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November 11, 2013 7:29 AM   Subscribe

The Myth of the Visionary Leader. "But just knowing that great leadership is not always going to look great, or even make us feel inspired, could help gird us against the power of big personality and encourage us to make more sober choices."
posted by Sticherbeast (40 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
Very strange pay wall there, shows the article, but immediately replaces it with a subscribe page. Just press print and preview it when the article pops up to actually read the article.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:49 AM on November 11, 2013


as Richard Reeves describes in his book on the Kennedy administration, the president was forced to confront the limits of his rhetorical gifts when, in the aftermath of his 1963 speech in support of civil rights, he saw that racial tension around the country had only escalated.

This is an interesting bit that in some ways challenges the point of this article. Are results the only thing that matter when it comes to visionary leaders? Are managers and deal-makers the only kind of leadership we should respect? A brilliant CEO's company can still fail due to bad luck or bad timing--that doesn't make her business ideas less potentially transformative. A brilliant politician (like Kennedy) can make a speech filled with truth and justice that pisses off those who are committed to the opposite--it doesn't make him wrong. On the other hand, a leader can be a total tool and manage to get luck and score a big win and a mediocre leader can stumble into a position of power and succeed by not screwing up. Should a leader be judged by their ideas or their results, or some combination of the two?
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:53 AM on November 11, 2013


The kind of leaders we idolize may be the last people we really want in charge. The character traits that tend to convince us someone deserves power, these thinkers say, have remarkably little to do with how effective that person will be at actually running a city, or a company, or a nation.

You don't say.
posted by dortmunder at 8:00 AM on November 11, 2013 [13 favorites]


Should a leader be judged by their ideas or their results, or some combination of the two?

Since we're talking about folks who lead social organizations with fairly clear goals to reach (whatever the field -- economic, political, academic), it's the results that matter.

You may have to wait a bit, however, before making a judgement.
posted by notyou at 8:01 AM on November 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


When we pick a leader, we’re usually choosing someone to take over a large institution that functions more or less the way it’s supposed to—a city government, a Fortune 500 company—and then work to keep people happy, navigate change, and lay the groundwork for its future health.

More often than not, I have zero confidence that someone very visibly in charge is focusing on the emphasized portion as opposed to personal gains while being the visibly in-charge person.
posted by Slackermagee at 8:01 AM on November 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think it is the myth of the visionary CEO that has caused the ridiculous salaries for business heads. Lee Iacocca did a great job, but always looking for someone like him leads to overpaid blowhards that more often than not hurt the companies.
I used to have a rubric for picking political candidates. Boring gave a candidate plus five. (Being dynamic ends up being rewarded already.)

Let's see, going back. You judge the right calls and the wrong calls.

Carter more dynamic than Ford.
Reagan more dynamic than Carter (and way more dynamic than Mondale)
Bush Sr more dynamic than Dukakis.
Clinton more dynamic than Bush Sr or what's his name, mumbly Joe.
Bush Jr more dynamic than Gore or Kerry.
Obama more dynamic than McCain or Romney (the Republican Dukakis)

Interesting. The more dynamic has won each time (at least by my subjective rating).
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 8:05 AM on November 11, 2013


Winners generally seem more dynamic by virtue of winning. If anyone of those upsets occurred we would use adjectives like plucky or gravitas or something to retrofit the victory with the required dynamism.
posted by srboisvert at 8:14 AM on November 11, 2013 [16 favorites]


It's weird to me that the column begins with a tacit comparison of Walsh and Connolly's lack of personality to Mayor Menino's abundance, only to later take Menino at his word when he calls himself a mechanic of politics. Of course he calls himself a mechanic: It fits his persona as Boston's lovably marblemouthed mayor.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 8:20 AM on November 11, 2013


An interesting section on CEOs:
It’s easy to see how voters get taken in by charismatic politicians; after all, voting is a popularity contest. In the world of business, where corporate directors have a sworn fiduciary responsibility to think rationally about bottom lines, you might expect to see the types of leaders best able to build the company’s value.

It turns out, however, that even shareholder pressure can’t outmatch the appeal of the visionary. Rakesh Khurana, a professor of leadership development at Harvard Business School, looked at 850 of the country’s biggest companies over a 30-year period, and conducted interviews with the people involved in choosing their leaders. What he found astonished him. “When I would ask why they chose one person over the other, they’d often use all sorts of weird words, like ‘chemistry,’ or ‘a real go-go attitude,’” said Khurana. Sometimes he heard about candidates who were “persuasive” or “charming”; on one occasion he was told someone had “tremendous genetics.”

