In Praise of Weak Leadership

In one of my last posts I complained about the uncritical approach of many (bad) management schools to leadership. The larger issue, of course, is the worrisome trend in world politics, to, once again, glorify the notion of stronger leadership.

We all know that the Roman republic only installed dictatorial rights on their leaders in times of emergency. But this is obviously what people seeking power want to convince us: that we live in a continuous state of emergency. And this where people fall for the idea.

But democracy, rule of law, accountability and republicanism are precisely built on a notion of weak leadership. The checks and balance in the system are meant to confine leadership in such a space that it cannot do too much harm. This system is so effective that it even works successfully in cases of warfare or terrorism.

At the heart of the problem lies a conceptual confusion. There is a big difference between a constrained and hence weak leader or a leader who is incompetent. In practice you can end up with all types of constellations, but the best constellation is really a weak, but competent leader, whereas the worst is a strong, but incompetent leader. Unfortunately, unhedged praise of strong leadership often gravitates towards a permissive stance to the latter.

In particular, some people seem to place high hopes into the combination of a strong, but competent leader. This is probably the legacy of a patriarchic culture in which people look up to a father figure. Indeed, in some cases this might work out (for some). But placing bets on the benevolent autocrat is a huge gamble, which, on average, fails.

Intelligent management studies know this of course. ‘No leader is perfect. The best ones don’t try to be—they concentrate on honing their strengths and find others who can make up for their limitations.’ So here is a simple rule: if someone aggressively seeks strong leadership, this should make him or her the least likely person apt for the job.


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