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Leadership and the Presidential Campaign

As a student of 21st Century Leadership, I look with special interest at the three final people aspiring to be the leader of our nation– and the free world–in this second decade of the 21st century.  Each candidate claims to provide the kind of leadership our country needs without providing many specifics about what they mean by it.  For leadership to be a useful lens through which to assess the candidates, we need to understand its various forms and types.  How might we assess the candidates in the context of an expanded understanding of leadership?

First, differentiating leader and leadership

Some words mean many things to many people, and a distinction between “leader” and “leadership” could be useful.  The traditional idea equating leader with positional authority is but one dimension of the full spectrum of leadership.  In addition to positional authority, we assume that leadership is a verb—an action in the world—that can arise from within any individual, group, community or system seeking to make the world a better place.  Leadership applies to all of us, alone and collectively.

Even if we stick to the idea of leader as individual with positional authority, we see a wide variety of types of leadership, some individual and some collective.  People in positional authority run the gamut from despot to autocrat, from transactional leader to facilitator, from transformative leader to servant and visionary.  Each of these types of positional authority can be wholly appropriate under certain conditions and contexts.

  • Autocrat or Despot Leader:  rulers with absolute power and authority, often most crucial when people are living in fear and in survival mode
  • Transactional Leader:  engages in hierarchical communication, management and exchanges involving clearly defined roles and authority
  • Facilitative Leader:  brings about outcomes by providing indirect guidance, influence and support, with an emphasis on process more than product
  • Servant Leader:  inverts the traditional hierarchy in service of prioritizing other peoples’ highest needs, emphasizing growth and development of all people
  • Transformational and Visionary Leader:  uses a collective vision of the future to mobilize and inspire followers, bringing deep change in the character and form of people and systems.

Depending on the needs of the moment, a person in the 21st century may want to draw on any of the forms of leadership described above, an attitude and strategy called “Adaptive Leadership” (Heifetz & Linsky, 2002).

Second, in this light, what is “21st Century Leadership?“

I assume our new era calls for an expanded definition of leadership that is characterized by at least five important qualities:

  1. 21st Century Leadership is not just heroic.  When necessary, leadership is also “post-heroic,” and characterized by the capacity to be relational and collaborative in sharing power and vision (Fletcher, 2004) rather than relying solely on the vision of a single person in positional authority.
  1. 21st Century Leadership is oriented to values that move beyond individual self-interest, values that focus on ‘’we” rather than “I.”  Kofman and Senge (1993) ask the larger question about what serves all of the human community and describes leadership as “communities of commitment.”
  1. 21st Century Leadership addresses all of the core dimensions of our complex, interdependent global and social ecologies, recognizing how the welfare of one subsystem is dependent upon and impacts the welfare of the whole system.
  1. 21st Century Leadership is characterized by a caring and practical wisdom, valuing our social and spiritual needs alongside our political and economic needs.  There is holistic attention to the development of people who understand the complex systemic web that connects us, and who understand the leverage points where we can intervene to create meaningful and effective change.
  1. 21st Century Leadership is adaptive (Heifetz & Linsky, 2002), and thus recognizes and takes appropriate action to address the primal challenges of war, terrorism, violence and hatred, while at the same time attending to emergent needs such as the ever-shifting terrain of technology, the increasingly global economy, climate disruption and the creation of peaceful religious pluralism.

Third, what do we need?

Given our current local, national and international challenges, what forms of leadership do we need/want in a president, who will arguably inherit the toughest job on the planet? From my point of view, appropriate leadership is context-dependent – if a movie theatre is ablaze, we will want more forceful and autocratic leadership, and if we are creating a new community group to address poverty, we may want to bring a more facilitative and servant style of leadership.  How can we find a protective and caring Commander-in-Chief who can effectively pivot to act as the Collaborator-in-Chief when needed?

An assessment of presidential candidates

Meanwhile, I challenge us all to assess our three presidential candidates in light of the models of leadership described above (or any others you prefer), and your vision of what the United States needs at this point in time.  To get started, here are some characteristics (or quotes) for each:

Hillary Clinton:  She’s been an advocate for children and women for over 40 years, served in the senate for four years, and as Secretary of State for four more.  She shares some of the values articulated by Sanders and emphasizes that she knows how to get things done.  How many types of leadership have we seen her exhibit in during her career?  “Let’s continue to stand up for those who are vulnerable to being left out or marginalized.”

Bernie Sanders:  He challenges us to engage in a political revolution, to dismantle the “big banks,” to ensure all have sufficient income to live a healthy life, and to end our dependence on fossil fuels.  His skills have been honed by a lifetime devoted to social action, and for 32 years, as member of congress.  “Finally, let understand that when we stand together, we will always win.  When men and women stand together for justice, we win.  When black, white and Hispanic people stand together for justice, we win.”

Donald Trump:  He is a demonstrably successful businessman.  He is speaking to a population that has been left behind, and his words of strength and certainty, easily reflect the stance of a heroic leader.  He is a self-described “deal-maker,” who asserts “I will make America great again…. I have made the tough decisions, always with an eye toward the bottom line.  Perhaps it’s time America was run like a business.”  His foreign policy is evolving, but he seems to argue for a form of isolationism, curtailing immigration and moving away from the traditional US role of ensuring international stability in Europe.

Next steps

Now, while campaigning, governing and leading are distinctively different domains of activity, I assume we want an appropriately effective leader for facing the myriad issues facing our nation and the world.

  • What form of leadership do you imagine is the best fit with the world of 2016 forward?
  • What qualities are most needed?
  • Where is the development edge for each candidate?
  • How might you coach them?
  • Given what we are learning about them, what kind of leader do imagine each promises to become?
  • To what extent and how do these three candidates match up with your criteria for effectiveness in our world of the 21st century?

Fletcher, J. (2004). The paradox of postheroic leadership: An essay on gender, power, and transformational change. The leadership quarterly, 15, 647-661.

Kofman, F. & Senge, P. (1993). Communities of commitment: The heart of learning organizations. Organizational dynamics, 22(2), 5-23.

Heifetz, R & Linsky, M. (2002). Leadership on the line: Staying alive through the dangers of leading. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Image Credits: Tulsa World

About Dean Elias, Ph.D.

Dean Elias, Ph.D.
I am an educator, a writer, a political meddler, but first a father of four creatively engaged adults. I interviewed leaders for social change and published a dissertation, Educating Leaders for Social Transformation. I have worked largely in radical institutions (Antioch, Goddard, CIIS), doing both administration and teaching. I was attracted to Saint Mary’s by the radical nature of the Lasallean tradition (radical commitment to social justice and to participatory education).

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