Time to Exercise Our Leadership

I recently read an article in the New Yorker written by Joshua Rothman, a faculty member of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.* It first piqued my interest because it was about the leadership industry, of which I am a part. But Rothman’s ideas also gave me a new way to view our current presidential candidates.

Rothman opens with an investigation of what we call “great” leadership. Only when an individual is matched with an extreme crisis can a “great” leader emerge, he says. Without the crisis, the person would remain a run-of-the-mill authority figure. How would we remember Abraham Lincoln without his pairing with the Civil War? What would FDR have been without the Depression?

We long for great leaders, he continues, which feeds our longing for crisis, an addiction stoked by the twenty-four hour news stream. Donald Trump, whether intuitively or consciously, has tapped into this idea. He is creating a vision that our country is under siege: by ISIS, by home grown Muslim terrorists, by undocumented Mexicans. This makes him seem more consequential to many people. They are as hungry for crisis as they are for a potential “great” leader.

What is interesting to me is that Bernie Sanders is also creating a vision of our country under siege: by the financial industry, by moneyed interests, by established party politics. And his followers, as staunch and passionate as Trump’s, are fueled by the hope that he will be the new “great” leader. The causes of the crisis are different, but the hunger for someone to lead us out of danger is the same.

Rothman states that, fundamentally, leaders are storytellers. When they tell the stories we want to hear, we follow them. Both Trump and Sanders are appealing to disenfranchised citizens. Each group longs to hear someone explain why they are in debt, why they have a low income, why they cannot afford to get educated, why they can never get a piece of the American Dream. The view that fits with your sensibility of the world creates the difference. Rothman continues, “And because our desire for a coherent vision of the world is bottomless, our hunger for leadership is insatiable, too.”

In a traditional society, Rothman writes, the leader had to have a particular combination of traits. One had to be courageous, decisive, and have a big personality. You can see how Donald Trump appeals to the traditionalists: he looks like a chieftain with his wild hair, speaks like a mufti, with his outrageous statements, and has a young, beautiful, silent woman at his side.

The new view of leadership, though, is that it is not defined by a set of qualities, but created by a series of actions. It is not who you are, but what you do when faced with challenge. Rothman notes that the movie about Steve Jobs shows only the charismatic side of his leadership. What actually made Jobs a great leader, though, wasn’t his personality, but his capacity to successfully shepherd his teams through one creative process after another. What do we learn when we really investigate what Donald Trump’s actions have been? Sanders’? Hillary Clinton’s?

Rothman brings in research by Harvard Business School professor, Gautam Mukunda. Mukunda was interested in how organizations fill leadership positions. Some organizations, he found, use a filtering process: “In the military, for example, everyone who aspires to command must jump through the same set of hoops.” However, the U.S. Congress uses an unfiltered system: “You can vault in as a business person, or a veteran, or the scion of a political family.” Generals, he posited, would therefore have similar levels of competence, but members of Congress would have widely varying abilities.

Mukunda applied his theories to American Presidents.** First he looked at how “filtered” each one was, i.e. how many years of being groomed for the Presidency in various government positions. Then he looked at widely accepted rankings of Presidential performance. He found that heavily filtered Presidents clustered in the middle, while unfiltered ones landed either at the very top or the very bottom.

You can view the current candidates through this lens. Trump, of course, is the ultimate unfiltered candidate. He has no experience at all in political office. Sanders, despite sixteen years in Congress and ten in the Senate, is positioning himself as unfiltered. To his credit, he has been a gadfly on the body politic during all of those years.

Hillary Clinton is highly filtered. She has been groomed for this candidacy through twelve years as governor’s wife, eight years as First Lady, eight years in the Senate, four years as Secretary of State, and her trial run against President Obama. This clarifies to me the discomfort that many people have with her. If Mukunda’s data proves true, her potential presidency will be ranked in the middle. With our country doing all right, this might not be a bad thing.

But are times actually as bad as Trump or Sanders define them to be? If so, we need someone who has the capacity to lead us through the crises. Should we take a risk on an unfiltered candidate, who has a 50/50 chance of being a phenomenal president? Is the gamble worth it?

Rothman shares a quote from John Adams. The country won’t improve, Adams wrote, until the people begin to “consider themselves as the fountain of power. They must be taught to reverence themselves… it can be dangerous to decide that you need to be led.”

This is at the crux of our candidates’ competition. Trump commands his followers to do harm to others, and they do. Sanders asks his followers to think for themselves, and they agree. Hillary says that she’ll do what she believes is best for us. Which one will allow us to live up to Adams’ hope?

Or are we too late? Is our country too far along the path to the world illuminated in the Hunger Games: haves rule, have-nots starve, and crisis masquerading as entertainment takes our judgement and power away.

I hope not, but this election may the turning point.

*Rothman, Joshua. 2016. ”Shut Up and Sit Down: Why the Leadership Industry Rules.” The New Yorker (February 29): 64 – 69.

**Mukunda, Gautam, Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter (Cambridge: Harvard Business Review Press, 2012).