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Warren Bennis

Warren Bennis

Warren Bennis is University Professor and Distinguished Professor of Business at the University of Southern California. His newest book is 'Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership.'

The power of indirect leaders

Q: With Laura Bush in the news with her new memoir and Michelle Obama pushing her plan to fight childhood obesity, what advice would you offer to those who find themselves in such ambiguously defined leadership roles? Can a First Lady be a leader in her own right?

Absolutely. It's endowed in their role: the closest partner of the most powerful man in the country if not the world. My sense is that nowadays the voting public expects the first lady to use her informal clout to push and influence a public policy issue. As Howard Gardner pointed out years ago, there is an important form of power he called indirect leadership. In the case of first ladies, the extent to which they are leaders, rather than simply the pale distaff of their husband -- think Mrs. Eisenhower -- depends on the degree to which they use their voice and how much they want to amplify it.

In recent history Eleanor Roosevelt's voice had more decibels than any first lady I can recall. Hillary's had a lot of volume, too, even when she was the first lady to the Governor of Arkansas. Now, in a formal position of power, she has direct leadership but probably inflected with even more power as the wife of a former president.

Gardner's distinction between direct and indirect leadership is exquisitely relevant in the case of first ladies. Formally they hold no legal government position or authority. Eleanor, for example, wrote a very influential syndicated column. Additionally, she was known to have Roosevelt's ear, especially when she disagreed with his stated policy or appointments he would make.

I can provide a personal example of indirect leadership, not at all comparable in magnitude or consequence to the U.S. presidency. Twenty years ago I chaired the search committee that chose Dr. Steven Sample to be USC's president. For the last last 14 years we have taught a leadership class together. The class has become a draw on campus, as difficult to get into as our medical school. I also edited and helped him publish a book on leadership a few years ago. Because of our close partnership, I have been perceived as influential on campus, an indirect leader. What's interesting is that I've never used our relationship to further a cause or influence any decision. He resigned recently, effective August 1, after an extraordinarily successful run as our president. I'll make a public bet with all of our readers that on August 2nd, my perceived leadership role will vaporize overnight. Such are the vagaries of indirect leadership.

By Warren Bennis

 |  May 13, 2010; 2:00 PM ET
Category:  Women in Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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