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.

Obama and his Eloquence

Through out the campaign Barack Obama has been back-handedly complimented for his eloquence. According to his political opponents being a charismatic communicator is a strike against Obama in some way. If he speaks well, inspires millions in the U.S. and around the world, and garners the enthusiastic endorsements of artists and entertainers, it is not because he is a leader, but because he is a silver tongued celebrity. Though pundits debate whether it is a positive or negative attribute, most agree that Obama is a gifted communicator. I can't help but wonder how this a bad thing.

Hackman and Johnson define leadership specifically as "communication which modifies the attitudes and behaviors of others in order to meet group goals and needs" (Hackman and Johnson, 1991). In this conception it is communication that defines leadership. Leadership effectiveness depends on whether one can process cues from the environment, listen well to others, and establish satisfying group relationships. Leaders are those who can take this input from others and convert it into vision for the future. Obama matches these traits. As a person of mixed race in a predominantly white environment he is adept at understanding his situation and molding the impression he makes. He has established a reputation for inviting divergent views to the table in order to hear perspectives other than his own. He has inspired the most productive movement of professional and volunteer organizers, people who are satisfied just to be a part of the process. Most of all he has cast a large vision for the future in simple words like unity, hope and change.

Marshall Sashkin captures this idea in his conception of visionary leadership. A visionary leader is someone who can construct a vision and create an ideal image of the organization and its culture (Sashkin, 1989). This leader then must be able to define the organizational philosophy and put it into practice with programs and policies. An effective leader, according to Sashkin, is one who can express an organizational aim, through written and face to face relations, and extend this vision in a variety of circumstances. Obama is a quintessential visionary leader.

Communication and vision casting are not trivial traits. Look at the history of the United States and you will find that great presidents are known for exactly these skills. Lincoln stood up to the seceding South in the vision of the Emancipation Proclamation and the eloquence of his second inaugural address. Franklin D. Roosevelt calmed the fears of the nation in the Depression through fireside radio chats and called the country to defeat fascism in World War II through rousing rhetoric. John F. Kennedy was in office such a short time, but is remembered on behalf of his image management, his optimism, and his vision for the future. And Ronald Reagan, an actor, was hailed for his oratorical skills as he communicated his way through the end of the Cold War. That is what good presidents do. They listen to the public, and then speak for America. They invite confidence and participation. They use words and style to advocate on behalf of policy, both here and abroad. They embody the image of the nation. These are not small traits, rather they are quite charismatic.

To further substantiate this view of leaderhip as communication, we need only look at its antithesis: George Bush. I do not bring his presidency up as a straw man. Any honest citizen must acknowledge that President Bush has enacted some good programs, like the emergency fund for AIDS in Africa. But by all accounts he has not been a good communicator and this has cost the country in her own self confidence and reputation around the world. In the wake of this administration of little listening, miscast vision and poorly communicated plans, the nation needs a visionary leader, someone who can rebrand America both internally and externally, someone who can make people believe again. If eloquence is essential in that endeavor, then Obama should not be faulted for his fluency.