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Little big men

History is often written in terms of military heroes, but the enormous potential of human leadership ranges from Attila the Hun to Mother Teresa. Most everyday leaders remain unheralded. The role of heroic leadership in war leads to overemphasis of command and control and hard military power. In America today, the presidential debate is between …


History is often written in terms of military heroes, but the enormous potential of human leadership ranges from Attila the Hun to Mother Teresa. Most everyday leaders remain unheralded. The role of heroic leadership in war leads to overemphasis of command and control and hard military power. In America today, the presidential debate is between Senator John McCain, a war hero, and Senator Barack Obama, a former community organizer.

The image of the warrior leader lingers in modern times. The writer Robert Kaplan points to the birth of a new “warrior class as cruel as ever and better armed ranging from Russian Mafiosi and Latin American drug kingpins to terrorists who glorify violence just as ancient Greeks did in the sacking of Troy. Kaplan argues that modern leaders must respond in kind, and that modern leadership will demand a pagan ethos rooted in the past.

Smart warriors, however, know how to lead with more than just the use of force. Soldiers sometimes joke that their job description is simple: “kill people and break things. But, as the United States discovered in Iraq, hearts and minds also matter, and smart warriors need the soft power of attraction as well as the hard power of coercion.

Indeed, an oversimplified image of warrior-style leadership in President George W. Bush’s first term caused costly setbacks for America’s role in the world. It is not a manly modern Achilles who makes the best warrior leader in today’s communication age. Military leadership today requires political and managerial skills.

Many autocratic rulers – in Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Belarus, and elsewhere – still lead the old-fashioned way. They combine fear with corruption to maintain kleptocracies dominated by “the big man and his coterie. A good portion of the world is ruled this way.

Some theorists try to explain this with an “alpha male theory of leadership. The psychiatrist Arnold M. Ludwig, for example, argues that just as male monkeys, chimps, or apes automatically begin to assume more responsibility for their particular community once they attain the dominant status of alpha male, human rulers do so as well.

But such socio-biological explanations of leadership are of only limited value. Thus far, no leadership gene has been identified, and studies of identical and fraternal male twins find that only a third of their difference in occupying formal leadership roles can be explained by genetic factors.

While this suggests that inbred characteristics influence the extent to which people play particular roles, it leaves a lot of room for learned behavior to influence outcomes.

Even so, one effect of the traditional heroic warrior approach to leadership has been to support the belief that leaders are born rather than made, and that nature is more important than nurture. The search for the essential traits of a leader dominated the field of leadership studies until the late 1940’s, and remains common in popular discourse today.

A tall handsome person enters a room, draws attention, and “looks like a leader. Various studies show that tall men are often favored, and that corporate CEOs are taller than average. But some of the most powerful leaders in history, such as Napoleon, Stalin, and Deng Xiaoping were little over five feet tall.

The traits-centered approach has not vanished from studies of leadership, but it has been broadened and made more flexible. Traits have come to be seen as consistent patterns of personality rather than inherited characteristics. This definition mixes nature and nurture, and means that “traits can to some extent be learned rather than merely inherited.

We talk about leaders being more energetic, more risk-taking, more optimistic, more persuasive, and more empathetic than other people. These traits, however, are affected partly by a leader’s genetic makeup and partly by the environments in which the traits were learned and developed.

A persuasive experiment recently demonstrated the interaction between nature and nurture. A group of employers was asked to hire workers who had been ranked by their looks. If the employers saw only the resumés, beauty had no impact on hiring.

Surprisingly, however, when telephone interviews were included in the process, beautiful people did better, even though they were unseen by the employers. A lifetime of social reinforcement based on their genetically given looks may have encoded into their voice patterns a tone of confidence that could be projected over the phone. Nature and nurture became thoroughly intertwined.

Genetics and biology matter in human leadership, but they do not determine it in the way that the traditional heroic warrior approach to leadership suggests. The “big man type of leader works in societies based on networks of tribal cultures that rely on personal and family honor and loyalty. But such social structures are not well adapted for coping with today’s complex information-based world. In modern societies, institutional constraints such as constitutions and impersonal legal systems circumscribe such heroic figures.

Societies that rely on heroic leaders are slow to develop the civil society and broad social capital that are necessary for leading in a modern networked world. Modern leadership turns out to be less about who you are or how you were born than about what you have learned and what you do as part of a group. Nature and nurture intertwine, but nurture is much more important in the modern world than the heroic paradigm acknowledges.

Modern information societies require us to go beyond the “big man approach to leadership. It will be interesting to see how these classical stereotypes play out in the American presidential competition this year.

Joseph S. Nye is a professor at Harvard and author of The Powers to Lead. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).

Topics: Wael Ghonim

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