The Myth of Leadership as Control

            No part of our work here at the Institute is untouched by the successes or failures of leadership. This is true for the policies and programs of the governments and foundations on which we rely to fund our work, and for the efficacy of our own and our university’s efforts. It is easy to assert that leadership matters and simply point to lived daily realities and events as evidence. This said, it is far more difficult to describe, and still thornier to explain, how and why leaders are important and what it is precisely they do that daily appears so consequential.

            In their efforts to grapple with this phenomenon, so widely noted, but still, in truth, so poorly understood, generations of scholars have come to take for granted that individuals dubbed “leaders” are likely to exhibit a range of traits long associated with leadership. More recent analysts have agreed, but also have contended that knowing that fact is hardly sufficient to ensure these people’s success or failure as leaders because the contexts they confront are also profoundly important in shaping outcomes. More, researchers have argued that while some characteristics do appear to be aligned with successful leaders, knowing that fact does not provide much assistance in helping individuals develop leadership capabilities, since traits are extremely difficult to develop and change. Leaders’ personalities and capacities matter, but these are always exercised in contexts, and those scenarios and the factors shaping them play powerful roles in how or whether a leader succeeds or fails.

            Nevertheless, as axiomatic as these arguments may be to scholars, that fact has apparently never reached many of America’s citizens or the pundits who daily offer arguments that are predicated on a view that leadership is simply about traits and that the “right” characteristics will allow leaders authoritatively to control events. The results of such expectations and claims are as routinely distorting as they are factually inaccurate. I have been watching with interest as many columnists and commentators, joined by those with partisan reasons for offering similar assertions, have recently argued that President Barack Obama is not exerting sufficient leadership in our nation’s foreign policy. Indeed, recently columnist Roger Cohen of The New York Times eloquently described the world as unraveling and blamed America’s President (and to be fair, its population partly, too) for that sad pass:

The nation’s leader mockingly derided his own “wan, diffident, professorial” approach to the world, implying he was none of these things, even if he gave that appearance. He set objectives for which he had no plan. He made commitments he did not keep. In the way of the world these things were noticed. Enemies probed. Allies were neglected, until they were needed to face the decapitators who talked of a Caliphate and called themselves a state. Words like “strength” and “resolve” returned to the leader’s vocabulary. But the world was already adrift, unmoored by the retreat of its ordering power. The rulebook had been ripped up (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/16/opinion/roger-cohen-the-great- unraveling.html).

            However subtly and implicitly, this column assigned Obama a major share of responsibility for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s tyranny, Iraq’s political fratricide, Syria’s civil war, ISIS’ inhumanity and much more. If only, Cohen implied, the President had taken a stronger hand and offered a visionary and purportedly non-existent plan, all of these situations would have been different. What is lost in this sort of thinking is recognition that many, if not most of the concerns outlined had little or nothing to do with whether America’s chief executive gave “firm” speeches or promised “planned and vigorous military interventions,” or other imagined fixes for the extraordinarily complex issues named. That is, these contexts and challenges did not arise as a result of the Obama administration’s foreign policy alone or principally, or from the President’s deliberative decision style, nor would alternate rhetoric or presumably more robust (but unarticulated) plans make them go away. They were and are the product of many forces far beyond the reach of the United States’ president’s power to control them. In short, while one may certainly criticize the President and his advisors for their efforts, it is both typical of our nation’s governance conversation and wildly misleading to contend that either he or the United States could (or perhaps should) control all of the events to which Cohen pointed. And yet, such conceptions of leadership persist and dominate our public dialogue. Political pundits suggest again and again that one may with aplomb decontextualize leadership and imagine that leaders can control events over which they possess no authority and still less capacity to determine outcomes.

            As I have argued previously, there are at least two basic reasons for the persistence of this mythology of leadership as capacity to assure complete control of circumstances. The first inheres in people’s deep desire to make sense of careening events and to settle on simplified rationales that “explain” them. Blaming the symbolic leader—the President—for world disorder provides a convenient way to make sense of the otherwise unfathomable: “If only he had done so and so we would not be in this situation; he should control these things so I can feel less fearful.”

            I am convinced that a second reason for the persistence of this view of leaders as super beings who should be able to command all events and situations to protect those they serve inheres in democratic governance, which empowers and permits citizens to make such claims, rather than address the complexities that attend reality. Democratic populations descend to sloganeering as governance, and scapegoating and blame casting as substitutes for civic dialogue and hard thinking because they can. That fact is unlikely to change in our current politics as it inheres in democracy itself.

            The challenge, therefore, may be to use education to help our nation’s next generations of citizens understand the true character of what leaders and leadership can and cannot do, and assume a rightful share of responsibility for what that fact means for self-governance. Accepting complexity and admitting an inability to control all events and peoples is surely humbling. But it is just as surely the path to more reasoned governance and a much more prudent national understanding of the realities and possibilities of leadership.

            We daily play a small role in addressing this compelling need here at the Institute as we pursue our research and engagement efforts. In particular, our Community Voices series provides interested graduate students multiple and multivalent opportunities to consider the challenges and vicissitudes of community leadership and social change as they interact with individuals who have accepted such responsibility in both domestic and international settings. Alone, Institute affiliated faculty are hardly likely to change how Americans understand leadership, but we can work with a share of this nation’s future leaders and help them to consider this central concern deeply and to carry their knowledge forward into their professional roles and responsibilities. Such is the privilege, responsibility and power that inhere in higher education.