Khurana’s conclusion, which he described in his book “Searching for a Corporate Savior: The Irrational Quest for Charismatic CEOs,” was that the supposedly rational CEO selection process was anything but—and that potential hires were often evaluated in terms of character traits that were not only vague and subjective, but also completely unrelated to the challenges facing the firm or industry. Getting leadership wrong in this way has consequences. According to one recent study, high-performing companies in Europe were less likely to have charismatic CEOs than poorly performing ones. The reason for this, according to the authors of the study, is that leaders who have “exceptional powers of persuasion” are ultimately harmful because it’s too easy for them to overcome dissent and opposition to their ideas.
There is, of course, no solution, because with rare exceptions people are always going to go for the charisma if they have a chance to. (If you can't access the article via this link, try Google; that's how I got to read it.)
posted by languagehat at 8:20 AM on November 11, 2013 [16 favorites]


Are managers and deal-makers the only kind of leadership we should respect?

This is a false dichotomy. As the article itself points out, there are times and places for visionary leaders, especially in an explicitly revolutionary context. However, that is not the only kind of leadership. In fact, it may be not only typically ineffective in many contexts, but it may also be disproportionately seductive.

A brilliant politician (like Kennedy) can make a speech filled with truth and justice that pisses off those who are committed to the opposite--it doesn't make him wrong.

That's not what the article's talking about, though. It's not about being right or wrong. It's about getting things done.

A brilliant CEO's company can still fail due to bad luck or bad timing--that doesn't make her business ideas less potentially transformative.

Leadership is a different quality than having good or bad ideas.

It's certainly true that bad luck can overwhelm the best people, but that's only true in the same sense that we could never really make a list of the 100 best novels, because the world's greatest novel may sit unpublished in somebody's drawer.

...

Clinton more dynamic than Bush Sr or what's his name, mumbly Joe.

I believe you mean Ross Perot, who was nothing if not dynamic!
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:28 AM on November 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


As for the paywall, on Chrome, I just "collapse" the notification, and then it collapses. I'm sorry if other experiences are different!
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:29 AM on November 11, 2013


This is more foolishness. The idea that there are 'visionary leaders' is foolish and relies on a subjective idea of 'vision.'

The reality of things is that people are swept up in giant mass of humanity. The choices they are able to make are severely limited by the facts on the ground and are usuallu technical. Looking at Lincoln, for example, we see a man who said of his experience as President: "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me."

There is one exception--Hitler. A man who had a vision and forced it, regardless of the consequences. Somebody once said of him that he never adapted to circumstances, but instead changed them to suit himself. The results speak for themselves. His country destroyed, tens of millions dead for nothing.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:42 AM on November 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


> Clinton more dynamic than Bush Sr or what's his name, mumbly Joe.

I believe you mean Ross Perot, who was nothing if not dynamic!


Poor Bob Dole, forgotten even in the correction.
posted by stopgap at 9:04 AM on November 11, 2013 [10 favorites]


Couldn't get around that subscription page popping up (even when I could get to the 'print' button in time, the only option I got was to print it out on my printer), but this link appears to be the same article.
posted by rochrobbb at 9:06 AM on November 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


A brilliant politician (like Kennedy) can make a speech filled with truth and justice that pisses off those who are committed to the opposite--it doesn't make him wrong.

Being right, in and of itself, is not much of an accomplishment at all. The purpose of political action (or any kind of organizing) is to further your goals, not to die with the most correct worldview.
posted by enn at 9:20 AM on November 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


The theory of Resource Dependence suggests that management and leadership are mostly illusory. Leaders do the bidding of those who control resources their organization depends on. For CEOs this is shareholders, bondholders, suppliers, and employees. For politicians it's voters, campaign donors, other politicians, etc. If you do something that sufficiently harms these people, they stop supporting you with their money, goods and effort.

