When I first began my professional career, I worked as an associate researcher on the GLOBE project, directed by Bob House of the Wharton School, which compared leadership prototypes across 62 different societies. A cornerstone of this work was the implicit leadership theory – that individuals collectively hold in a society particular assumptions and expectations about the qualities, capacities and behaviors constituting good leadership. These expectations and beliefs influence an individual’s perceptions and behavior toward the leader. This collective concept or framework is frequently different than what we have learned actually constitutes effective leadership, although initially leaders needs to gain credibility and power by fitting the model of what the followers believe to be good leadership.
The election of Donald Trump has revealed a ‘huge’ gap between what we find demonstrated to be strategic leadership in our complex world and what the American people have endorsed by their vote. So, I think it is worthwhile to think about what leadership capabilities have been shown to be effective in today’s complex environment, which are: empathy, the ability to respect another’s point of view, build trust, and harness collective intelligence; the complexity of mind and thought to grasp nuances and to recognize non-linear causality; the ability to address conflict; and to be capable of wielding power, as well as sharing power effectively. A leader moves beyond conventional notions of ‘goodness’ to understand that two seemingly opposed truths or perspectives may possibly both be equally valid and to act effectively in ambiguous circumstances. The effective leader possesses the capacity to anticipate, in the midst of action, the potential for unintended consequences. Also, the person must have an appreciation of his/her role in the larger ‘system’ and take responsibility for his/her impact. These are the leadership capacities that auger well for sustainable, successful enterprises be they private businesses or public governmental organizations. They are also the capacities, qualities and behavior that transformational leaders possess – leaders that are truly capable of changing a corporate culture or institutional environments in a constructive way. Frankly, it is rare to find all of these qualities in one individual. However, a good leader is sufficiently self-aware of his/her capabilities and limitations so that he/she includes advisors and confidantes in the leadership team who possess the qualities and abilities which may be missing, in order to assure sound decision-making processes.
So my questions are: How can we move toward creating a more robust idea of leadership in the popular imagination and public discourse? How can we build narratives about effective leadership that would illustrate the relationship between these types of leadership qualities and capacities and achieving the common good – well-paid jobs for the many rather than the few, sound educational opportunities for all of our children, safe neighborhoods, and a healthy and sustainable environment? How do we hold our leaders accountable for meeting our expectations of good and effective leadership? Can we resuscitate the idea of a virtuous leader? In my view, the future of our democracy, and perhaps of the world, depend upon how we address these questions. The stakes could not be higher.