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Exploring Leadership in the News with Steven Pearlstein and Raju Narisetti

Donald Kettl
Academic Dean

A refreshing breath of off-message reality

Q: Barack Obama still sneaks cigarettes. Gordon Brown has a mean temper. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin struggles with her weight. At what point do a leader's personal vices begin to undermine effectiveness? Is it better to hide them or acknowledge them?

Leaders who want to lead well have to connect with those they're leading. In a hyper-wired society, there's a profound paradox in that quest. We can't escape our leaders, thanks to Tweets and the never-ending news cycle. But we also know that our leaders know we're watching, so they try endlessly to massage the message so we see what they want us to see.

That makes life tough for followers. How do we know what's real and what's artificial? A sly peek at a leader's vices helps make them real people. Each of us knows our vices, and it's reassuring to know our leaders have them, too. Obama might be buff and smart and give a great speech. Some chinks in the personal armor makes it easier to touch him. These chinks also provide an excuse for the self-deprecating joke, which is always a winner.

Some of our leaders had warm-fuzzy vices, like Ronald Reagan's love of jelly beans. Some vices were (relatively) harmless. Lyndon Johnson, for example, used to love terrifying visitors to his Texas ranch by tearing through bumpy back roads in his white Lincoln convertible.

But some vices drive followers away, by transforming them into people their followers don't want to touch. A salty tongue helped Johnson, but Richard Nixon's excursions in profanity filed a sharper edge that made him less approachable. We've had enough politicians whose extra-marital dalliances undercut them in the public mind and undermined their ability to lead. Of course, it's not just politicians whose libidos lead them to stray, but we tend to punish them far more than private executives who stray.

Why the double standard? The more leaders' vices prevent them from connecting with the led, the weaker the leaders become. In the public sphere, that's even more important than in the corporate world. Leadership is a transaction, a kind of deal in which leaders point out a path and ask people to come along. For people to take the deal, to accept the often-huge risks that come with bold moves, they need to have personal confidence in the leader.

If a vice leads the led to say, "Hey, that person is human, like me, but still charts the way we want to go," that helps. If a vice repels the followers, or undermines the leader's ability to close the leadership deal, then it's completely different.

Some vices, like Reagan's jelly beans, are so obviously benign that they're endearing. Some vices, like the womanizing scandals that constantly swirled around Bill Clinton, are obviously damaging. The really difficult turf is the vast area in between. Leaders know they've crossed the line when they feel their grips on the reins slip away.

But here's the dilemma. Leaders need to be human to be effective, because they need their followers to connect with them. A bit of vice helps immeasurably. Too much vice can drive followers away. Often, leaders don't know where the line is until they're crossed it, as they struggle to regain what once seemed easy and at hand. The best leaders know that--and know how to stay on the right side of the line.

By Donald Kettl

 |  March 3, 2010; 10:19 AM ET
Category:  Leadership weaknesses Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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