The Blog: Cogito Ergo Blogo
What Are Leaders Made of?
This week we’re asking the question: What Are Leaders Made of?
That depends on what you’re the leader of. After all, what do Girl Scout leaders, Army generals, corporate honchos, and Philosophy Department heads all have in common? Not much, I’d say. For example: whether you’re talking Girl Scout troops or Army troops -- an effective leader still has to have the ability to communicate and motivate. But motivating a troop of pre-teen girls to work hard and earn their badges is a lot different from motivating a troop of soldiers in the face of battle. It's easy to see how someone could be really good at the one, and bad at the other.
But why can’t both things be true? There are some skills and capacities that effective leaders tend to share -- like the ability to communicate and motivate. But what it takes to exercise those skills effectively, probably depends a lot on context. That suggests that we should distinguish between general-purpose leadership skills and context-specific leadership skills. Maybe leaders need certain general-purpose skills, no matter what the context. But context-specific skills are not necessarily transferable to different situations.
That seems plausible -- and yet having made the distinction explicit, I’m beginning to have doubts. Is there anything of real substance to say about what it takes to be a good or effective leader in general? It’s at least conceivable that there is. Take somebody who’s good at leading girl scout troops, but not so good at leading army troops. You might call that person a good girl scout leader, but you wouldn’t say that they were a good leader -- full stop -- would you?
It seems to be part of our ordinary concept of a good leader that you have to have leadership skills that don’t depend on context, that are transferable from context to context in order to count as a good leader -- full stop. A real leader is the kind of person that, given any leadership task, has a good chance of rising to the occasion. It seems pretty hard to say what it would take to make leaders like that. Are there really any people like that, anyway? Isn’t that what we’re looking for when when we ask what leaders are made of? It’s one thing to ask what it takes to make a good leader in this or that context. It’s another thing to say what it takes to make a person a good leader in any context.
We also need to distinguish between effective leaders, and wise or moral leaders. History is full of examples of highly effective leaders who were neither wise nor moral. Are we trying to figure out what effective leaders are made of, or what wise and moral leaders are made of? Does it really make sense to even try to separate out the qualities of effective leadership from the qualities that make for wise and moral leadership? The last thing we need is more foolish and immoral, so-called leaders.
And yet a leader who leads their followers into ruin, folly, or immorality is still a leader. I completely reject the directions in which Mao or Stalin or Hitler led their nations. But I can’t deny that they were highly effective, highly consequential leaders. Yet I wouldn't call any of them great leaders. Great leaders don’t lead their followers into ruin, folly, or moral darkness. Great leaders have to be both wise and moral. Calling someone a great leader is a way of endorsing or approving of their leadership. By that token, Hitler was not a great leader at all. He may have been temporarily effective. But he was ultimately a foolhardy leader who led his followers into both immorality and defeat.
But a still small voice in me says, “Not so fast.” One man’s moral darkness and folly is another man’s most cherished goal. Is it really right to build a particular moral point of view into the very idea of leadership? That’s just one of the many questions we’ll have to answer, as we try to figure out what leaders are made of with our guest, Stanford Law Professor Deborah Rhode, who has co-authored a number of books on the nature of leadership.
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