29/05/2013

The Leadership Enigma

Leadership is an important quality universally admired. Courses and seminars are given on how to be a good leader. In the public and private sectors, figures like Charles de Gaulle and Steve Jobs, Mahatma Gandhi and Jack Welch are looked up to; people try to imitate their personality traits in order to achieve positions where people will follow them. Internationally, many worry that the decline of United States leadership in the post-World War II international system will leave a void, perhaps to be filled by an unwelcome China. Leadership, supposedly, is always positive.


Two recent events give reasons for reflection. Michael Ambuehl, Switzerland’s State Secretary for International Financial Matters, resigned at a crucial moment in talks to resolve disputes over tax evasion with Europe and the United States. While there has been much speculation about the reasons for his resignation – disputes with his boss, the Federal Councilor Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, or with the Parliament or both – his decision to pursue an academic career at the Polytechnique in Zurich will leave a void.

Who will replace him? In a small country like Switzerland, there are not many people with his international stature or knowledge of the subject. Nostalgic comments have been made about former State Secretaries Eduard Brunner and Franz Blankart. Mention also should have been made about David de Pury, former diplomat, negotiator for Switzerland with the GATT and later a business leader. Brunner and De Pury have passed away; Blankart is enjoying a well-deserved retirement.

The point here is that placing too much emphasis on leadership and leaders creates unrealistic and dangerous expectations; people who are irreplaceable all wind up in cemeteries. Will Apple continue to be successful post-Jobs? GE post-Welch? If Michael Ambuehl was the only person in the Swiss government really qualified to carry on the negotiations, then the country is in trouble. Good leaders like Jobs and Welch should have prepared their successors while they were in power, just as Switzerland should be forming capable people to replace officials like Ambuehl. At a ceremony commemorating the exceptional career of Brunner, former Conseil National Peter Tschopp asked the question; “Where are the next Brunners, Blankarts, Cornelio Sommarugas?” The anxiety over the post-Ambuehl leadership reflects the silence following the question.

In a recent article in the New York Times, Joseph Nye asked “Is the Vision Thing Important?” As part of a study on presidential leadership, Nye drew the distinction between “transformational presidents with grand visions” and “incremental leaders with a transactional style.” Looking at leaders who presided over the growth of American primacy, Nye concludes that contrary to what might be assumed transformational leaders are not always the best. His obvious example is George W. Bush becoming transformational after September 11 and I assume the great disappointment with Barack Obama’s lack of transformational policies. Nye’s moral is: “Beware of experts and leaders bearing transformational gifts.”

Is there also a lesson here for the upcoming Swiss vote on popular elections for the Federal Council? According to Nye’s analysis, a lack of charismatic leadership in Bern with a functioning checks and balances between the executive, legislative and judicial may be the best answer for how to govern. As he says, “prudent management that allowed favorable structural change to occur without disastrous disruptions” may be as important as great transformations and great transformers.

Daniel Warner

May 28, 2013

 

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