Leading in the Real and Ragged World

Tom Peters

With a new occupant in the White House, talk of leadership is in the air. Most focuses on the “good stuff”: ennobling vision, empowered followers, maintaining the common touch.

These qualities are important and, more often than not, lacking in leaders of all stripes. Nonetheless, leadership also has another, less majestic side. My experience suggests the best leaders are:

1. Manipulative. Make no mistake, Bill Clinton (and any other wise leader) is fully aware of the image he projects. Though preaching inclusion, he is a control freak, intent on carefully orchestrating every context to present the precisely desired message. For one small thing, I’ve never seen a politician so adept at snatching up any baby in sight, then hoisting the toddler into the camera’s eye.

Only the leader really understands, holistically, the persona she or he wishes to convey: The best are insistent that nothing get in the way of that presentation.

2. Symbol-conscious. While “getting down to brass tacks” is a must, brass tacks and practical policy implementation are usually possible only if the atmospherics are compelling. Effective leaders, from Pennsylvania Avenue (none better than Ronald Reagan) to the accounting department, have a sure feel for the symbolic content of their actions. To champion follower involvement, for example, leaders should go out of their way to exhibit involvement (follow a genuine open-door policy, regularly eat in the employee cafeteria, etc.)

3. Dictatorial about the dream. To be effective, a vision must be crystal clear. While compromise is necessary to build a consensus for action, the best chiefs (in retrospect) are insistent that the main theme not get so enlarged or diluted as to become insipid.

4. Narrow-minded. Wise honchos know they can accomplish only limited agendas. The number of important problems and opportunities that confront—and distract—leaders at all levels is staggering. The best tack and jibe constantly, but, at a deeper level, fight to keep the focus on the main event (“the economy, stupid”).

5. Punitive. Carrots motivate far better than sticks. Period. Nonetheless, top-notch leaders don’t idly ignore those who choose to ignore them. Lyndon Johnson was brilliant at translating his contrarian domestic agenda into legislation. He was peerless at dispensing favors at critical moments (to win swing votes); but he was equally firm-handed in ensuring that those who broke ranks in trying times suffered the consequences.

6. Mistrustful. Many good leaders, shop floor to national government, are humanists. Still, the survivors are usually closet conspiracy theorists as well. Most constituents who approach the leader, in innocence or with guile, have their own agendas. Effective leaders are likely to hide a healthy dose of skepticism and even mistrust beneath a sunny, inspiring exterior.

In the end, the leader alone (and one or two trusted confidants if she or he is lucky—e.g., Hillary Clinton for Bill Clinton) is responsible for himself or herself.

7. Wily. The best leaders are open, honest and accessible; and the converse of all three. Leaders must be shrewd tacticians if they are to accomplish anything in a sizable public or private bureaucracy. That means doling out access carefully since access significantly empowers those who are perceived to have it. (If everyone has access, then it ceases to be a carrot or a stick.)

It also means playing some games very close to the vest—offering under-the-table favors tomorrow in return for a key vote today. (Kennedy unraveled the 1962 missile crisis by secretly promising future withdrawal of our missiles in Turkey in return for Khrushchev’s immediate public withdrawal of missiles in Cuba.)

And dishonest? While I hardly condone dishonesty, I also don’t believe the one about George Washington and the cherry tree. Leaders often put very different spins on an issue, depending on whom they are addressing. This, of course, can and often does result in perceived slickness; on the other hand, to expect saintly consistency is to misunderstand the nuts and bolts of getting stuff done through multiple constituencies.

8. Power mad. These words doubtless bring to mind Hitler, Stalin and Saddam Hussein. Yet make no mistake, the best leaders, junior to senior, are avid students of power. We all operate amid webs of friends and enemies, with every shade of gray imaginable in between. To not understand the nature of the contest is almost surely to lose before you’re off the starting blocks.

Am I too cynical? I think not. Leadership is as much about the rough and tumble dailiness of implementation as it is about a transformative vision for the ages. The human condition requires leaders to attend to many factors conveniently overlooked by those who see only the smiling side of the leadership coin.

(C) 1993 TPG Communications.

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