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The myth of the visionary leader

We pine for boldness and charisma—but, say experts, we should vote for something else.


Rapper Kanye West has been making it known recently that there’s a glaring leadership gap in American culture, and he intends to fill it. In one interview, West said he considers himself a successor to Steve Jobs. “I understand culture. I am the nucleus,” he said. Also: “I am so credible and so influential and so relevant that I will change things.”

Even people put off by West's grandiosity recognized the hat he was trying on. In a country where college freshmen fantasize about running the world before they even pick a major, a certain image of leadership—visionary, charismatic, transformational—has become nearly synonymous with ambition. Parents teach "leadership skills" to their kids, while CEOs and gurus write best-selling books with titles like "Strengths Based Leadership." Our president first won national attention by projecting leadership through his captivating speeches. When Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook wrote a book, "Lean In," intended to transform professional life for American women, she subtitled it "Women, Work, and the Will to Lead."


We know what leadership is supposed to look and sound like—we imagine Henry V or Coach Taylor from "Friday Night Lights"—and by this standard it's easy to be dismayed by our current political scene. Congress, more than ever, seems like an unruly barnyard, while President Obama is sounding more like an exhausted law professor than the stirring campaign star of 2008. And Boston's mayor's race? No disrespect to Marty Walsh or John Connolly, but no matter who wins on Nov. 5, we know Boston won't be getting a mayor who can move crowds through the sheer force of personality.

We deserve better, you might be thinking. But researchers who study leadership—and there are many—are beginning to offer up a surprising truth: The kind of leaders we idolize may be the last people we really want in charge. The character traits that tend to convince us someone deserves power, these thinkers say, have remarkably little to do with how effective that person will be at actually running a city, or a company, or a nation.

"There is a notion that there are transformational leaders who can create opportunities for change because of the quality of their leadership, essentially by getting out in front of the crowd and crying, 'follow me,'" said George C. Edwards III, a political scientist at Texas A&M University and the author of a recent book about leadership and the presidency. "In reality that rarely happens."


In place of stereotypical "leadership qualities," these scholars suggest, we should be looking to a host of other traits, like the ability to detect opportunity and swiftly act on it. But such qualities can take time to reveal themselves. Leaders with vision and charisma, on the other hand, are immediately appealing—in part, one expert says, because they make us forget our problems are actually difficult to solve. The craving for big, bold leadership, in this light, ends up clouding people's judgment. And looking closely at that craving might be the first step toward freeing ourselves of its pull.


The pages of history teem with charismatic leaders who achieved great things: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Susan B. Anthony. These individuals loom large in the popular imagination for a reason. As Abraham Zaleznik of Harvard Business School wrote in his influential 1977 paper "Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?" leaders in the classically heroic mold typically possess imagination and a tendency toward risk-taking—and as such, they can do things others can't. Zaleznik had a simple hypothesis for why such leaders are so attractive, speculating that it was "a holdover from our childhood—from a sense of dependency and a longing for good and heroic parents."


Some scholars believe these kinds of inspirational leaders, who can shape how people think and how they see themselves, are particularly well suited to times of upheaval. In a country fighting for independence, you want a Gandhi; in a Great Depression, you want a Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Many of our most celebrated leaders are celebrated precisely because they prevailed over historic crises—apartheid, world war, Jim Crow.

But as troubled as the waters may seem out there right now, 21st-century Americans generally don't need our leaders to be Nelson Mandela or Joan of Arc. We need them to be able to make decisions, work with others, and wield power in an intelligent, productive way. When we pick a leader, we're usually choosing someone to take over a large institution that functions more or less the way it's supposed to—a city government, a Fortune 500 company—and then work to keep people happy, navigate change, and lay the groundwork for its future health.

Prospective leaders, however, aren't typically given a chance to demonstrate their skills at such seemingly mundane work. Deborah Rhode, a professor at Stanford Law School and the author of a new book, "Lawyers as Leaders," thinks of this as the "paradox of power": In the heat of a campaign or a series of job interviews, candidates are rewarded for character traits that have nothing to do with managing a group or solving problems.

Charismatic politicians and visionary CEOs often struggle to deliver on their promises. From left: Enron’s Kenneth Lay, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Hewlett-Packard’s Carly Fiorina, and President John F. Kennedy.

Take John F. Kennedy, who emerged as immensely charismatic in his campaign and is remembered as an exemplar of transformational leadership. In his book, "The Strategic President: Persuasion and Opportunity in Presidential Leadership," Edwards points out that JFK's personal magnetism was not particularly useful when it came to passing legislation. While trying to get Medicare passed, he delivered a televised address to a massive crowd of cheering supporters at New York's Madison Square Garden. But public opinion didn't seem to shift, and the bill proceeded to die in Congress. Later, as Richard Reeves describes in his book on the Kennedy administration, the president was forced to confront the limits of his rhetorical gifts when, in the aftermath of his 1963 speech in support of civil rights, he saw that racial tension around the country had only escalated.


