Friday, August 1, 2014
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What’s Wrong with Transformational Leadership?

CAMBRIDGE – This year’s presidential campaign in the United States has been marked by calls from Barack Obama’s would-be Republican challengers for a radical transformation of American foreign policy. Campaigns are always more extreme than the eventual reality, but countries should be wary of calls for transformational change. Things do not always work out as intended.

Foreign policy played almost no role in the 2000 US presidential election. In 2001, George W. Bush started his first term with little interest in foreign policy, but adopted transformational objectives after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Like Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman before him, Bush turned to the rhetoric of democracy to rally his followers in a time of crisis.

Bill Clinton had also talked about enlarging the role of human rights and democracy in US foreign policy, but most Americans in the 1990’s sought normality and a post-Cold War peace dividend rather than change. By contrast, Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy, which came to be called the Bush Doctrine, proclaimed that the US would “identify and eliminate terrorists wherever they are, together with the regimes that sustain them.” The solution to the terrorist problem was to spread democracy everywhere.

Bush invaded Iraq ostensibly to remove Saddam Hussein’s capacity to use weapons of mass destruction and, in the process, to change the regime. Bush cannot be blamed for the intelligence failures that attributed such weapons to Saddam, given that many other countries shared such estimates. But inadequate understanding of the Iraqi and regional context, together with poor planning and management, undercut Bush’s transformational objectives. Although some of Bush’s defenders try to credit him with the “Arab Spring” revolutions, the primary Arab participants reject such arguments.

Bush was described by The Economist as “obsessed by the idea of being a transformational president; not just a status-quo operator like Bill Clinton.” Then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised the virtues of “transformational diplomacy.” But, while leadership theorists and editorial writers tend to think that transformational foreign-policy officials are better in either ethics or effectiveness, the evidence does not support this view.

Other leadership skills are more important than the usual distinction between transformational and “transactional” leaders. Consider President George H.W. Bush, who did not do “the vision thing,” but whose sound management and execution underpinned one of the most successful US foreign-policy agendas of the past half-century. Perhaps genetic engineers will one day be able to produce leaders equally endowed with both vision and management skills; comparing the two Bushes (who shared half their genes), it is clear that nature has not yet solved the problem.

This is not an argument against transformational leaders. Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr., played crucial roles in transforming people’s identity and aspirations. Nor is this an argument against transformational leaders in US foreign policy. Franklin Roosevelt and Truman made crucial contributions. But, in judging leaders, we need to pay attention to acts of both omission and commission, to what happened and to what was avoided, to the dogs that barked and to those that did not.

A big problem in foreign policy is the complexity of the context. We live in a world of diverse cultures, and we know very little about social engineering and how to “build nations.” When we cannot be sure how to improve the world, prudence becomes an important virtue, and grandiose visions can pose grave dangers.

In foreign policy, as in medicine, it is important to remember the Hippocratic Oath: first, do no harm. For these reasons, the virtues of transactional leaders with good contextual intelligence are very important. Someone like George H. W. Bush, unable to articulate a vision but able to steer successfully through crises, turns out to be a better leader than someone like his son, possessed of a powerful vision but with little contextual intelligence or management skill.

Former Secretary of State George Shultz, who served under Ronald Reagan, once compared his role to gardening –“the constant nurturing of a complex array of actors, interests, and goals.” But Shultz’s Stanford colleague, Condoleezza Rice, wanted a more transformational diplomacy that did not accept the world as it was, but tried to change it. As one observer put it, “Rice’s ambition is not just to be a gardener – she wants to be a landscape architect.” There is a role for both, depending on the context, but we should avoid the common mistake of automatically thinking that the transformational landscape architect is a better leader than the careful gardener.

We should keep this in mind as we assess the current US presidential debates, with their constant reference to American decline. Decline is a misleading metaphor. America is not in absolute decline, and, in relative terms, there is a reasonable probability that it will remain more powerful than any other country in the coming decades. We do not live in a “post-American world,” but we also do not live in the American era of the late twentieth century.

The US will be faced with a rise in the power resources of many others – both states and non-state actors. It will also confront a growing number of issues that require power with others as much as power over others in order to obtain the country’s preferred outcomes. America’s capacity to maintain alliances and create cooperative networks will be an important dimension of its hard and soft power.

