Reading Notes:Powers to Lead Chapter 1

Joseph S. Nye

It looks like this book will focus on “soft leadership,” less authoratarian and more deliberative. This is called “feminine” for some reason. Feminist might be a more accurate term, but is it necessary to bring it up here?

Peaking at the end: The conclusion is about how leaders need both “hard” and “soft” leadership skills, and how the point of reading books and taking leadership classes is to know how to listen to your gut.

Seriously though guys..

Do leaders matter?

According to Nye, probably a lot less than we think they do. Leaders are a way for us to imagine we have more control over the world than we really do. By blaming or praising leaders we can imagine that we understand complicated systems that those leaders in fact have relatively little impact on.

Several studies have looked at how much leaders matter and found that it depends on the industry and largely depends on the team structure in which those leaders operate. In general though, team structure is more important than who’s in charge.

Most studies of leadership have been in institutions. Less institutional leaders (like Ghandi and King) operate in a different and less understood world.

How much is it just about context?

Leadership happens two ways. Either it’s event-based, where leaders are just in the right place at the right time, or it’s tranformation-based, where leaders make something happen. A brief historical overview reveals a pattern: most leaders get power from being in the right place at the right time. Once they have it, the things that they do with it can be transformational.

How much is it about alpha males?

Really? Males? Nye clearly does not know the lesbians that I know….

Visionary, authoritarian leaders can be good, but only if there are community structures to keep them in check.

The word for leadership comes from greek for “General.” Culturally, leadership ideals are derived from military victors (a pretty good case is made for this being at least one of several archetypes.) We like to call these people “alpha males,” under the idea that we’re genetically programmed to follow the big strong guy/gal. 

At some point someone bothered to go look at primate culture and found that, surprise, there isn’t  just one. Primate cultures vary widely across species (and elsehow?) in the ways that they think about leadership. Hunter gatherers too (what is WITH our anthropological obsession with surviving hunter gatherers? NOT helpful.

Despite that diversity (and here Nye makes a weak transition) it seems like for most of human history leadership transitioned fluidly around groups, there wasn’t an “alpha male.” While DNA matters, leadership is much more about the particular structures that a group uses to confer power.

What makes a leader? Einstein v. Lincoln

Both Einstein and Lincoln were leaders, but different types. People followed Einstein’s ideas, but he never actually led people. (He even turned down the presidency of Isreal.)

Einstein had ideas that people followed, but he didn’t understand how to effectively operate in and motivate groups. Lincoln did. Similarly, celebrities are popular and inspiring to groups, but unless they can turn that energy into action they’re not leaders.

Function: Leaders create meaning and goals, reinforce gorup identity and cohesion, provide order and mobilize collective work. Usually these responsibilities are shared across a group.

Studies of Leadership

  • Trait Centered theories dominated until the ’40s. These were about what traits made a leader.
  • Style approach was in vogue until the 60’s. This was about how leaders interacted with others.
  • Contingency was around until the 80’s. Broke leadership up into decision trees.
  • Now is charisma and transformational leadership, but the book will get to that later.

Leadership is studied through surveys, classroom experiments, historical analyses and through the internet (where there are good records.) All of these have severe limitations.

How is leadership learned?

It’s largely about direct experience, which gives you skills and instincts. Analysis, knowing how to break down and understand a situation, lets you know how to direct that instinct. That’s what this class/book will do.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Reading Notes:Powers to Lead Chapter 1

  1. Ohhh, so that’s where the random Einstein factoid came from…
    I like your Einstein vs. Lincoln observation- it proves that there is more than one way to be a leader. Both these archetypes of leadership seem more transformational than event-based, but I suppose leaders require a balance of each… Still, they’re quite different than, say, a Jimmy Carter of leadership.

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