The contradiction of Richard Holbrooke
Of all Richard Holbrooke's qualities that have been mentioned in the flurry of coverage remembering his life--his supreme intelligence, his larger-than-life personality, his consummate negotiating and networking skills--there are two that interest me most. Seemingly all of the obituaries, remembrances and elegies following his death, on Dec. 13, highlight his extraordinary ego (here was a man who coveted the position of Secretary of State from the time he was a young foreign service member in Vietnam) while simultaneously recognizing him for his willingness to advise his young proteges.
Those two attributes would seem to be contradictory. A man who has been described as having a "colossal ego," intent on clawing his way up to the government's top diplomatic post and guilty (to some, at least) of arrogance and know-it-all-ism, would not seem to be a man who had time for those beneath him. Those known to have large egos tend to be self-centered and narcissistic, not accessible and generous.
And yet by all accounts he was both accessible, despite his position, and generous with his time, if also tenacious and adherent to unyielding expectations. Holbrooke has inspired generations of proteges who are intensely loyal and has been called a "legendary mentor." He cheered on new State Department underlings and gave them access to and time with arguably the busiest, most experienced and most powerful diplomat in the country.
Perhaps the best description of Holbrooke's inclusive, if also extremely tough, leadership style was laid out not in today's commemorations, but in George Packer's extensive 2009 New Yorker profile of the career diplomat. In it, Packer encapsulates Holbrooke's approach through several telling anecdotes of how he built his most recent and final team at the State Department. One young staffer wrote a memo on Pakistan that President Obama agreed with, and Holbrooke texted him at midnight to congratulate him. Another staff member was recruited by being told how much latitude he would give her. Holbrooke's door is described as always open to those who work for him; Packer quotes General David Petraeus as calling Holbrooke's team "the flattest organization I've ever seen."
In reality, brash ambition and a generosity of time and of advice to inferiors aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. Leaders with extraordinary intelligence and impassioned enthusiasm for their jobs see it in others and want to help foster it, no matter how much they may be driven by their own goals. The best leaders are contradictory--audacious and self-centered enough to believe they can achieve great things, while selfless enough to help others, whether they be their underlings or their superiors.
December 14, 2010; 1:11 PM ET |
Federal government leadership
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