When looking back at past leaders, we tend to mistakenly conclude that their soaring rhetoric and big personalities were responsible for all their successes—an "attribution error," said Edwards. FDR, for instance, managed to get the New Deal passed during his first term because he took advantage of a honeymoon period with Congress. During his second term, Edwards points out, he only got one piece of New Deal legislation through Congress.

It's easy to see how voters get taken in by charismatic politicians; after all, voting is a popularity contest. In the world of business, where corporate directors have a sworn fiduciary responsibility to think rationally about bottom lines, you might expect to see the types of leaders best able to build the company's value.

Effective leaders may come off as boring, even proudly unglamorous. From left: German chancellor Angela Merkel, President Lyndon B. Johnson, Mayor Thomas Menino, President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

It turns out, however, that even shareholder pressure can't outmatch the appeal of the visionary. Rakesh Khurana, a professor of leadership development at Harvard Business School, looked at 850 of the country's biggest companies over a 30-year period, and conducted interviews with the people involved in choosing their leaders. What he found astonished him. "When I would ask why they chose one person over the other, they'd often use all sorts of weird words, like 'chemistry,' or 'a real go-go attitude,'" said Khurana. Sometimes he heard about candidates who were "persuasive" or "charming"; on one occasion he was told someone had "tremendous genetics."


Khurana's conclusion, which he described in his book "Searching for a Corporate Savior: The Irrational Quest for Charismatic CEOs," was that the supposedly rational CEO selection process was anything but—and that potential hires were often evaluated in terms of character traits that were not only vague and subjective, but also completely unrelated to the challenges facing the firm or industry. Getting leadership wrong in this way has consequences. According to one recent study, high-performing companies in Europe were less likely to have charismatic CEOs than poorly performing ones. The reason for this, according to the authors of the study, is that leaders who have "exceptional powers of persuasion" are ultimately harmful because it's too easy for them to overcome dissent and opposition to their ideas.

If they are no more successful than their workaday peers, why do we still pull the lever for heroic leaders? Some of the reasons are obvious: We are charmed, attracted, impressed. But Khurana has a more specific observation as well: In his research, he observed board members at struggling companies embracing charismatic but underqualified CEO candidates out of a desire to believe that the complex issues facing their firm or industry could be resolved by putting the right person in charge. "For those companies that were facing challenging times, it was much easier to select someone who promised to be a savior, and not deeply engage with the challenges and problems of fixing the organization," he said. Inspiring leaders can make followers feel absolved of the responsibility to do anything hard.

Leaders like Nelson Mandela and Gandhi were in part successful because they didn't rely on that crutch, freely admitting that the things they were asking of their followers were difficult, and would necessarily involve suffering. But most of what leaders must accomplish day to day is much less likely to inspire sacrifice in others. Instead, the work at hand tends to be methodical, complicated, and sometimes humbling.


What kind of leader do we need for that kind of job? In a new book, "Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era," Harvard professor Joseph Nye argues that some "transactional" presidents, like George H. W. Bush, have been more effective than "transformational" ones, like Ronald Reagan, in part because they proved more capable of responding nimbly to changing circumstances. Nye's reading of history suggests that adaptability is more decisive than "the vision thing," as the first President Bush famously called it in an interview.

Kennedy was known for his vision, but what got Medicare passed in the end wasn't his leadership. It was his successor, Lyndon Johnson, a man once ridiculed for being awkward and uncomfortable, but who ended up overseeing one of the most productive stretches of lawmaking in American history. It may be Kennedy's speeches we're watching on YouTube, but to a large extent we're living in LBJ's America.

According to Joseph Badaracco, a professor at Harvard Business School and the author of the book "Leading Quietly," leaders who aren't interested in being seen as beacons or superstars actually have an advantage when it comes to running things—think of outgoing Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who compares himself to a mechanic. They tend to have more flexibility when making decisions because they leave themselves wiggle room for compromise. "If you're out of the limelight, I think you have a reduced risk of having to make strong commitments or promises," he said, which makes you more free to adjust course as situations unfold.

Figuring out who's going to be inclined toward that kind of leadership is not straightforward. "I'm not sure there's any quick way to do it," said Badaracco. "What you really need to do is look at a person's track record. Quiet leadership is about how someone works—and I think it's very hard to tell how people go about getting things done."

But just knowing that great leadership is not always going to look great, or even make us feel inspired, could help gird us against the power of big personality and encourage us to make more sober choices. On his latest album, Kanye West samples a choral group singing the words, "He'll give us what we need/ It may not be what we want." They were singing about Jesus, of course—by all accounts a charismatic figure. But as we look out at Washington, as well as the race for Boston City Hall, it's worth remembering that line. Bold, charismatic leaders may be what we want, but people capable of running the government are what we actually need.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas.