Richard Holtzman, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Political Science
My research on the modern American presidency has taught me some important lessons about leadership—lessons that would seem to be obvious, but are too often overlooked in our daily practice. The best empirical-based scholarship on the presidency offers important lessons for leaders of all sorts, whether you are the “leader of the free world” or something a bit more limited in scope. Three of the most pertinent leadership lessons are: (1) power and authority are both positional and personal; (2) persuasion is more effective than commanding; and (3) good leaders must always possess an awareness of themselves and the situations in which they act.
You hold a formal position of power, but the institutional authority that comes with this position is not the same thing as leadership. Instead, leadership challenges you to develop and use important personal qualities, such as the ability to inspire, the skills to negotiate, the recognition of opportunities, and the strategic use of resources. The history of the American presidency is the history of forty-four individuals occupying the same formal office, but often succeeding or failing as a result of the personal skills that they draw on (or fail to draw on). Position matters; but as the distinguished scholar Richard Neustadt explained: A leader’s “advantages are greater than a mere listing of…’powers’” (1990, p.31).
Among the most important of their personal skills is the ability to persuade. As scholar Michael Genovese argues, “power is about influence,” not command. “There are precious few occasions when a president can act on his own authority, ‘independent’ of other political actors. Such unilateral acts are the exception, not the rule” (2008, p.33). Reflect on your own daily practice; your leadership situation is similar, no doubt. Power is shared. Therefore, truly effective leadership relies not on command and force, but persuasion. As Neustadt advised John F. Kennedy, and four decades of subsequent presidents: “The power to persuade is the power to bargain” (1990, p.32). Leadership is a give-and-take endeavor.
But what personal skills should be used, when, and how? You do not and cannot lead in a vacuum—always lead in context. In other words, be aware of the environment in which you make decisions. Genovese uses the analogy that all leaders are dealt a hand of cards (several hands , in fact). Sometimes you get a great hand, sometimes a poor one. Regardless of the deal, “[s]uccessful leaders are those who can take full advantage of their opportunities, resources, and skills” (2008, p.41). Easier said than done, of course; but notice the implicit lessons in his analogy. A leader must be able to read situations with clear eyes in order to identify opportunities among challenges, as well as recognize those situations in which opportunities may simply not exist. A leader must also be clear-eyed when it comes to self-knowledge, reflecting on the optimum use of personal resources and skills.
Of course, we all will misread situations and overplay or underplay our hand sometimes. Effective leadership demands that we reflect on these experiences, perform honest self-assessments, and move forward with our eyes open in an action-oriented way. History shows us that many presidents have failed to do so. From their lessons, be reminded that leadership is personal, it depends on persuasion, and demands attentive awareness of self and situation.
Genovese, Michael A. Memo to a New President: The Art and Science of Presidential Leadership. New York: Oxford University Press (2008).
Neustadt, Richard E. Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents: The Politics of Leadership from Roosevelt to Reagan. New York: The Free Press (1990).