Why isn't good leadership recognized?

May 12 2009 by Bob Selden Print This Article

He goes cycling at lunch time, leaves work early (apparently 7.30 pm is early for Americans) and takes a "bottom up" approach to leadership. Who is he? James L. Jones, President Obama's national security advisor.

When asked by reporters about other White House officials who work deep into the night, he responded "Congratulations. To me that means you're not organized".

I can relate to the sniping by other White House staff about Jones' work hours. As a newly appointed senior manager in a large regional bank some years back, I used to leave no later than 6.pm. I heard from trusted colleagues that people were saying "that he's not working hard enough", or "he does not seem to be pulling his weight". However I started work at 7am whereas others started around 9am or even later.

The bank had a culture of working late into the night. In fact there's a story (true) about a young man who was regularly seen by the CEO as one of the last to leave - this man was made PA to the CEO and eventually became CEO! It seems that sometimes, it's not what you achieve that's important, but how you're seen.

Jones displays a different style of leadership, as he calls it a "bottom up" approach. He takes a back seat, letting others take the limelight. He encourages his people to make decisions. He delegates to key aides. He regularly asks for others' opinions before giving his own. He's even sent staff members to the Oval Office on his behalf for meetings with the President.

As Jones commented, "You can be a leader that takes charge of every meeting and takes charge of every issue and rides it to conclusion and play a very dominant role. For me that has the effect of muting voices."

What a refreshing change from many of the so called leaders we often see in politics, administration and even corporate life. Surely Jones' behaviour epitomizes the description of real leadership so often given by our leadership gurus.

But, and there has to be a "but", is Jones going to last the distance? Perhaps in the culture within which he is working, the "top down" leadership style of being decisive (even though the decision may turn out to be wrong) is greatly valued. People expect their leaders to be seen. They expect them to make strong statements. They may even expect them to work late into the night!

After all, isn't that the style that got Bush elected for his second term? He was "seen" to be doing things.

Will Jones' peers, his boss, the press (apparently he shuns the press and has had only one press conference since taking office) and the general public see the virtue of his style? Or will the sniping continue until it becomes back stabbing and fatal?

A recent story in the New York Times, (Friday May 8) raises an interesting question. Why was there any need for an article on his management style? Whilst the piece was quite balanced in its reporting, why report extensively on his style rather than the results he is achieving? This does seem a leadership culture issue.

Is he achieving results? It seems so far, so good. For example, his "behind the scenes processes" apparently set up the recent very favourable NATO deal for Obama with Turkey and he has been instrumental in improved South American - US relationships.

I find it interesting that Jones comes out of the army. He was a four-star general and supreme commander of NATO. Perhaps the army has a somewhat different culture where results and not image, matter. Decisions in the army affect life Ė and death.

Leaders must be trusted and followed for their ability to achieve results. In the political arena into which Jones has been thrust, it seems that unfortunately image is perhaps more important.

Does he need to do more press conferences? Does he need to promote himself more? Does he need someone to do his PR? It would be unfortunate to see an apparently good leader fail for the lack of so-called "image".

Why isn't good leadership recognized for what it is? Ė good leadership!

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About The Author

Bob Selden
Bob Selden

Bob Selden, is an author, management consultant and coach based in New Zealand and working internationally. Much of his time currently is spent working with family businesses. He's the author of the best-selling What To Do When You Become The Boss. His new book, What To Do When Leadership Is Needed, was released in July 2022.