People claim they know what kind of leaders they want and repeatedly choose otherwise. We may think that we are great leaders, but the feedback we get is very different from what we expect to hear. Is there such a thing as an ideal leader, or do we invent them after they are gone? For more reading see here, here, here, here, and here.
We can expect our leaders to be highly motivated, which is typically true. Some professional expertise and ability to listen to expert advisors may reduce the risks of bad management decisions. Communication skills and confidence are a must. Typically we expect our leaders to act according to some ethical codex and dictate the cultural standards within the organization. It is not clear to what extent we can and should expect more, and this is exactly what I want to address.
Leadership for good times and bad times
There is a lot of science involved in leadership research because DARPA has wonderful grants. Probably the best leadership resources are available to the army.
There are two kinds of leaders. People choose one sort of leader for the times of peace and a very different type of leader for the war. Churchill was a great war leader, yet once Germany capitulated nobody wanted him. Both after the WWI and WWII. He simply did not fit.
In times of trouble, we want strong calm people capable of being cool under pressure. If the odds are stacked against us we may want a neurotic delusional visionary that equally inspires and frightens. In good times we want someone slick and charming, capable of diffusing conflicts. When everything is exceptionally good, we might even want someone with a clear moral compass to find our better selves.
These are very different people in very different situations. And we are instinctively choosing the leader most suited for the moment.
We are typecasting the leaders
Quite often we do not even care what our leaders have to say. We judge them to belong to some category. In one study the participants guessed above 70% of election results simply looking at the photos of the candidate. They did not know the candidate and what they stood for.
Why there are so few female leaders? There is no real proof that women are less capable rulers. In fact, possibly the opposite is true. The women that had had the chance to rule were often the best rulers of their dynasties. This is clearly some stereotypes, yet these stereotypes are incredibly powerful. We see them in work in all of the structures in all the countries I can currently think of.
Are we good leaders ourselves?
Most people consider themselves good leadership material. We judge ourselves fit to provide a certain kind of leadership for certain situations. Some are educators, others are judges or visionaries, maybe pals or motivators. We clearly understand how we will be great leaders. Not sure if many of us are considered competent leaders by others.
Very few leaders get universal support. Those who are supported universally are the more dangerous leaders: quite possibly narcissistic manipulators. A leader that is honest will make some controversial decisions. If the leader is a visionary, some of his steps will be detached from reality. A pragmatic leader will be disliked for his lack of integrity. When a leader has a lot of integrity, this will probably be bad for his organization’s interests and generate conflicts. There is simply no way to make everybody happy without using mass manipulations.
If we are honest hard-working and disciplined people, the feedback we get will not be the one we expect. The feedback will often be detached from measurable results. Our openness may be confused with weakness and our empathy may invite misuse. Overconfident leaders are highly respected and valued, yet their mistakes are extremely costly.
Should leaders be visionaries?
We claim that we want our leaders to have the vision to inspire us. Everybody needs to feel that what we do is meaningful. Yet this vision of greatness is highly speculative and often detached from reality. It is easy to judge leaders at times of war. The best military achievements and the greatest tragedies are often attributed to the same people.
Hannibal Barca almost captured Rome. He hated everything that was Roman. His tactics were brilliant, yet he lost half of his army crossing the Alps and another half trying do find support in the greek cities of South Italy. Romans proclaimed his greatness to make their own success yet more impressive. I do not know a person who would want to serve under his command.
Ben-Gurion is the most important person in Israeli history. He was responsible for Israeli independence and shaped the face of the country to this day. Soon after the independence war, he was relieved of his duties. Almost like a prophet, he went into the desert, with his wife who really hated it. In the desert, he was reading and writing about building stuff. For a brief time, he went back to politics but his ideas were too crazy so he retired. In a country with virtually no industry, surrounded by enimies, he reportedly created a project that resulted in a nuclear reactor. To do that, Israeli military force was used by UK and France as a pawn in the Suez channel war. I repeat that today Ben-Gurion is the most revered leader in Israeli history, and the role model for all Israeli children.
Is corruption so bad?
Corrupt self-centered leaders are generally considered to be bad. The current Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu is considered to be such a man by his opposition. He has been claimed to systematically destabilize the democratic fundaments of the country: free press, independent judges and the other leaders both with his party and other parties.
Yet, the period of Netanyahu coincided with great economic growth, unprecedented safety and military stability. As a citizen, I would like to have a leader with a better moral compass. At the same time, I am afraid that no other candidate will be equally effective as a ruler.
Maybe we should forgive our leaders for their personal faults, as long as they are effective in their duties? Two rounds of elections in Israel cost roughly as much as one high-end submarine. Maybe having a couple of submarines we do not need is not such a high price to pay for the stability?
The worst CEO I had
Some leaders are simply too much in any scenario. I used to work in a publically traded company that acquired the startup where I worked before that. The CEO sounded extremely convincing. He was tall, young, blond and very persuasive. Later we found out that he was using drugs regularly, took money from a crime syndicate, and served four years in jail.
He was one of the most talented people I saw in my life. Somehow he convinced others to give him hundreds of millions of dollars, and yet there was nothing he could show for the money except a vision of greatness. The company fell down like a house of cards two years after I left the company.
It is not very fair to accuse the CEO in this situation. Quite possibly nothing could save us from the disaster. The gap between the great promise and the humble successes was simply too big. On the other hand, there was no other way to amass so much money with so few real achievements.
An entrepreneur and CEO of a big and successful company can suffer any sort of management flaws. He can be a micromanager routinely making everybody do certain strange things. The employees may not see him for weeks as he embarks on the next great journey. It does not matter which personal ethics principles are observed, or how crazy is his vision. As long as the company is successful he will be a creative genius, eccentric and extraordinary. When the company fails, no amount of personal integrity and hard work can justify it.
We judge our leaders in hindsight for things that are quite often not in their control. Possibly we do not have critical information required to make a good judgment. If we have the power to remove our leaders we are usually afraid of what will come instead, and we are right to be afraid as the risks are high. It is easy to be smart in hindsight, and even then we judge the results, not the processes.
A great leader vs a great team
We want to have a great leader, but such a leader will not build a great team of advisors. These advisors will interfere with his plans. A great leader wants people he can control. A great team of advisors may propose a weak leader, a puppet who will allow them to manage the situation wisely.
George Bush Jr was apparently not a genius or a visionary. He was able to talk to the heart of American people and he was backed up by strong advisors. Was he a bad president? He was good enough to be reelected. During his presidency, America was a great superpower. That’s more than we can say about Nixon, and we know that Nixon was very smart.
After a great leader that rules for a long time, there is often a vacuum of power. When a great team is in power for a long time, there is corruption and decay. Strange things may happen in both cases, and it is not clear which is better.
Do we have some actionable ideas?
So far I presented a lot of questions but not many solutions. In fact, I am not sure I have any. Maybe we attribute too much to the people who are as humanly flawed as each of us. A great leader might be simply a great impersonator, a charismatic figure who seems much more in control of the situation than he actually is.