Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Some Comments on a Time Article

I’ve been reading Time magazine since October. It came to my attention that, up to now, four out of five cover stories are dedicated to the presidential election and one to financial crisis. This is quite understandable, since both issues hold center stage in our life today. What’s more, their interplay is as subtle as significant.
In Does Temperament Matter? (Time, Oct 27, p40), a well-written and easy reading piece of work, Nancy Gibbs addresses both issues with crispy wits. Besides analyzing the distinctive ways Obama and McCain react to the ongoing financial crisis, she tries to measure the weight temperament can have on presidential leadership in a historical perspective.

In short, I find this article to be a conversational account of traits theories-also a hybrid one.

Under the subtitle of What Qualities Matter, Gibbs discusses a number of traits which are conducive to successful leadership. Here I’ll just comment on some of her arguments.

1. Intelligence vs Willingness to Hear Different Voices
Only the brightest ones among us can be capable leaders? Is that true? “It’s good to be smart, but that’s no guarantee of success; Woodrow Wilson, the only President with a Ph.D., never won over a majority of voters. More important is the confidence that lets you welcome smart people around you – and hope they disagree.” A good leader should make his/herself open to different opinions. True willingness to hear various and even conflicting voices is different from surface tolerance. Think of this: after making a proposal, a leader asks his people for their opinion. When they speak up, he/she just pretends to be listening. Then he/she ends up with his/her pre-determined plan and calls it the fruit of group discussion. This is not a rare case. It’s frustrating for followers to find out that the leader is not really interested in what they are saying. Don’t try to fool them. They can always tell. So when you listen, listen completely. The ability to accommodate conflicting ideas lies in one’s self-confidence and a larger concern with corporate goal beyond self-interests. Gibbs uses Lincoln’s story as a showcase. When people asked Lincoln why he stocked his Cabinet with former adversaries, Lincoln said, “Look, these are the strongest and most able men in the country. The country’s in peril. I need them by my side.”

2. Vitality & Resilience
“Perhaps even more important than intelligence is vitality: Tiger beats Eeyore any day.” Before set out envisioning and mobilizing followers, a leader needs to be self-motivated. He needs the energy to take actions and the resources to put ideas into practice. “Resilience helps too; every President will get thrown back against a wall and need to come back stronger. Just ask Bill Clinton. So do steadfastness, persistence, conviction.” So far Gibbs has given us a pretty good list of essential traits. If she stops at this point, it’s fine. However, she goes on saying that, “But as soon as you make the list, it mocks you, for history is a dance of luck and intent, and sometimes they trip each other.” This actually takes her argument to the next level as it touches upon situational theories.

3. Situational Theories
Again, Gibbs illustrates her point by giving examples. Wilson was strong enough to win a war but too stubborn to save the peace, while Hoover never understood that politics was more art than engineering. A question naturally arises from the above discussion is: Is leadership transferrable? Does a successful leader in one context automatically excel in another? Is their performance predictable? “Not only can’t you know what a President will face, but his reflexes in one crisis may not be typical of how he responds to another,” Gibbs observes. This echoes the situational theories we learned in class.

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