Comparisons of Leadership - A Primer

Week 2

Unpacking, describing, and studying leadership traits across leaders is difficult without a benchmark. In narrowing leadership style to a handful of leaders, Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, Richard Branson, Desmond Tutu, and Madeline Albright,  it becomes easier to differentiate styles of leadership and their development. Former South African President Nelson Mandela was an anti apartheid revolutionary, politician, and philanthropist, dismantling the legacy of apartheid by tackling institutionalized racism and fostering racial reconciliation. His leadership style is compared to the traditional African style of leadership comparinghis followers to cattle – mainly that he leads from behind and guides his followers towards a conclusion.  South African social rights activist Desmond Tutu described Mandela as a servant of the people – not in it for his own aggrandizement, but leading on behalf of his people. Barak Obama, former President of the United States, channeled his leadership style from a sense of embodied power – he removed the gap between his “public” person and his “private” person.  In other words, he derived his leadership from an authenticity that created resonance with his followers. Founder of Virgin Group, Richard Branson has always been an entrepreneur, beginning his legacy at 16 with a magazine called Student. Branson, in his interview at the London Business Forum in 2008,  describes his leadership style as one that is open to his followers. Prioritizing relationships, opening full social strata communication organizationally, and creating personal value for his followers, Branson is also an example of leadership style that is decentralized, dispersing power to the employees at this command.

Following up on this stacked male leadership case study, Madeline Albright provides insight to leadership styles for women in a predominantly masculine fields. The first female secretary of state cites that social barriers are the primary barrier to effective leadership – her role models were admittedly male, but when discussing leadership with gender, the largest priority for her was to build her female counterparts up. By removing the “Queen Bee” complex, and thus the competition, Albright stresses that leadership can be something women can do for each other, to build each other up. This unification strategy, though focusing on women’s rights, echos the similar sentiments purported by Obama, Mandela, and Branson, as the collective power is greater than the individual. 

Taking a step back and unpacking the salient points regarding effective leadership across these materials, we see many things highlighted from trait and behavioral theory – eg. the traditional African style of “herding” from Mandela, a sense of theatricality with Obama embodying power, flexibility and the ability to usher conflicting sides to a cause as denoted by Albright and Branson. The material discussing Richard Branson’s approach to leadership unpacks more behaviors and traits – the ability to have everyone that he is leading feel important from every level, the notion of leading with both hearts and hands, being a good listener, the leader as a servant… all idealized soft skills of a good leader in the idealized form.

What’s both interesting and tough when looking at and comparing styles of leadership between Barack Obama and Mandela is the continuation and reliance on traditional leadership archetypes to make sense of contemporary leadership today. Traditional studies on traits espousing to breed “the most effective leaders” as dictated by thought-pioneers in leadership focus on commonalities that still tie back to “The Great Man” theory of leadership. On the surface, this theory is masculine, supports heroism in the face of adversary, requires the leader to have validated his power in some capacity by a demonstrable journey that gives the person experiential power to empathize with the masses. Take this a step further, and this theory starts to read a lot like the Anglo-Saxon definition of the Christ figure – martyr, humble, representative and absolver of sins. Being that these figures, with the exception of Mandala, are from a country where Christianity permeates the cultural group think, it isn’t surprising to see where the discussion garnered its trait and behavioral value system. It isn’t so much that I’m questioning the validity of leadership born from hardship, or that there is a problem with heroism and leadership being garnered from Christian ideology. What I would like to take a look at is how leadership can move away from these concepts entirely. What do other religions doto embody and assign power? What are matriarchal forms ofleadership? Are these truly universal – the traits of leadership? What kind of buy in do we need from followers to accept a different way of leading?

As we begin to decentralize power – the distribution of authenticity becomes a type of leadership that gives some rules dictating how things should be run, but is by no means prescriptive. In the New York Business article, Leading Clever People, Rob Geoffee and Gareth Jones speak to this change in leadership. With what we call as the 1099 culture, the independent contractors are changing how we think about job opportunities, the economy, and the exchange of value. Gone are the days we have looked to leaders to provide security – the advent of technology brings the power to a truly democratized level where the follower has the power to change and lead in her own sphere, in her own capacity. Where, then, does leadership stand? Is it a dictator, leading the vulnerable? Or is it the freelancer, knowing their worth and pushing the value of the job market to reflect his expertise?

Economies of value are changing, and so is leadership.

Blog post by Theresa Akers, MASD Candidate