Paul L. Caron

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Leadership Lessons From The COVID-19 Pandemic

Wall Street Journal op-ed:  Before the Pandemic, They Were Anonymous. Now They’re the Best Leaders We Have., by Sam Walker (author, The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams (2018)):

Captain ClassAs the novel coronavirus continues to spread around the world, a funny thing is happening. The leaders who have distinguished themselves under pressure are rarely the bold, charismatic, impulsive, self-regarding, politically calculating alphas we’ve elected. The real heroes have been, for lack of a better term, career deputies [e.g., Chen Chien-jen (Taiwan), Jung Eun-kyeong (South Korea), Anthony Fauci (United States), Jenny Harries (Britain), Mutahi Kagwe (Kenya)]. ...

These examples, and many others, point to one underlying theme. In a crisis, nobody cares how big your personality is or how disruptive you can be. The leaders we crave are the ones who show up every day, never stop to think of themselves and, above all, seem to know what they’re talking about.

The obvious question is this: If these deputies are such capable leaders, why are they deputies? ...

[In Covid-19 Was A Leadership Test. It Came Back Negative.,] I wrote about one possible explanation. While all leaders are judged by how well they respond to a crisis, the true mark of greatness is what a leader does between emergencies. The best ones never rest; they work behind the scenes, without bravado, to prevent the next crisis from happening. When they succeed, however, they literally have nothing to show for it. They don’t project boldness. They seem like drab worriers.

Acting With PowerThe bigger problem, I’d argue, is that too many talented and qualified leadership candidates are reluctant to step forward. They need to be pushed. Case in point: one of America’s most beloved and effective presidents, Dwight Eisenhower, had to be cajoled into running.

Researchers haven’t found any evidence that people with a burning desire to lead make better leaders, but they’re far more likely to acquire power.

Deborah Gruenfeld, a professor at Stanford’s business school and author of a new book, Acting with Power (full disclosure: My wife is her agent), has spent 25 years studying the psychology of power.

She divides leaders into two camps: those who pursue authority to serve themselves and those who see it as a means to serve others. In many cases, candidates with a “service” mind-set are uncomfortable promoting their candidacies, while those who seek power for personal gratification love nothing more.

Over time, and especially in the age of social media, the expectations we’ve heaped on high-profile leaders have made it nearly impossible for anyone to meet them all. Those of us who crave power may not care, Dr. Gruenfeld says, but servant types may back out for fear of letting others down.

In an ongoing and unpublished study, Dr. Gruenfeld and two colleagues have made some surprising discoveries. Most of the highly ambitious people they’ve tested say they would like to be seen as qualified for top leadership roles, but aren't automatically inclined to take them. In fact, more than half say they would prefer being No. 2 to being No. 1.

A smaller percentage say they might even leave money on the table to occupy the second rank. And in many cases, these people say they’re indifferent to rank, even if they believe they’re the best candidate. “What’s normal and healthy is that people don’t want to be first all the time,” Dr. Gruenfeld says.

In a genuine crisis, when the threat level is dire and facts and solutions are unclear, people don’t care if you think you’re a leader, or whether you look the part. We just want to turn on the TV and see that somebody smart is in charge, working hard and keeping both eyes on the ball. We expect our leaders to give without considering what they’ll get.

Other Captain Class leadership columns:

For complete TaxProf Blog coverage of the coronavirus, see here.

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