The problem of America’s role in the twenty-first century is not one of (poorly specified) “decline,” but rather of developing the contextual intelligence to understand that even the largest country cannot achieve what it wants without others’ help. Educating the public to understand this complex globalized information age, and what is required to operate successfully in it, will be the real transformational leadership task. Thus far, we are not hearing much about it from the Republican candidates.

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  1. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    There are two problems with transformational diplomacy these days:
    1. It suggest a certain level of arrogance, as the party suggesting a transformation for another one considers itself superior, in other words that party is certain that it has something to export to the other party as if its own system would be perfect. Nowadays through experiences of the global crisis and the revelations that our western style system is neither free nor democratic we would be deluding ourselves if we thought we have much to offer to other nations, continents or cultures.
    2. In a closed, global, interconnected and interdependent system nobody can force its own ideas on others. We are so overlapped on multiple levels, that our system resembles a machine where countless cogwheels connect to each other in very intricate ways.
    At the moment we simply have no idea about this system, about its depths, and how it works, thus pushing ahead with changes, transformations causes the countless problems and damage we observe each day as our leaders are running around like headless chickens obliviously.
    Thus what the article suggest regarding the principle "First do no harm" is the right foundation. First of all we should stop trying to "correct the world" and take a step back, examining ourselves, the system we exist in, and then after we figured out the laws governing our integral system then we can start slowly moving the cogwheels in a way that it is beneficial for the total system.
    Today we need visionary leaders who instead of their own legacy are capable of looking at the whole system in a humble, selfless way, and they are capable of bowing their heads before the vast natural system we live in and use its fundamental principles and forces in a positive way. We already have all the scientific data necessary for it all we need are the selfless personal who are truly able to serve others.

  2. CommentedAndrés Arellano Báez

    Are you crazy? Of course that can be blamed and he should be blammed. Why? Because there were a lot of intelligence that said that the weapons of mass destructions didn´t exist. He decided wrong when he believed in the wrong intellingence.

  3. CommentedPaul A. Myers

    The overarching goal of American foreign policy should be to promote stability and reduce risk of disruption. Stability permits the prosperity of commerce to do its beneficial work of rising living standards and promoting cooperative conduct. The Marshall Plan and NATO were foundation stones in promoting stability and reducing risk through the portfolio approach of having many countries contribute to mutual defense.

    Promoting democracy, depending upon context, may promote stability or it may be destabilizing. In particular, democracy can diminish human rights in many situations.

    A sitting president with sufficient sophistication to assess the foreign policy terrain realistically would have to chose strategies, both large and small, that would aim at incrementally improving or containing situations. If a multitude of incremental improvements can be made over time in some concerted manner, then one could probably say that a grand strategy was pursued. But the success of the incremental steps would be crucial to any overall effectiveness of the larger game. Most of President Bush's intermediate steps failed and so the grand strategy, if that's what you want to call the public relations stunting of those people, has failed.

    President George Bush, ideology's plaything, was "transformational" because he was personally and intellectually lazy and his public-relations-obsessed White House liked the "messaging."

    Condoleezza Rice famously wrote that the 82nd Airborne was not for escorting children to kindergarten. She certainly solved that problem. The Clinton administration's successes in Bosnia (eventually) and later Kosovo were two of the most technically accomplished foreign policy successes of the postwar era. Ms. Rice could not appreciate that. Why? Possibly because she was a Russian studies student, possibly the only truly failed academic discipline in the public policy area in the postwar era: a bunch of emigre professors with axes to grind, the perfect background for a Bush administration "foreign policy professional." Mr. Brzynski is of course the beautiful exception which proves the rule, a man masterfully at home with the complexity of the international situation.

    The American public seems to grasp the desirability of stability in the international arena at this time, more so than much of the foreign policy establishment which clamors for confrontation with Iran and others who want to continue the "big battalion" presence in distant countries.

    Skill, not mediocrity, should be the touchstone for picking future foreign policy leadership to promote the country's interests.

    And lastly, the three transformation leaders cited as examples were leaders of movements advocating large-scale change, not leaders of bureaucracies tending the overgrown gardens of competing interests.