Book 1- Thinking about Leadership

Note: This is the first book for the Politics & IR book club that I wrote about in August. 

I originally chose Thinking about Leadership by Nannerl Keohane for two main reasons: 1) I follow politics and sometimes write about my elected representatives/leaders here on my blog, and 2) I wanted to see if leadership as applied to individual leaders could also be applied to nations.

Part of my prior knowledge of leadership was based on my experience in the US Army.  The first letter of each of the seven army values– Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage- spell out leadership.  Additionally, as an NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer, or for laymen, a sergeant), part of our creed was “All Soldiers are entitled to outstanding leadership; I will provide that leadership.”  When one takes those values and ideas to heart, one begins forming a certain notion of leadership (i.e. lead by example).  The concepts of responsibility and putting others’ needs before one’s own become important and a part of a way of life.  Going into this book, then, I had ideas about leadership based on my experiences, but hadn’t really thought about the theory behind it.

Rather than go through the book chapter by chapter, I want to touch on what I feel were some of the more intriguing aspects of it, beginning with Keohane’s definition of leadership.  She brings together two activities required for leadership- “Leaders determine or clarify goals for a group of individuals and bring together the energies of members of that group to accomplish those goals.” (p. 23)  She also points out that it is more beneficial to think in terms of “A leader is…” rather than “The leader of…” when thinking about leadership.

Leadership, however, does not necessarily mean power.  While leaders usually use hard or soft power to achieve their goals, there can be limits to their power due to the institutional context or the influence of other actors.  Conversely, a person can have a lot of power or influence over their group, but they may be poor leaders.  This leads to an important question- is there a difference between leading and wielding power?  In my mind, this is an opportunity to apply these concepts to nations, using the United States as the example.

With the world’s largest economy and largest military, the United States has a considerable amount of power and has not been afraid to use it.  If there is a difference, however, between leading and wielding power, then it is possible that the United States is not necessarily a global leader.  Additionally, if a nation’s leadership is based on the premise of “lead by example,” then the United States may not be seen as a global leader. Examples of where the US falls short in this role can be found in American environmental policy and its dysfunctional, polarized political system.  If a nation is not a leader in certain areas, however, does that mean it is not an overall global leader?  Additionally, if the United States (due to its considerable power) is sometimes able to bring other nations together to achieve a set of goals, is it considered a global leader?

One of the aspects I really liked about Keohane’s book was her discussion of followers.  I had never really thought about the role of followers in leadership before, so for me this was an enlightening chapter.  When it comes down to it, leaders cannot exist without followers.  The question for leaders then is how to get accepted by followers.  Leaders must realize that followers can influence through support or through opposition.  Finally, when considering different levels of leadership, one must not forget that a leader can simultaneously be a follower.

Keohane also devotes a chapter to gender and leadership, and asks an important question- why aren’t there more women leaders today?  I think it starts with how women are treated around the world.  Examining, the Millennium Development Goals, one learns that improving the lives of women will make the world a better place.  Promoting gender equality, improving access to education, and giving women better maternal health care (all MDG’s) would hopefully lead to more opportunities to be leaders.  In her conclusion to the book, Keohane asks if leadership can be taught; if it can, then perhaps one solution would be to teach females about leadership and put them in leadership positions throughout their education.  Speaking from personal experience, I make it a point to put my female students in leadership positions for our Model UN team, either as a co-president or a head delegate.  It might be small, but hopefully it’s a good start.  What else can we do to encourage females to be leaders?

The final aspect of Keohane’s book I want to discuss is her section about leadership and democracy.  The conundrum of democratic leadership is that “all democracies face the dilemma of ensuring that the work of leadership gets done without allowing leaders to accumulate privilege and perpetuate their power.” (173)  In other words, leaders must have power, but not too much power.  If they want to stay in that position of leadership, they also need to gain support, not just from followers, which can lead to another dilemma- distortion of information.  Both problems, accumulation of power and privilege and distortion of information, can have a negative impact on the democratic process.  This is where citizens in a democracy have the opportunity to play an important role- holding leaders accountable.  So how can citizens hold elected officials and other leaders accountable?  Voting?  Writing your representative or political party?  Running for office?  Or, for what it’s worth, given the accumulation of wealth, privilege, and power of our elected officials and leaders, is it still possible in the United States to hold them accountable?

To close, a few questions for you if you read the book: 1) How did your ideas of leadership relate with Keohane’s definition of leadership? 2) Is it possible to apply the theory of leadership by individuals to leadership by nations, or do we need to have a different construct?  3) What section of the book did you find most thought-provoking?

The next book up for discussion at the end of this month (if I can get back on schedule) is On the Muslim Question, by Anne Norton.

Thanks for reading.


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