Nepali Times
What leaders need to lead



History is often written in terms of military heroes, but leads to overemphasis of command, control and hard military power. In America today, the presidential debate is between John McCain, a war hero, and Barack Obama, a former community organiser.

The image of the warrior leader lingers in modern times. Smart warriors, however, know how to lead with more than just the use of force. They need the soft power of attraction as well as the hard power of coercion.

Many autocratic rulers in Zimbabwe, Burma, North Korea and elsewhere still lead the old-fashioned way. They combine fear with corruption to maintain kleptocracies dominated by the Big Man and his coterie. A good portion of the world is ruled this way.

Some theorists try to explain this with an 'alpha male theory of leadership'. Just as male monkeys, chimps or apes automatically begin to assume more responsibility once they attain the dominant status of alpha male, human rulers do so as well.

One effect of the traditional heroic warrior approach to leadership has been to support the belief that leaders are born rather than made, and that nature is more important than nurture. The search for the essential traits of a leader dominated the field of leadership studies until the late 1940's, and remains common in popular discourse today.

A tall handsome person enters a room, draws attention, and "looks like a leader". Various studies show that tall men are often favoured, and that corporate CEOs are taller than average. But some of the most powerful leaders in history, such as Napoleon, Stalin and Deng Xiaoping were little over five feet tall.

The traits-centered approach has not vanished from studies of leadership, but it has been broadened and made more flexible. This definition mixes nature and nurture, and means that "traits" can to some extent be learned rather than merely inherited.

A persuasive experiment recently demonstrated the interaction between nature and nurture. A group of employers was asked to hire workers who had been ranked by their looks. If the employers saw only the resumés, beauty had no impact on hiring.

Surprisingly, however, when telephone interviews were included in the process, beautiful people did better, even though they were unseen by the employers. A lifetime of social reinforcement based on their genetically given looks may have encoded into their voice patterns a tone of confidence that could be projected over the phone.

Genetics and biology matter in human leadership, but they do not determine it in the way that the traditional heroic warrior approach to leadership suggests. The Big Man type of leader works in societies based on networks of tribal cultures that rely on personal and family honour and loyalty. But such social structures are not well adapted for coping with today's complex information-based world.

Societies that rely on heroic leaders are slow to develop the civil society and broad social capital that are necessary for leading in a modern networked world. Modern leadership turns out to be less about who you are or how you were born than about what you have learned and what you do as part of a group.

Modern information societies require us to go beyond the Big Man approach to leadership.

Project Syndicate

Joseph S Nye is a professor at Harvard and author of The Powers to Lead.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)