What Kind Of Leaders Do We Want?


images                illustration by Nisant Choksi THE NEW YORKER, FEBRUARY 29, 2016

The surprising emergence of Donald Trump as a viable presidential candidate reveals the kind of leader for President a significant segment of the American electorate want.   His rise raises questions about our notions of leadership itself.

Reflecting on Trump’s momentum in his New Yorker essay, ‘Shut Up And Sit Down,’ Joshua Rothman asks how much we really know about what makes a good leader.

He has read, as he says, a ‘small stack’ of leadership books including, Leadership BS, by Jeffery Pfeffer, and Leadership: Essential Writings of our Greatest Leaders, by Elizabeth Samet, an English professor at West Point.

Samet claims that one of the reasons for our 21st ‘crisis of leadership’ is our veneration of leaders themselves, leaving us open to ‘the false prophets, the smooth operators, the gangsters, and the demagogues.’ Rothman warns, ‘It can be dangerous to decide you need to be led.’   He cites polls indicating that even though voters who support Trump are frustrated and angry with politicians and leaders in general, they are attracted to Trump’s authoritative view of life.

Rothman wonders if we really want the kind of selfless, transformative leaders idealized in leadership development literature.   In Leadership BS, Pheffer claims that most real-world leaders ignore the ideals of ‘modesty, authenticity, truthfulness, trustworthiness, and selflessness.’   ‘If anything,’ Pheffer writes, ‘they tend to be narcissistic, back-stabbing, self-promoting shape-shifters.’ He argues that ‘the billions spent on corporate-leadership seminars are a waste of time and money because they fail to produce better leaders.’

Samet’s recent book Leadership is an anthology of great literature on virtue, about behavior patterns essential for the good life. That is the path, she believes, toward good leadership in the military as elsewhere. Rothman notes that the leaderly virtues of ‘courage, decisiveness, sociability, compassion, thrustworthiness, integrity, and so on—matter in ordinary life too.’

I am not sure that leadership in general is as bad as Pheffer describes in Leadership BS.   And I doubt that ‘Shut Up and Sit Down,’ is the style and language most leaders are inclined to use, campaign politics notwithstanding.   I do know that a generation ago Robert Greenleaf offered a better way forward in his book ‘The Servant as Leader.’ Servant Leadership is a humble, gracious way to wield authority and inspire followers.

Elizabeth Samet may be right; there are no distinctive leadership traits, only virtues for the good life, for all of us, but especially for those whom we would choose to follow into the future.

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4 Responses to What Kind Of Leaders Do We Want?

  1. Eddie Estep says:

    Tom: Thank you for your insightful, timely comments. The importance of character as well as competence in leadership cannot be overstated.

  2. Lois Wagner says:

    Thanks, Tom, for helping us think more deeply about what is happening in leadership in our country at this time.

  3. Harold Nevin says:

    Self-styled, autocratic, “I’m the guy in charge”-type of leadership doesn’t work well, if at all, in government. A good government “CEO” must be able to bring people together, always working toward consensus-building. A Donald Trump I win, you lose style of leadership says, “Do it my way, or you’ll be fired.” He could run his one-man-show businesses that way, but that style can only be detrimental in trying to get things done in Washington.

  4. David W Bowser says:

    Timely thoughts in your blog. Several years ago in a conversation you mentioned and recommended the book, To Change the World by James Davison Hunter. I bought it and read it in February 2011. Seems like such a timely work in light of where we are in the political discussions these days.

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