America Needs a New Style of Leadership

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

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Genetics and biology matter in human leadership, but they do not determine it in the way that the traditional heroic warrior approach to leadership suggests. The "Big Man" type of leadership works in societies based on networks of tribal cultures which rely on personal and family honor and loyalty, but such social structures are not well adapted for coping with today's complex information-based world. In the modern United States, institutional constraints such as constitutions and impartial legal system circumscribe such heroic figures. Societies that rely on heroic leaders are slow to develop the civil society and broad social capital that are necessary for leading in a modern networked world. Modern leadership turns out to be less about who you are or how you were born than about what you have learned and what you do as part of a group. We need to go beyond the Big Man approach to leadership.

In our society, women generally understand the soft power of attraction better than men, but the opposite of the Big Man is not the Sensitive Woman. Even if communications-based societies are more open to "feminine" styles of leadership, it is a mistake to identify the new type of leadership we need by using gender stereotypes.

We need to see leaders less in heroic terms of command than in terms of encouraging participation throughout an organization, group, or network. Questions about appropriate leadership styles revolve around when to use hard and soft power. These skills are equally relevant for men and women, and should not be clouded by traditional gender stereotypes.

George W. Bush famously described his leadership style as "the decider," but he was often decisively wrong. How a leader decides, whom he consults, and when he acts in different contexts are the relevant tests. Adept leadership depends not on stereotypes of style but on how individuals combine hard and soft power skills to produce smart strategies. That is what our new president will need to demonstrate if he wishes to be successful and regain public confidence.

Joseph S. Nye Jr. is University Distinguished Service Professor at Harvard and author of The Powers to Lead (Oxford University Press)