Rapper Kanye West has been making it known recently that there’s a glaring leadership gap in American culture, and he intends to fill it. In one interview, West said he considers himself a successor to Steve Jobs. “I understand culture. I am the nucleus,” he said. Also: “I am so credible and so influential and so relevant that I will change things.”
Even people put off by West’s grandiosity recognized the hat he was trying on. In a country where college freshmen fantasize about running the world before they even pick a major, a certain image of leadership—visionary, charismatic, transformational—has become nearly synonymous with ambition. Parents teach “leadership skills” to their kids, while CEOs and gurus write best-selling books with titles like “Strengths Based Leadership.” Our president first won national attention by projecting leadership through his captivating speeches. When Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook wrote a book, “Lean In,” intended to transform professional life for American women, she subtitled it “Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.”
We know what leadership is supposed to look and sound like—we imagine Henry V or Coach Taylor from “Friday Night Lights”—and by this standard it’s easy to be dismayed by our current political scene. Congress, more than ever, seems like an unruly barnyard, while President Obama is sounding more like an exhausted law professor than the stirring campaign star of 2008. And Boston’s mayor’s race? No disrespect to Marty Walsh or John Connolly, but no matter who wins on Nov. 5, we know Boston won’t be getting a mayor who can move crowds through the sheer force of personality.
We deserve better, you might be thinking. But researchers who study leadership—and there are many—are beginning to offer up a surprising truth: The kind of leaders we idolize may be the last people we really want in charge. The character traits that tend to convince us someone deserves power, these thinkers say, have remarkably little to do with how effective that person will be at actually running a city, or a company, or a nation.
“There is a notion that there are transformational leaders who can create opportunities for change because of the quality of their leadership, essentially by getting out in front of the crowd and crying, ‘follow me,’” said George C. Edwards III, a political scientist at Texas A&M University and the author of a recent book about leadership and the presidency. “In reality that rarely happens.”
In place of stereotypical “leadership qualities,” these scholars suggest, we should be looking to a host of other traits, like the ability to detect opportunity and swiftly act on it. But such qualities can take time to reveal themselves. Leaders with vision and charisma, on the other hand, are immediately appealing—in part, one expert says, because they make us forget our problems are actually difficult to solve. The craving for big, bold leadership, in this light, ends up clouding people’s judgment. And looking closely at that craving might be the first step toward freeing ourselves of its pull.
The pages of history teem with charismatic leaders who achieved great things: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Susan B. Anthony. These individuals loom large in the popular imagination for a reason. As Abraham Zaleznik of Harvard Business School wrote in his influential 1977 paper “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?” leaders in the classically heroic mold typically possess imagination and a tendency toward risk-taking—and as such, they can do things others can’t. Zaleznik had a simple hypothesis for why such leaders are so attractive, speculating that it was “a holdover from our childhood—from a sense of dependency and a longing for good and heroic parents.”
Some scholars believe these kinds of inspirational leaders, who can shape how people think and how they see themselves, are particularly well suited to times of upheaval. In a country fighting for independence, you want a Gandhi; in a Great Depression, you want a Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Many of our most celebrated leaders are celebrated precisely because they prevailed over historic crises—apartheid, world war, Jim Crow.
But as troubled as the waters may seem out there right now, 21st-century Americans generally don’t need our leaders to be Nelson Mandela or Joan of Arc. We need them to be able to make decisions, work with others, and wield power in an intelligent, productive way. When we pick a leader, we’re usually choosing someone to take over a large institution that functions more or less the way it’s supposed to—a city government, a Fortune 500 company—and then work to keep people happy, navigate change, and lay the groundwork for its future health. Continued...