There is very little room for charisma and vision under this theoretical framework. In the political sphere, publicly financed campaigns are meant to reduce candidates dependence on large donors, although they often also lock out minority parties from growing too quickly.
posted by pwnguin at 9:27 AM on November 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


BTW if anybody likes reading short unconventional idea posts on economics like the limits of managerialist ideology Chris Dillow's blog is often thought provoking in a modern non-ranty marxist way.
posted by srboisvert at 9:56 AM on November 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Distinguishing between leaders and managers is a good starting point.
Leaders should have vision but may not have the ability to manage.
Some managers may have ability but lack vision.
Someone who has the capacity to manage and the vision to lead may be exceptional.
Charisma and wisdom to go along with that might put someone in the great category.
Leaders may not necessarily like or want to be in charge but usually find that others would like them to be.
Managers on the other hand tender to have ambition but may lack leadership.
Humility, defined as an accurate assessment of oneself is hard to maintain when you get to be in charge though.
Power corrupts etc. etc.
posted by manoffewwords at 10:18 AM on November 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think this situation is worse than the article states, and I think they might have missed a pretty key insight. I touched upon this during one of the last presidential elections, but it seems like there is a lot of overlap between national elections and CEO selection, among other processes.

The charismatic but dangerous succeeds in getting elected because the selection systems encourage those same traits. Has the world really gotten so complicated that we no longer evaluate how well someone performs a role before granting it? Do we just not have enough time to spend evaluating the actual mechanics of leadership, but rather take the candidates word for it and whatever our "gut" tells us?
posted by butterstick at 10:28 AM on November 11, 2013


I've been to a few training courses where conveying a vision was cited as being a critical part of being a leader. It is, but it's only a part of the job. Making the speech doesn't make you a leader, follow through does. You have to care about a project and care about your people.
posted by arcticseal at 10:35 AM on November 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


The thing is that there should be *two* people at the head, and *one* should be the dynamic visionary leader, and one the hardcore realist. The modern titles for these two roles are CEO and CFO, but the titles don't matter as much as having the person with the vision and the ability to inspire *working* with the person able to keep reality in play. It's the very rare person who can do both.

See Disney's first glory period, with Walt and Roy Disney (and what happened when the visionary Walt died) and the second glory period, with Michael Eisner and Frank Wells (and what happened when the realist Wells died suddenly in a helicopter crash - which led to the spat with Jeffrey Katzenburg, the first error in Eisner's Reign of Error.)
posted by eriko at 10:42 AM on November 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Has the world really gotten so complicated that we no longer evaluate how well someone performs a role before granting it?

It's very hard to find people with a solid track record if you're selecting the CEO of a large corporation or the head of government of a superpower state. All the folks with the proper bona fides may be employed by your competitors, or be running other states, at the time when you need to bring in someone new.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:54 AM on November 11, 2013


LBJ isn't some footnote to Kennedy. How can you talk about effective leadership without focusing on Lyndon Baines Johnson?
posted by rdr at 11:04 AM on November 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Leadership! Thank you Charlie Pierce for your nice little exegesis on Leadership today (in response to Mark Halperin's thoughts about the Republican party on one of the Sunday morning political talk shows):
MARK HALPERIN: It's a huge fight. And the party's going to have to sort it out. And it's got to be done by leaders. It can't be done by people on cable T.V., with all due respect to cable, or the internet or Twitter. Leaders are going to have to play a huge part of this. And Chris Christie is someone who is magical in the way politicians can be magical, like our last three presidents. People like having them on T.V.. He's a good talker. He won. Joe said winning is really what matters. He wants to win. He's going to take over the Republican Governors Association and see if he can win there.
Leaders! That's what we need! Magic leaders! Leaders with their magic! Magical leaders with their leadership magic! Magical leaders with their magical leadership! Magic leaders like "our last three presidents," which, if I can still count to three, includes the magical leadership and leadership magic of C-Plus Augustus, who magically led the country into a war based on lies, and whose leadership magic made New Orleans disappear, and whose magical leadership acted through its leadership magic to produce the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. Leadership! Magic! New Jersey! Jesus, is Halperin real, or is he something they dreamed up at Pixar?
posted by benito.strauss at 11:19 AM on November 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Well, yeah! Strong, charismatic leaders are the best leaders! That shit is magic!
posted by Mister_A at 11:57 AM on November 11, 2013


I long for the days when our leaders walked hand-in-hand down the sidewalk, exchanging long protein strings.
posted by Mister_A at 11:59 AM on November 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


We think it will turn silver!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:18 PM on November 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


The thing is that there should be *two* people at the head, and *one* should be the dynamic visionary leader, and one the hardcore realist. The modern titles for these two roles are CEO and CFO, but the titles don't matter as much as having the person with the vision and the ability to inspire *working* with the person able to keep reality in play. It's the very rare person who can do both.

