Thinking about Leadership

Amanda Goodall finds this analysis perceptive, useful...and it's written by someone who has led

December 9, 2010

When I pulled Nannerl Keohane's book out of the envelope, two thoughts struck me immediately: how common it is to see the word "leadership" on the cover of a book (Amazon lists thousands of titles), but also how relatively uncommon it is to see female authors writing on the topic.

Keohane is well qualified. She has studied leaders as a political scientist and practised leadership as president of both Wellesley College and Duke University.

Leadership books tend to be autobiographical, historical or theoretical. The first type provides the reader with real-life experiences courtesy of former leaders. They range from the very practical, sometimes written by "management gurus", to the (arguably) self-indulgent (Tony Blair's A Journey, for example). Historians and political scientists offer another perspective, usually about politicians, monarchs or military heads. Finally, social scientists and psychologists have developed a rich source of leadership theories that try to identify the most suitable personality characteristics, the optimal styles, the most advantageous top management teams, and so on.

This book incorporates all three. Keohane draws from her own leadership experiences and from the biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela and Elizabeth I, among others; she cites management gurus, including Machiavelli, conceivably the first, and Warren Bennis, one of the most cited writers on leadership. Finally, she includes theoretical perspectives from political scientists, from her peers, and from sociologists and philosophers.

Each generation tends to view leadership differently depending on the social norms of the day. A few centuries ago, monarchs induced a mixture of fear and passion. Later, Winston Churchill united, then Margaret Thatcher divided, and recently Gordon Brown left us undecided. Leadership has become one of those concepts sold en masse to managers. Indeed, at times it feels as if everyone "does leadership". Some view it as a philosophical construct; Keohane cites James MacGregor Burns, who argues that "leadership is not only a descriptive term but a prescriptive one, embracing a moral, even a passionate, dimension".

My view is simpler and classificatory: leaders are to be found at the top of organisations (or states or armies); they graft for long hours in jobs that most of us do not want to do. For that work, they are paid more than the rest of us, have more power and when the writs hit the fan they get canned. (Unless, of course, they are Andy Hornby, former chief executive of the failed-and-government-bailed HBOS, whose bucks never seemed to stop - he swiftly became group chief executive of Alliance Boots.)

Keohane's definition of leadership is concise: "Leaders determine or clarify goals for a group of individuals and bring together the energies of members of that group to accomplish those goals." She focuses on heads of large organisations and modern nation states. There is discussion about "what leadership is", "good and bad leadership" and "why followers follow", but it is when Keohane distils practical information from the accounts of former leaders, occasionally adding her own perceptive voice, that the book gets interesting and, arguably, useful.

For example, in her chapter on followers, she talks about how leaders deal with "close subordinates". The word "subordinate" seems unexpected in a modern book on leadership. It conflicts with the idea that structures are now flatter. But the term is honest: organisations of all kinds are still hierarchical. There may have been more vice-presidents than cups of coffee drunk in a week at the online education company I worked for in Chicago, but it didn't make the place less hierarchical. Keohane explains how former leaders related to their subordinates, or, as we say in business schools, "top teams".

Mandela included political opponents in his Cabinet, to ensure the "widest possible range of views"; according to his biographer, embracing adversaries was a way of controlling them. Lincoln's Cabinet included the most able and experienced people he could find, some of whom were also former presidential rivals. Franklin D. Roosevelt preferred a competitive environment, and he pitted aides against each other. On the subject of apportioning blame, Keohane reports that John F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower absorbed criticism targeted at their aides, and never disagreed with or belittled them in public. As for Thatcher's style of management, it was effectively summed up by the Spitting Image sketch in which her Cabinet was presented as an accompaniment to the main course.

Lyndon B. Johnson is reported to have been obsessed with detail, insisting that everyone report directly to him. But Keohane believes that once you have picked your top team, it is essential to delegate. She writes: "Micromanaging subordinates gives them little opportunity to develop leadership skills of their own and reduces the energy available for the work of the organisation." She also suggests that "thoughtful leaders will make sure those close to her point out drawbacks occasionally without fear of losing their jobs". As a university president, she adopted a seminar model to discuss ideas with her top team. Her officers reported that one of the disadvantages of this process was that "conflicts among potential solutions are not brought out". Next time maybe they should try the seminar style of economists instead of political scientists.

Power expands the ego, but not necessarily the mind. This can mean some leaders stop listening. Hearing others is vital, Keohane says. But equally important is the ability to make decisions without procrastination or rushing to closure. Should you make mistakes, she suggests, admit them, learn from them and move on. Criticism must be taken on board, but Keohane believes it is not helpful for a leader to "dwell too often on her deficiencies". This equilibrium seems especially important for women, who are well served in this book.

Indeed, the book's chapter on women and leadership is excellent, with Keohane drawing eloquently from a cross-section of evidence to consider whether gender makes a difference. Her conclusion is that any difference in leadership styles between the sexes "stems from socialisation and cultural expectations, rather than hormones or genes".

There are two weaknesses in this work, and they are ones that are quite common to leadership books. First, Thinking About Leadership is a little light on empirical evidence, and too reliant on theory and anecdotes from famous outliers that tend to elevate and romanticise leaders. This material is important, but it could be accompanied by work using large datasets that can offer distance and expose patterns that may be more generalisable. These studies exist. For example, we know that there is a link between nations' leaders and nations' growth rates. In addition, recent research is revealing information about the characteristics of effective chief executives and other contextual factors.

A second criticism is that even when the judgement and intuition of leaders is discussed, rarely if ever do authors ask - and Keohane is no exception - whether leaders' "good judgement" is linked to their deep knowledge of the organisations and sectors in which they work. For example, the head of a major law firm is likely to be an experienced lawyer; a newspaper editor is unlikely to be a mediocre writer. Would Hornby have done better at HBOS if he had spent more than six years in banking before being promoted to the top? How much should leaders know about the core business of the organisations they are to lead? This question is rarely addressed.

Nevertheless, Keohane's book is to be recommended, particularly if you are an academic thinking about becoming a leader. Although this is a general book on the topic, her tone has been influenced - unsurprisingly, I would argue - by her years in the academy.


Nannerl Overholser Keohane is Lawrence S. Rockefeller distinguished visiting professor of public affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School and the Center for Human Values at Princeton University.

Her music-loving parents named her Nannerl after Mozart's sister and as a child Keohane sang in several choruses and participated in an amateur performance of La Traviata. She says that these days she prefers to listen to her eight grandchildren sing.

Her first degree was from Wellesley College and her second, in philosophy, politics and economics, from the University of Oxford. She gained a doctorate in political science from Yale University. She is a member of the Harvard Corporation and has served on the board of directors of IBM.

Keohane is the author of several books, including Philosophy and the State in France: The Renaissance to the Enlightenment (1980).

In 1995, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. Keohane also won the Gores Award for excellence in teaching from Stanford University.

Chloe Darracott-Cankovic

Thinking about Leadership

By Nannerl O. Keohane

Princeton University Press 312pp, £19.95

ISBN 9780691142074

Published 8 December 2010

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