Two faces of leadership

Oct 16 2008 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

In the course of presenting 165 Cranky Middle Manager shows, I have probably interviewed more people about leadership than almost anyone alive and still managed to remain (relatively) sane. The same questions keep coming up. What makes a good leader? Is there only one kind of leadership?

Meanwhile, the current US presidential election offers a clear contrast of leadership styles and it's been fascinating to observe.

I confess that I'm a rather shallow political junkie. I follow politics the same way I follow my beloved Chicago Blackhawks - I get deeply emotionally invested, my team almost inevitably snatches defeat from the jaws of victory, I wail like a banshee and then the sun comes up in the morning and I get on with my life until next season.

To add to the psychodrama, I'm a Canadian citizen living in the US which means although I have a huge personal stake in the current election, I can't vote. This gives me a unique viewpoint- passionately interested but can't directly intervene. It's a little like being the cameraman for a nature documentary… you COULD stop the lion from eating the gazelle, you probably should, but it's so cool to watch.

That being said, this is not an endorsement of one candidate or another. I simply want to point out something I've seen, and has been pointed out to me by other people as well so I'm pretty sure I'm not hallucinating.

The leadership literature (a search for "leadership" on turns up over 2,000 distinct titles- this is not some esoteric topic) suggests that there are at least two distinct approaches to leadership.

One is the "great man" theory- that individuals come forward, "put the team on their shoulders" and inspire, cajole and otherwise motivate people through their personality and example. I often refer to that as the "Duke of Wellington on the horse" kind of leadership.

Statues get built to this kind of leader. The other style of leadership is quieter, less obvious and, at first blush, less about the leader than the result. Both styles have advantages and drawbacks.

Nothing I can think of has put these differences in focus like the "financial bailout" congressional brouhaha in late September. John McCain and Barack Obama each exemplified one of these styles, along with their attendant advantages and disadvantages.

One thing serves to make this a fair example: both men decided that the bailout bill needed to pass- in the face of considerable outrage from the public in general and their most ardent supporters. Moreover, they needed to persuade a vast group of people to work together and pass the legislation.

They couldn't do it by themselves. They were putting themselves on the line with this decision. That's what leaders do. They both wanted the same result, they just went about it in different ways.

John McCain exemplifies the more typical Western (dare I say male) view of what a leader does:

  • He drew attention to the crisis and set it as a top priority
  • He personally committed to finding a solution
  • He indicated that he would get involved and personally make sure movement happened (this is the "knock some heads together" theory of management)
  • The success or failure of the project would inevitably reflect on him. Success would mean glory. Failure (as it did not pass the first time) would mean he'd suffer some loss of face

Many people responded favorably to this approach. He "stepped up". He was "actively involved" instead of "phoning it in" (even though except for a two-hour meeting on the first day all his work was done by phone). He was willing to face personal defeat for the greater cause.

McCain's military background, age and temperament fit this style of leadership. It's what he has been told his whole life a leader does. It also fits the ideal of a large segment of the population who looks to the President as the National Patriarch (or the CEO as the Company Dad).

The disadvantages were also pretty clear. If it failed, he would bear an unfair amount of the blame, since he claimed he would fix the problem. He was accused of "showboating" and trying to get credit for something that other people were working hard on. Many of the people involved in the process felt the scrutiny he brought to the situation made things worse and messed up a sensitive dynamic. In these situations the mood becomes competitive because the leader now has a personal, emotional and very public stake in the outcome.

In this leadership style high risk is rewarded if it's successful and failure is punished. The rewards and consequences are deeply personal.

Barack Obama took a different approach- albeit one with its own share of rewards and risks:

  • He outlined what the outcome should be(the first morning he listed five things a deal would have to include)
  • He acknowledged the group dynamics of the situation and chose to let the group take responsibility for the outcome, his contribution would be behind the scenes (this was either emotionally intelligent or seeking political cover depending on which side of the debate you were on)
  • He made his contributions behind the scenes, speaking to all sides and in the White House meeting asked a lot of questions without offering his own solutions
  • He was accused by many people of "not stepping up" or "showing leadership" by inserting his personality and considerable influence in a visible way

The risks were obvious. If a favorable solution was reached, he would probably get no credit for his role. Many people with a traditional view of what a leader does ascribed his approach to political cowardice rather than an honest attempt to reach consensus. On the other hand, the failure would be blamed on the group, rather than any particular individual.

In this leadership style, the leader focuses attention on the group and the outcome. This is often considered more of a "female" style of leadership (which is probably news to Mr. Obama). It's also indicative of a more collaborative generation, where group work is taught from an early age.

When it's successful, leaders don't necessarily get "their share" of the credit (and let's face it in politics credit is a precious commodity). On the other hand blame is often deflected. People inside the group know what has happened and what, if any, contributions the leader made. Casual observers may perceive this lack of conspicuous action as being uninvolved. After all, they didn't actually "do" anything themselves. Isn't that what leaders do?

I am not making a case for one style over another, or one leader over another. I just find it fascinating that in an election where traditional assumptions of what a leader looks and acts like are being scrutinized as never before, there was a single crystallizing moment when the two styles were on display in a way we can parse them out and examine them.

As a history geek and a typical guy, I've always leaned more to the "great man" theory of leadership, it's been instructive to watch this drama unfold. Like so much in this election my assumptions, and those of millions of other people, are being challenged.

The results remain to be seen, but this moment in history may become a teaching point in some future contribution to the body of leadership literature.

Oh look, it already has.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.