I agree, and actually think this is the current reality. Perhaps not always the CEO and CFO, "capable" leaders just about always bring their trusted "gauntlets" with them from company to company.

Some leaders are far better then others at making those people's existence known.
posted by straight_razor at 12:52 PM on November 11, 2013


straight_razor: "Some leaders are far better then others at making those people's existence known."

Man, I read that as "Some leaders are better...at making others' existence *brown*" and thought, that's a hell of a way to say the leader shits on people.
posted by notsnot at 1:26 PM on November 11, 2013


The thing is that there should be *two* people at the head, and *one* should be the dynamic visionary leader, and one the hardcore realist.

Is that you again Cheney?
posted by srboisvert at 3:05 PM on November 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


but srboisvert, how can that be Cheney when he wants a dynamic visionary
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 3:16 PM on November 11, 2013


The problem is we focus too much on persona and not enough on actual character. It's not about dynamism versus lack of dynamism, it's that we make superficial character judgments based on people's intentional social performances rather than looking more critically at people's choices and drawing inferences about their true character. Persona is useless for predicting people's likely actions and judging their true character, yet it's all our mass culture really focuses on. (And at least one historian agrees.)
posted by saulgoodman at 3:35 PM on November 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


What if I don't feel like being led?
posted by uosuaq at 3:40 PM on November 11, 2013


Well, if you don't feel like it... (There are better reasons to distrust power heirarchies than personal whim. Unfortunately, I'm quite convinced there will always be power heirarchies as long as we're still mammals.)
posted by saulgoodman at 3:52 PM on November 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


There's not much in the way of a positive theory here: "Someone who can improvise in a technocratic sort of way is usually better mumble mumble..." But the appearance of this kind of article is itself an interesting data point. Maybe the culture is really shifting away from the glam CEO model of business captaincy that we learned to gaze so lovingly upon in the '90s.
posted by batfish at 5:01 PM on November 11, 2013


I agree. Charismatic leaders are inefficient because one person might be held accountable or replaced, whereas you can dilute responsibility and transparency in a faceless committee. Plus, there's less risk of any one person changing the course of things.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 7:04 PM on November 11, 2013


"Oh you don't say?" introverts everywhere said collectively.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 7:24 PM on November 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Me, I think you probably do need to delegate some level of decision-making authority to individuals for operational efficiency. But at the same time, the responsibilities and duties of the roles those individuals fulfill must include only decisions within a defined level of authority available to the position. They should have real decision-making power over certain domains, but those decisions should always be subject to review by others. So, not necessarily leaders, but people doing a job that involves making decisions and being held accountable for those decisions, legally, ethically and socially.

Leadership, in the sense of providing a sense of mission and big picture ideas, is more of a cheerleader job and while it may be important for political reasons, leadership in the sense of being charismatic and appealing to a crowd doesn't really accomplish anything by itself. Leadership is like the carrot in that overused carrot-and-stick metaphor: Its function is to inspire people to do what they're already supposed to be doing and to communicate a bigger picture vision for how to do it better. And occasionally to help resolve disputes among groups with competing interests within a political coalition.

The mule is the one actually pulling the damn wagon. But the mule never actually gets the carrot--i.e., the office grunt never becomes the charming, affable, and wealthy CEO boss he latently aspires to be--and that's a feature of the system. Leadership inspires but never stops demanding improvement, never stops whipping the mule. (The mule itself in this arrangement is nothing more than a convenient repository for the potential and kinetic mechanical energy required to do the work. The wagon and the cart are the industrial machinery involved.) Leadership should be cultural not political in origin. As people, we should all strive to reach consensus about particular political aims, and our decision makers should act in ways that generally reflect the consensus, with only limited exceptions (and they should be constrained by civil and criminal law to make sure).

Politicians are spokespeople for coalitions of other people. Congressional representatives are spokespeople for their parties and the various constituents they represent. No decision maker in the US system of government is or should ever be viewed as holding power in themselves.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:51 PM on November 11, 2013


I don't see what the big deal is. It's not like we're going to elect a President solely on charisma and give him the Nobel Peace Prize, fer crisssakes.
posted by storybored at 9:38 PM on November 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


One other point. To be a government leader, you have to be chosen. That's where the charisma comes in. You could be awesome at everything and not get elected.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:39 AM on November 12, 2013


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