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Leadership, Power and Contextual Intelligence

By Joseph S. Nye

Understanding of leadership is often limited by stereotypes about power, role and gender. In an information age where networks become more important, the soft power of attraction and persuasion becomes as important as the hard power of coercion and payment. Similarly, co-option becomes as important as command. And gender stereotypes not only limit the recruitment of talent but also the understanding of leadership roles. Such roles vary with context, and developing contextual intelligence is a priority for effective leadership.

The enormous potential of human leadership ranges from Attila the Hun to Mother Teresa, yet we often succumb to simple stereotypes about leadership and power. Most everyday leaders remain unheralded. The role of heroic leadership in war leads us to overemphasize command and control and hard military power. The image of the dominant male warrior leader lingers in modern times. Yet power is the ability to affect others to get the outcomes one wants, and that can be accomplished by the soft power of attraction and persuasion as well as the hard power of coercion and payment.

Smart generals today know how to lead with more than just the use of force. Soldiers sometimes joke that their job description is simple: “kill people and break things.” As the U.S. rediscovered in Iraq and Afghanistan, hearts and minds also and smart warriors need the soft power of attraction as well as the hard power of coercion. Indeed, an oversimplified image of warrior-style leadership in President George W. Bush’s first term caused costly setbacks for America’s role in the world. It is not a manly modern Achilles or the strongest alpha male who makes the best warrior leader in today’s communication age. Military leadership today also requires political and managerial skills.

Many autocratic rulers – in Zimbabwe or Belarus, among others — still lead in the old fashion today. Many leaders combine fear with corruption to maintain kleptocracies dominated by “the big man” and his coterie. A good portion of the two hundred countries in the world is ruled that way. Some theorists have tried to explain this with an “alpha male theory of leadership.” The psychiatrist Arnold M. Ludwig, for example, argues that just as male monkeys, chimps, or apes automatically begin to assume more responsibility for their particular community once they attain the dominant status of alpha male, human rulers begin to do so as well. Such socio-biological explanations of leadership are of only limited value. Thus far, no leadership gene has been identified, and studies of identical and fraternal male twins find that only a third of their difference in occupying formal leadership roles can be accounted for by genetic factors. While this suggests that inbred characteristics influence the extent to which people play particular roles, it leaves lots of room for people to learn behavior that influences outcomes.

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