As an observer of the American electoral process, I’m bewildered by how people make their choice for President. Repeatedly for many American voters, candidates such as John B. Anderson and Al Gore were considered “too intellectual” to serve as their elected leader. They preferred someone who was just like them, someone they would feel comfortable with. In a recent article in The New York Times [10/27/08], a young man from Pennsylvania was quoted, referring to Governor Sarah Palin’s speeches, “She’s always talking about the “Average Joe.” Average me! I don’t want myself in the Oval Office. I want someone smarter.”
In an effort to educate myself about cultural views on the qualities of leadership, I learned that the ancient Chinese general, Sun Tzu, wrote: “you need to lead from the front. In general, people are lost. When they see someone ahead of them to guide the way, they tend to follow. Be that someone. By default, you are their leader. No formal ceremony necessary.” [sonshi.com, a website on Sun Tzu’s The Art of War]
Then I found an insightful speech prepared by D. Quinn Mills, a professor of the Harvard Business School on “Asian and American leadership styles: how are they unique?” (delivered in Kuala Lumpur in June, 2005 and posted on the school’s website). While his analysis applies to business situations, I thought it would be a helpful guide to the electoral process.
Mills says that “leadership is about a vision of the future and the ability to energize others to pursue it,” in contrast to management or administration. Across Asia, it is common for family leadership of business enterprises, including large companies. While this also is true for some American firms, both publicly held and private, they are more commonly run by professional managers, appointed by the board of directors. To a significant degree, says Mills, large American firms are at a later stage of development than many Asian firms.
There are five leadership styles exhibited in America: directive, participative, empowering, charismatic and celebrity. Directory leadership, which stresses the direction given by executives to others in the firm, is very common in Asia but while well-known in America, it’s declining in frequency. Participative leadership, which involves close teamwork with others, is “more common in Europe, where it is sometimes required by law (as in northern Europe, especially in Germany) than in America. It is also common in a variant colored by national cultural norms,[as] in Japan.”
Empowering leadership is relatively new and stresses delegation of responsibility to subordinates. American companies, says Mills, that operate with largely autonomous divisions employ this style of leadership. “At the core of empowering leadership is the ability to energize the people in a company…Energizing others is the core of the new leadership in America.”
Charismatic leadership is the leader who looks like a leader. People follow such a leader, says Mills, because of who he is, not because of good management or even business success; nor because [the people] are offered participation, partnership, or empowerment. Human magnetism is the thing and it is very different in different national cultures.”
Celebrity leadership looks outside the company to the impact on others—customers and investors. “It is in a bit of a slump in the United States right now due to the corporate financial reporting scandals, which have focused attention on CEOs with the ability to get things done right in the company; but celebrity leadership will make a recovery.”
Then Mills spoke about the nine key qualities that research shows people seek in a successful leader: passion; decisiveness; conviction; integrity; adaptability; emotional toughness; emotional resonance; self-knowledge; and humility.
The emotionalism, says Mills, that goes with passion is more common in America than elsewhere. “Europeans see it as a sort of business evangelicalism and are very suspicious of it.”
Decisiveness is common to effective executives in all countries, says Mills. “In this regard European and Japanese chief executives are the most consensus-oriented, and Chinese and American top executives are more likely to make decisions personally and with their own accountability.”
Conviction is common to all.
Integrity, says Mills, is a complex characteristic very much determined by national cultures. “What is honest in one society is not in another, and vice versa.”
Adaptability, says Mills, is a pronounced characteristic of American leadership generally. “It is less common and less valued in Asia and Europe. It will be needed everywhere soon enough.”
Emotional toughness is common to all top executives, says Mill, but “Americans spend more time trying not to show it.”
Emotional resonance, the ability to grasp what motivates others and appeal effectively to it, says Mills, is most important in the United States and Europe at this point in time. “It will become more important in Asia as living standards improve, knowledge workers become more important, professional management gets greater demand, and CEOs have to compete for managerial talent.”
Self-knowledge, says Mills, is important in avoiding the sort of over-reach so common in America; “it is less common a virtue in America than in Asia and is a strength of the Asian executive.”
Humility, says Mills, is a very uncommon trait in the American CEO. It is sometimes found in Asia. “It is often a trait of the most effective leaders, as it was in the best-respected of all American political leaders, Abraham Lincoln. Once, when the Civil War was not going well for the Union side, a high-ranking general suggested that the nation needed to get rid of Lincoln and have a dictatorship instead. The comment came to Lincoln’s ears. Lincoln promoted the general to the top command in the army anyway and told him, “I am appointing you to the command despite, not because, of what you said. Bring us victories, and I’ll risk the dictatorship.””
Up until the polls close on Tuesday, we can only judge the style of leadership exhibited by Senators John McCain and Barack Obama. After Tuesday and the inauguration in January, the nation will know whether the new President will be an effective leader after all. The world, and all the crucial policy issues pending, await our choice.