geared toward learning from failure through experience and observation.
A lecturer will call out, for example, when a student asks a rhetorical question instead of a unique perspective or conforms to popular opinion to avoid a potential confrontation.
This draws out reactions and defenses that otherwise would not be observed in the classroom setting. A lecturer may also stop speaking for a significant period of class time to provoke students’ honest reactions and create a learning experience.
Heifetz developed the “adaptive leadership” concept in the mid-1980s alongside former Massachusetts State Rep. Marty A. Linsky, a fellow lecturer at HKS. Alexander Grashow and Riley M. Sinder also assisted in developing the class.
The course is a product of an identity crisis at the Kennedy School: Should the school continue to produce sturdy, effective middle managers and bureaucrats, or would it be a forge for dynamic and assertive leaders? Heifetz fell squarely in the latter camp.
In 1983, Heifetz completed the mid-career master’s in public administration program at the Kennedy School, beginning his focus on transformative methods of leadership education and development the following year.
Allison said his initial decision to hire Heifetz was criticized by “almost everybody.”
“Who would let a recent MPA with a degree in psychiatry and a violin try to teach leadership to adults in HKS Ex programs?” he wrote in an email.
According to a 1989 study by Heifetz, Sinder, and several other colleagues on the newly developed pedagogy, adaptive leadership was an attempt to teach the “unteachable.”
“From our experience, the perceived ‘unteachability’ of these areas results from two problems,” the authors wrote. “The first is confusion in the general society over what ought to be taught about leadership, essential values, or creativity. The challenge is to clarify what students need to know.”
“The second problem is pedagogical,” they added. “How do we select the appropriate teaching strategy to get across the material effectively?”
Heifetz and his colleagues came to a solution that rested on three principles: that students learn best from experience, that they must be given tools to analyze those experiences, and that the form of teaching must create those experiences.
“During this process, the instructor walks the razor’s edge between generating overwhelming stress and allowing comfortable passivity,” the study read.
During “leadership failure analysis,” for example, students present a time they failed as a leader and faced severe consequences. Their classmates are asked to analyze their behaviors — both in the example provided and during the reflection itself — all while a teaching assistant seeks to challenge and provoke them to produce a defensive reaction.
Today, Heifitz’s seminal class is divided into two courses. The first part, MLD-201: “Exercising Leadership,” is taught by lecturers Farayi S. Chipungu and Timothy O’Brien in the fall and Hugh O’Doherty in the spring — all of whom were directly trained in the pedagogy by Heifetz.
The second component of the class, MLD-202: “Leadership from the Inside Out: The Capacity to Lead and Stay Alive — Self, Identity, and Freedom,” is taught by Heifetz himself.
“Leadership from the Inside Out” is taught for 10 days during the winter term, from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The same methods are applied in this course — but in a more intimate and intense setting.
Ana Rocío Castillo Romero, an MPA student from Peru who took both courses in 2022, said she wanted to take Heifetz’s course on leadership for six years before she applied to the Kennedy School.
“It was a unique experience,” she said. “A unique experience that’s something that you will not have again, probably, in your life.”
HKS declined The Crimson’s request to observe “Exercising Leadership.”
In the class’ early years, Heifetz and his research partners characterized the nature of the course as “risky.”
Near the end of his 1989 study, Heifetz wrote that the class’ pedagogy “causes personal distress for some students” — finding that 3 to 4 percent of students “remain upset” more than a year after concluding their time in the class.
This warning is still applied to the class today — the course description of MLD-202 cautions a “potentially destabilizing exploration” for students who choose to enroll.
“Interested students should note that this course will be an intensely emotional experience. We explore students’ own cases of failure and success and their experiences of trauma and its impact on identity,” the description reads, with the caveat that “no one will be pushed to share more than they wish.”
According to the 1989 study, the class may cause distress by provoking intergroup conflict, by destabilizing students through discussion and analysis of their failure, and by having course staff make mistakes and mismanage conflict.
In addition, the teaching method, which is designed to develop leadership through conflict, can often sow division by race, gender, nationality, and status.
ElGhazaly Harb, who took both segments of the course, recalled contentious discussions on the Russia-Ukraine war that intensified through the participation of Ukrainian and Russian students enrolled in the class.
“We were not expecting a safe space in terms of if you say something, people will tiptoe around it, no,” ElGhazaly Harb said. “And that was good — everything was challenged.”
For Orrego Villegas, the tense conversations in the class at times felt threatening.
“I can say that, for me, it was like ‘The Hunger Games,’” she said. “People attack each other or people try to support others.”
Students’ “failure cases” are examined weekly through small group exercises, the class’ final paper, and at times, class-wide discussion.
“Students uncover personally painful events and subject them to scrutiny,” the 1989 study reads. “This technique can open old professional wounds that, for some, may require added attention to resolve.”
Akira Shimabukuro, a physician who took both MLD-201 and 202 in 2022, said his failure case concerned a severe medical error he made early in his career — one he had never previously shared with his colleagues.
After he presented his case on the third day of MLD-202, Shimabukuro’s section analyzed the role his environment played in the mistake as well as his own skills and experience, coming to the conclusion that he was given “too much responsibility” in making the “very tough decision” in this case.
“I became very emotional,” Shimabukuro said. “Because I couldn’t share it for years, I felt a little bit better after I shared it. But at the same time, I think going through this very emotional moment in the class was pretty tough for me, so I felt very heavy for the whole first week.”
According to Shimabukuro, during a reunion event three months after the course ended, some of his peers recalled experiencing a “crisis” because of the leadership failure cases.
Months after finishing the course, Shimabukuro helped organize the Soul Keepers, a mental health advocacy group for Kennedy School students.
