Reader Caution! This post is just a tad pedantic. Sorry about that.
At a conference a year ago, I presented my thoughts about the importance of leadership as a value in societies in transition. I was immediately challenged that this is an American fixation that does not play well in Europe. This led to a rather heated debate (roughly half of the people who spoke agreed with me and the other half disagreed) and an interesting discussion.
No doubt that Americans are more interested in the term “leadership” than Europeans. But is it really just an American cultural artifact? I think not. Before getting into the argument why not, I would first clarify what I think “leadership” is not. It is not the same thing as worship of charisma, decisiveness and power. That old Kennedy thing. Or, as the French used to say, waiting for the man on a white horse. Certainly, charismatic people have clawed their way to power and will again and again. But that does not mean that they were or will be effective leaders. Moreover, leadership is does not mean just occupying a top position in an institution. The CEO is in a position of power, but that does not mean the CEO has a monopoly on leadership within the organization. Nor does having the position guarantee effectiveness.
To the contrary, leadership describes a social process that is needed when we act as a group. The main dynamic in this process is the relationship between leaders and followers over time. Leaders have a critical role to play in generating and sustaining the activity. Think of it as a service. Followers interpret and implement the message and are judges of its meaningfulness over time. Oh. And they often rebel.
To better understand what produces effective leadership, we need to break that role into its elements and develop standards for measuring what is effective. One such element is to generate the energy needed to get the group moving and keep it moving (in my model I call that building engagement). Bill Warner talks about this in the context of starting up a new enterprise. This energy is found in the leader’s dedication to adding value over time via a given strategy. Put more bluntly, to focus on what is essential.
Which brings us to Mr. Van Rompuy, who currently occupies a key leadership role in Europe. NYT just ran an interesting profile of Mr. Van Rompuy that emphasizes his facilitation role. Here is the link. Van Rompuy himself argues — persuasively I think — that a more charismatic style would not work in the current setting. Interestingly, Van Rompuy also seems not overly absorbed by the idea of generating energy. To the contrary, he accepts that he shares the stage with powerful figures from the member states.
So does this mean that his style doesn’t fit into my leadership model? That he can be effective without leading? To the contrary. I would argue that Mr. Van Rompuy’s effectiveness depends on two factors that emerge directly out of the leadership model. First, has Mr. Van Rompuy identified the key issue to engage people in a European storyline? Second, can Mr. Van Rompuy translate this into benchmarks for success over time?
Mr. Rompuy argues that the key issue is the value of decision by consensus. This is the latest chapter of an old story that goes back to the founding of the EEC after the war. What metrics or standards relate to the issue? These relate to respect, courtesy, persuasion, compromise, and so on. And this is the story that Mr. Rompuy would like us to focus on. BTW, Mr. Rompuyäs leadership style certainly fits into a tradition, and I would argue that one cannot understand Europe without understanding this storyline. And oddly, the original American governance model had similar elements (but it didn’t work over time).
Of course, this story is not fashionable at all in the US these days. For example, President Obama has been heavily criticized for being too courteous to the opposition party. For a lack of fighting spirit. He is now changing his style as the midterm elections approach. Europe and the US are following different storylines and are likely to continue doing so.
But it does not mean that leadership is important in the US and unimportant in Europe. Mr. Van Rompuy may or may not be building energy around the European consensus storyline. And Mr. Rompuy’s leadership should be judged in light of how well that storyline plays out over time. We do not know yet whether this will be successful. Just as we do not know yet how the US storyline, with much more emphasis on liberty and individualism, will play out.
These are interesting stories. And they present different sorts of leadership challenges that are worth tracking over time.
FOLLOW - We might contrast these stories with that of President Correa of Ecuador. Recently he was nearly killed by police in what may have been an attempted coup. He says about the conflict
… the only way of not generating conflict is to do nothing, and I wasn’t elected to do nothing.”
Here is the link to a portrait of his leadership style. Very different than that of Mr. Van Rompuy. The style is different because the storyline is different. Correa wants to change the way state institutions function in order to reduce inequality and corruption. And he has to fight against deeply entrenched interests to do it. Trying to build consensus might not be the best strategy to get there. But we shall see how this plays out.