“the country could have spared itself a ton of grief”

That phrase ends David Brooks’ suprising essay on leadership style.  So what does great leadership require?

Cojones? Chest-beating self-confidence?  Or sustained awareness of one’s limits.  The creation of a surrounding structure to compensate for one’s weaknesses?  Perhaps there isn’t precisely a dichotomy,** but one style seems clearly to be the dominant paradigm, at least in the US.

Books instead  points out  the dangers of a hyper-masculine leadership style, and argues for the importance of style often attributed to women.  It’s the same style that can be invoked to explain why women aren’t among the leaders; that is, women’s supposed possession of the style is given as a reason for why they are few among the  CEO’s, university presidents, and so on.  We are, then, talking about a conflict between what works and what is thought to work, with the familiar  result that women are seen as  not good enough, and so are kept in positions below what their talents could take  them.

The details are worth looking at if you envisage getting trapped by someone who wants to explain why women are meant to be in the second ranks.  Or, if David Brooks is right, if you want to explain a very great problem the US has.  But here’s a sample of what he has to say:

What having the  cojones gets one:

Some leaders are boardroom lions. They are superconfident, forceful and charismatic. They call for relentless transformational change. … We can all point to successful leaders who display this kind of self-confidence. It’s the sort of self-assurance that nearly every politician tries to present. …

Yet much research suggests that extremely self-confident leaders can also be risky… charismatic C.E.O.’s often produce volatile company performances. These leaders swing for the home run and sometimes end up striking out. They make more daring acquisitions, shift into new fields and abruptly change strategies.

One the other hand:

[Research has found) found that many of the reliably successful leaders combine “extreme personal humility with intense professional will.**

Alongside the boardroom lion model of leadership, you can imagine a humble hound model. The humble hound leader thinks less about her mental strengths than about her weaknesses. ….

In short, she spends a lot of time on metacognition — thinking about her thinking — and then building external scaffolding devices to compensate for her weaknesses.

She knows the world is too complex and irregular to be known, so life is about navigating uncertainty. … It is complex beyond reckoning.

She spends more time seeing than analyzing. Analytic skills differ modestly from person to person, but perceptual skills vary enormously. Anybody can analyze, but the valuable people can pick out the impermanent but crucial elements of a moment or effectively grasp a context. This sort of perception takes modesty; strong personalities distort the information field around them. …

Brooks concludes, “If this leadership style were more widely admired, the country could have spared itself a ton of grief.”


**attributed to Jim Collins, the author of “Good to Great” and “How the Mighty Fall

**in fact the highlighted reader’s comments tend to say that someone can have both:  e.g., Obama has both  charisma and humility.  But I think Brooks’ essay aims to crticize our models for leadership, for which we – in the US and perhaps elsewhere – have simplistic ideas on the basis of which bad  choices are  made.

2 thoughts on ““the country could have spared itself a ton of grief”

  1. Let me just be clear: I’ve talked about a style that is often attributed to women. That’s very different from saying there is a style somehow natural to women.

    It is interesting that in characterizing the style, Brooks uses the female singular pronoun. He might have a more essentialist view, but I’m not endorsing that.

  2. I once read, quite a while ago, about how those stealthy terrorists and freedom fighters of the underworld — the “ninjas” — used to make it part of their ritualistic worldview to concentrate not upon what they could do but upon what remained their weak points. I liked that idea and found it refreshingly realistic.

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