Paul L. Caron

Monday, April 6, 2020

The Best Leaders Are Often Reluctant Leaders

Wall Street Journal op-ed:  The Eisenhower Code: Happy to Serve, Reluctant to Lead, by Sam Walker (author, The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams (2018)):

Captain ClassSometimes, the best leaders are those who don’t covet the top job.

As president, [Dwight Eisenhower] fortified NATO, ended the Korean War, reshaped the Supreme Court with five appointments, oversaw a growing economy and threw the full weight of the federal government behind the civil-rights movement. He left office with a 65% average approval rating—the highest for any two-term president.

It’s hard to imagine any modern leader unifying the nation to this extent. In 2015, 86% of people surveyed by the World Economic Forum believed that we’re suffering from a global leadership crisis.

Eisenhower’s story also suggests one reason we’re in this predicament. We’ve failed to appreciate one of the key leadership traits that made him so effective: his genuine reluctance to take the job.

Any historical list of famously reticent leaders starts with Moses, who didn’t believe he was a worthy messenger for God’s commandments. Long before Eisenhower, George Washington had to be dragooned into leading the young republic he’d just forcibly liberated. ...

Too often, leadership is bestowed on the people who crave it most. Hesitation and doubt are seen as fatal weaknesses. ...

The prevailing view in business is that the personal and promotional components of leadership are just as important as having a strong résumé. Deborah Gruenfeld, a Stanford social psychologist, says most people assume that a leader must possess “some combination of superior charm and ruthless ambition that the rest of us don’t.”

Most reluctant leaders, Eisenhower included, don’t have big personalities. They achieve status in organizations by lowering themselves in relation to their subordinates and putting the group’s goals ahead of their own.

A 2014 study by London’s Cass Business School found that reluctant bosses are better at navigating office politics and maintaining control while also promoting autonomy. Because they came to power by doing hard work in the trenches, their leadership is often viewed as more legitimate. ...

The most obvious lesson here is that when choosing a leader, it’s worth considering a few qualified people who aren’t clamoring for the job, even if they might need to be persuaded. ...

Being an enthusiastic, charismatic, highly visible public figure with a lively Twitter account may add value, but those duties won’t coax a hesitant leader out of hiding. Some executives, like Mr. Stokes, would rather shut the office door and apply their vast experience to solving problems. Ideally, a leader excels at both, but let’s be honest. These proclivities rarely flower in the same pot.

Maybe we should start paying COOs like CEOs and invite the vice president to live in the White House, too. Or split the toughest jobs between people with complementary skills, as Salesforce’s Marc Benioff recently did by elevating his trusted operational chief, Keith Block, to the role of co-CEO.

Other Captain Class leadership columns:

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