In an open letter to HKS Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf in April, the Soul Keepers requested training sessions on emotional well-being for teaching fellows of MLD courses. This proposal, according to Shimabukuro, was directly inspired by members’ experiences in MLD-201 and 202.
The Kennedy School announced plans in May to implement emotional well-being training for teaching fellows and course assistants of all classes.
In their effort to push students to their limits, course faculty can sometimes go too far, the 1989 study suggests.
“We — the teacher and teaching assistants — make mistakes,” the authors wrote. “We mismanage conflict, we misunderstand individuals, and we occasionally challenge students insensitively.”
In an interview with The Crimson in May, Elmendorf acknowledged the emotional weight of some of the leadership courses and said the school provides information for students to decide whether or not they are ready to take the course.
“What we try to do for all of our students is make sure they get enough information about courses before they sign up so they can make the choices that suit them best,” he said. “I think for some of our students that Adaptive Leadership is the best course they could take and for others it isn’t, and that’s a matter of personal choice.”
William Jensen Diaz, who took MLD-201 with Villegas, recalled Chipungu telling students not to take the course if they had recently experienced a divorce or an event causing similar levels of emotional distress.
Castillo Romero said in her experience with the course, instructors gave clear warnings not to take the class if in an emotionally vulnerable state.
“It’s published in every possible way,” she said.
Some students disagreed. Liza Maharjan, who took MLD-201 in fall 2022, said she believes the course’s disclaimer was insufficient, explaining that the traumatic and sensitive stories people told in the course touched “very deep nerves” and without the professor’s guidance the class at times became “violent.”
“They don’t focus it enough,” Maharjan said of warnings about the class. “Even when we do get those disclaimers, it’s not sufficient, the resources that are available don’t sufficiently provide,” Maharjan said.
“If you choose not to engage in the sense that you just switch yourself off, then there’s no learning, but if you want to engage you’re encouraged to get your walls down,” she added.
According to the 1989 study, teaching assistants in the course are instructed to mitigate risk by actively intervening, debriefing the lecturer on class dynamics, and “helping those students in distress reflect and learn from the experience,” the authors write.
The paper also suggests instructors ask colleagues to notify them if they “see someone in trouble.”
The study acknowledges the possibility that these protective measures may not be sufficient.
“In spite of our procedures, we have to face the possibility that teaching deeply will always uncover or induce personal pain,” Heifetz and his co-authors wrote.
Villegas, who signed up for MLD-201, is among the students still shaken by taking the class.
She had joined seeking to learn leadership techniques and build her management capabilities, but soon became uncomfortable with her experience in the class — so uncomfortable that she helped form a support group with other Latinx students in the course.
One of the students she met through this support group was Mateo Gomez, a 32-year-old gay Colombian student who was rising through the ranks at the FBI. He, too, had been telling family members that he was struggling with the class.
As was typical of support groups that emerged during the course, though, the group stopped meeting soon after the class’ conclusion on Dec. 9, 2022.
On Dec. 17, Gomez died by suicide in his Boston apartment. In the year since, the Kennedy School has undergone a reckoning over its approach to student mental health.
In January, the school hired Jimmy Kane as senior associate director of student support services at the Kennedy School as part of a series of reforms aimed at improving mental and emotional health and well-being among the school’s students.
Villegas and others said they wonder if the Kennedy School could have done a better job supporting students through a course designed to induce personal pain.
Kennedy School Student Government President NanaEfua Afoh-Manin said that she decided to run for the position because the school did not mention Gomez during her summer orientation or during new mental health training requirement modules.
Afoh-Manin said she only learned about Gomez’s death from a friend — and was “livid.”
“We’ve had a whole mental health seminar,” Afoh-Manin said. “Why wasn’t this on day one?”
The Soul Keepers group was also moved to action by Gomez’s death. Several members of the group said they struggled with MLD-201 and 202 — even those who said they ultimately grew and benefited from that struggle — and called for greater mental health support in the courses.
Thomas E. Guadamuz, who took MLD-201 alongside Gomez, said when he left messages with Harvard’s Counseling and Mental Health Service over his emotional struggles in the course, he was never contacted back.
“It was awful,” Guadamuz said. “At least I had my friends to talk with and stuff, but what if I was in a worse state?”
Harvard University Health Services declined to comment for this article, citing patient confidentiality.
Two months after Gomez’s death, his sister Andrea Gomez told The Crimson that in the weeks prior to Mateo’s death, she spoke with him several times about distress from MLD-201.
“I thought about this many times, but he told me there was a class that really affected him. And I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ because he was always so good in school and everything was fine. So he’s like, yeah, ‘I shouldn’t have taken that class,’” Andrea Gomez said. “He said that it really affected him.”
Heifetz told The Crimson in an email in September that he was distressed by Gomez’s death and “did some investigation,” but declined to provide further details.
Andrea Gomez said her brother told her that in the class, “people come at you really aggressive.”
“He was a very kind and thoughtful person, so who knows what kind of arguments and stuff was coming at him,” she said.
Luis C. Herrera Favela, Gomez’s partner of six months, said Mateo Gomez expressed similar concerns to him about the effect of this class on his mental health.
“Technically he told me twice, and I quote, ‘I don’t know if this class is contributing to my state,’” Herrera Favela said. “This was a big thing because usually he was very, very diplomatic and never said anything negative about anything or anyone.”
Herrera Favela said he believes the challenging part of the class for Mateo Gomez was the leadership failure analysis.
“When you see the things in retrospect, going back to a space and a time when you fail, it definitely didn’t contribute to his positive state of mind,” Herrera Favela said.
Guadamuz, who joined the Soul Keepers in the spring prior to graduating, said he saw himself in Gomez.
“That could be me, you know, I’m also queer and a person of color,” Guadamuz said. “It’s heartbreaking.”