On Tuesday Barack Obama made history as the first black man to be appointed President-elect of the US. In the years and months ahead, he will make more history as he tackles unprecedented challenges: two bloody wars, a global financial crisis, the US’s tarnished reputation, domestic security and healthcare reform.
But as the euphoria of his victory gives way to the hard work of transitioning to the White House, we should perhaps pause for a moment to reflect on Obama’s other achievement: his emphatic arrival as the world’s first 21st Century leader.
I don’t think we can know this for quite some time but there are some good points about the type of leadership Obama brings.
While this article is a little effusive and may be somewhat premature, it does describe some of the work to identify traits of leadership during crisis, as opposed to stasis. It certainly looks like crisis leadership may be the norm for the next few years.
First, let’s examine what some of the most forward-thinking writers of the last century had to say on the subject of leadership. One of the central ideas of leadership in the last half of the 20th century was Max Weber’s concept of charismatic leadership. In 1968 the German sociologist wrote that social crisis was precondition for charismatic leadership, a combination of intelligence, purpose, grace under pressure and consideration for their followers.
US academic Noel Tichy built on his work in the eighties and nineties, identifying transformational leaders – courageous, value-driven, visionary people who were comfortable with uncertainty. Transformational leaders emerge in times of crisis or change, in contrast with transactional leaders who manage in steady times, preserving the status quo and strengthening existing structures, cultures and strategies.
Other researchers believed that the measure of a true leader was the ability to display both transformational and transactional styles as the circumstances demanded.
Transactional leadership uses the well recognized tools of reward and punishment to get their followers to comply with instructions. Fear is a major focus of command. Motivation comes from outside the employee/follower.
Transformational leadership evokes a feeling of higher purpose and is able to move their followers on a different level than simple positive/negative feedback. The leader makes their followers passionate. Motivation is driven by internal mechanisms, not external prods.
The idea that there are different types of leaders, each necessary for different times is well known when examining warfare. Leaders that are perfect for peacetime do not often fair well in wartime, and vice versa. It took Lincoln most of the early part of the Civil War to find a leader who was more transformative than transactional.
The difference between these two types of leadership is obvious here because wartime is principally a time of crisis. Yet, transformational leaders can also be found outside of the military, particularly in the innovative world of entrepreneurial endeavor.
Around the same time, Warren Bennis advanced the argument that in a complex and uncertain world, leadership can only be exercised by self-directed, strong, creative, purposeful and self-actualising leaders – those who have listened to their inner voice. Bennis later added that one of the most reliable indicators and predictors of leadership was the ability to learn from traumatic circumstances: emerging from these ‘crucibles’ of change, leaders were stronger and with a more defined purpose
In the 1990s, Peter Vaill of Antioch University added that values were the primary organising principle for action in a turbulent climate. When it is impossible to set goals, leaders need to rely on their inner resources, drawing on non-rational as well as rational abilities, in other words, their deepest convictions.
Of course, a lot of this just sounds like leadership of any kind. What is key here is that a transformational leader is very comfortable with shades of gray, is able to seek answers to complex problems without necessarily having every path delineated and recognizes that failure is often a necessary prelude to success.
And, finally, a transformational leader is able to gather their followers without the simple inducements of positive or negative reinforcements. Thus the followers are able to ‘lead’ themselves in the absence of the leader. Without the need for inducements, the organization can easily follow the 7 lessons I mentioned earlier. A transactional leader is simply unable to do this.