What does a leader look like?

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The enormous potential of human leadership ranges from Genghis Khan to Mother Teresa, yet we often succumb to simple stereotypes about leadership and power. Most everyday leaders remain unheralded. The role of heroic leadership in war leads us to over emphasise command, control and hard military power. The image of the dominant male warrior leader lingers in modern times. Yet power is the ability to affect others to get the outcomes one wants, and that can be accomplished by the soft power of attraction and persuasion as well as the hard power of coercion and payment. Military leadership today also requires political and managerial skills. 

Many autocratic rulers – in Zimbabwe or Belarus, for example – still lead in the old fashion. Some theorists have tried to explain this with an ‘alpha male theory of leadership’ that argues that just as male chimps and apes assume more responsibility for their particular community once they attain the dominant status of alpha male, human rulers do as well. But such socio-biological explanations of leadership are of only limited value. Thus far, no leadership gene has been identified, and studies of identical and fraternal male twins find that only a third of their difference in occupying formal leadership roles can be accounted for by genetic factors.

Traits of leadership

The search for the essential traits of a leader dominated the field of leadership studies until the late 1940s, and remains popular in common discourse today. A tall handsome person enters a room, draws attention, and ‘looks like a leader’. Various studies have shown that tall men are often favoured, and corporate CEOs are taller than average. But some of the most powerful leaders in history, such as Napoleon, Stalin and Deng Hsiao Ping were little over five feet tall.

Genetics and biology matter in human leadership, but they do not determine it in the way that the traditional heroic stereotypes suggest. The ‘Big Man’ type of leadership works in societies based on tribal cultures which rely on personal and family honour and loyalty, but such social structures are not well adapted for coping with today’s complex information-based world. In modern societies, institutional constraints such as constitutions and impartial legal systems circumscribe such heroic figures. Societies that rely on heroic leaders are slow to develop the civil society and broad social capital that are necessary for leading in a modern networked world. Modern leadership turns out to be less about who you are or how you were born than about what you have learned and what you do as part of a group. Nature and nurture intertwine, but nurture is much more important in the modern world than the heroic paradigm gives credit.

In terms of gender stereotypes, men gravitate to the hard power of command while women are collaborative and intuitively understand the soft power of attraction. We still tend to describe leadership with tough male stereotypes, but recent leadership studies show increased success for what was once considered a ‘feminine style’. In information-based societies, networks are replacing hierarchies and knowledge workers are less deferential. Leadership is changing in the direction of ‘shared leadership’, and ‘distributed leadership’ with images of leaders in the centre of a circle rather than atop a hierarchy.

George W Bush once described his role as ‘the decider’, but there is much more to modern leadership than that. Modern leaders need an ability to use networks, to collaborate, and to encourage participation. Women’s non-hierarchical style and relational skills fit a leadership need in the new world of knowledge-based organisations and groups that men are less well prepared by society to fill; and men need to learn these skills as well as to value them in their female colleagues.

In terms of gender stereotypes, when women fought their way to the top of organisations, they often had to adopt a ‘masculine style’, violating the broader social norm of female ‘niceness’. Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi are famous examples. In the new view, with the information revolution and democratisation demanding more participatory leadership, the ‘feminine style’ is becoming a path to more effective leadership. Nonetheless, women lag in leadership positions, holding only 5% of top corporate positions, and a minority of positions in elected legislatures (ranging from 45% in Sweden to 16% in the US).

What holds women back?

Gender bias, lack of experience, primary care-giver responsibilities, bargaining style and plain old discrimination all help to explain this gender gap. The traditional career paths have not enabled women to gain the requisite experiences for top leadership positions in many organisational contexts. Research shows that even in democratic societies, women face a higher social risk than men when attempting to negotiate for career-related resources such as compensation. Women are generally not well-integrated into male networks that dominate organisations and gender stereotypes about the expression of emotions still hamper women who try to overcome such barriers.

This gender bias is beginning to break down, but it is a mistake to identify the new type of leadership we need in an information age as female. Even positive stereotypes are bad for women, men and effective leadership. We need to see leaders less in heroic terms of command than in encouraging participation throughout an organisation, group, nation or network. In some circumstances men will need to act more ‘like women’ and women more ‘like men’. The key choices will depend not on gender, but how individuals combine hard and soft power skills to produce smart strategies, and that will depend on the development of contextual intelligence.

Context is all

Understanding context is crucial for effective leadership regardless of gender. Some situations call for autocratic decisions and some require the opposite. There is an infinite variety of contexts in which leaders have to operate, but it is particularly important for leaders to understand culture, distribution of power resources, followers’ needs and demands, time urgency and information flows.

Many a good CEO turns out to be a disappointment when appointed as a cabinet secretary. And many a government official who becomes a university president has trouble adapting to the flat power structure of academic life.

The best leaders are able to transfer their skills across contexts. Dwight Eisenhower, for example, was successful both as a military leader and as a president. Many leaders have a fixed repertoire of skills, which limit and condition their responses to new situations. A CEO who succeeds in manufacturing may fail in finance or fall flat in Silicon Valley. To use an information age metaphor, leaders need to develop broader bandwidth and tune carefully for different situations. Good leaders avoid stereotypes – whether about warriors or gender – and cultivate their contextual intelligence.

Joseph S Nye is the author of The Future of Power, and most recently, Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era. This article first appeared in EXON, the Exeter College, Oxford magazine, Issue 16, Autumn 2013.


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