As a leader, how ‘presidential’ should you be?


I’ve been pondering this question for some time, having been asked it by a young leader, new into his first significant leadership role and keen to make an impression. It seems that having observed other leaders acting ‘presidentially’, he is weighing up the potential advantages in acting in a similar way himself. Let’s face it, with a demanding role to fulfil and potentially unpopular changes to make, who would not be attracted by the notion of having staff and colleagues acting deferentially? Who wouldn’t be drawn by the idea of casting a spell over the people you most need to influence?

As I’ve considered this question, I’ve instinctively known that it is fraught with difficulties. That the ‘power distance’ that the presidential style creates between leader and followers is likely to generate compliance rather than real engagement. And that the presidential leader is likely to be kept away from hearing unpalatable truths, or at least will need to expend much greater effort to stay in touch.

It was therefore of interest to find out this week that Jim Collins had addressed the subject, albeit without using the ‘P’ word in his book Good to Great. In this he describes his research into the core characteristics of organisations that turn from being ‘good’ (that is with steady yet unexceptional growth) to ‘great’ (this being exceptional growth over a sustained period of at least 15 years). In every single case and in stark contrast to the comparison organisations studied, the researchers discovered a distinctive leadership style they termed ‘Level 5 Leadership’.

This style is characterised by a blend of ‘extreme personal humility with intense professional will’; where individuals are self-effacing and modest, look to others to receive the credit for good work, and do pretty much anything to stay out of the limelight. And yet they display a fierce resolve to ‘do whatever it takes to make the organisation great’. Their ambition is for the institution, for their colleagues, and for the highest standards, yet not for themselves.

By contrast a more presidential style of leadership was found in organisations which showed exceptional short-term growth, but which subsequently floundered. Under the leadership of Lee Iacocca in the 1980s and 90s, Chrysler experienced a phenomenal turn-around and terrific growth, with the big ego and rock-star type personality to match. Yet the business did not long survive his departure in one piece. Similarly Margaret Thatcher’s leadership of the Conservative Party provides another example of how the presidential style can have a big impact during the tenure of the leader, yet result in a weakened organisation after their departure.

Given that we live in an age of celebrity, and that the media focus strongly on the cult of personality, there is perhaps greater pressure than ever for leaders to ‘make it all about themselves’. And yet the evidence suggests that the leader who can resist this temptation, stay focussed on building up the capabilities of her colleagues and wider team, and remain passionately committed to the long-term viability of the organisation, will ultimately be the one to achieve lasting greatness.

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