America Needs a New Style of Leadership

It’s time to retire the “big man,” heroic warrior model of leadership.

By + More

Americans chose a new leader on November 4, and now we also need to change the way we think about leadership. Eighty percent of Americans today believe that the United States faces a leadership crisis—up from 65 percent in 2005—according to poll results released by the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Merriman River Group.

The enormous potential of human leadership ranges from Attila the Hun to Mother Teresa. Most everyday leaders remain unheralded. The role of heroic leadership in war has led us to overemphasize command and control and hard military power—and downplay other styles of leadership. For example, in the recent presidential race, some people derided Sen. Barack Obama for being a former community organizer rather than a war hero.

The image of the warrior leader lingers in our minds. Yet the warrior's path has many drawbacks. The writer Robert Kaplan points to the birth of a new "warrior class as cruel as ever and better armed," ranging from Russian mafiosi to Latin American drug kingpins to terrorists who glorify the thrill of violence just as ancient Greeks did in the sacking of Troy.

Smart warriors, however, know how to lead with more than just the use of force. As Gen. David Petraeus demonstrated in Iraq, hearts and minds also matter, and smart warriors need the soft power of attraction as well as the hard power of coercion. Indeed, an oversimplified image of warrior-style leadership in President Bush's first term caused costly setbacks for America's role in the world. It is not a manly modern Achilles or the strongest alpha male who makes the best warrior leader in today's communication age. Military leadership today requires political and managerial skills.

Many autocratic rulers—in Zimbabwe, Myanmar, and Belarus, among others—still lead in the old fashion today. Many leaders combine fear with corruption to maintain kleptocracies dominated by "the big man" and his coterie. Many of the world's 200 countries are ruled that way. Some theorists have tried to explain this with an "alpha male theory of leadership." The psychiatrist Arnold M. Ludwig, for example, argues that just as male monkeys, chimps, or apes automatically begin to assume more responsibility for their particular community once they attain the dominant status of alpha male, human rulers begin to do so as well.

More broadly, the heroic warrior approach to leadership has tended to support the belief that warriors are born, not made, and that nature is more important than nurture. The search for the essential traits of a leader dominated the field of leadership studies until the late 1940s and remains popular in common discourse today. Yet such socio-biological explanations of leadership are of only limited value. Thus far, no leadership gene has been identified, and studies of identical and fraternal male twins find that only a third of their difference in occupying formal leadership roles can be accounted for by genetic factors. While this suggests that inherited characteristics influence the extent to which people play particular roles, it leaves lots of room for people to learn behavior that influences outcomes.

Nature and nurture are mixed in leadership, and traits can be learned rather than merely inherited. We talk about leaders being more energetic, more risk-taking, more optimistic, more persuasive, and more empathetic than other people, but these traits are affected partly by a leader's genetic makeup and partly by the environments in which the traits were learned and developed. A nice experiment recently demonstrated the interaction between nature and nurture. A group of employers were asked to hire workers who had been ranked by their looks. If the employers saw only the résumés, beauty had no impact on hiring. Surprisingly, however, when telephone interviews were included in the process, beautiful people did better even though unseen by the employers. A lifetime of social reinforcement based on their genetic good looks may have encoded into their voice patterns a tone of confidence that could be projected over the phone. Nature and nurture became thoroughly intertwined.