Little Big Men

An oversimplified image of traditional warrior-style leadership in President George W. Bush’s first term caused costly setbacks for America’s role in the world. That is because the “big man” approach to leadership is not well adapted to modern information societies, with their institutional constraints, such as constitutions and impersonal legal systems.

CAMBRIDGE – History is often written in terms of military heroes, but the enormous potential of human leadership ranges from Attila the Hun to Mother Teresa. Most everyday leaders remain unheralded. The role of heroic leadership in war leads to overemphasis of command and control and hard military power. In America today, the presidential debate is between Senator John McCain, a war hero, and Senator Barack Obama, a former community organizer.

The image of the warrior leader lingers in modern times. The writer Robert Kaplan points to the birth of a new “warrior class as cruel as ever and better armed” ranging from Russian Mafiosi and Latin American drug kingpins to terrorists who glorify violence just as ancient Greeks did in the sacking of Troy. Kaplan argues that modern leaders must respond in kind, and that modern leadership will demand a pagan ethos rooted in the past.

Smart warriors, however, know how to lead with more than just the use of force. Soldiers sometimes joke that their job description is simple: “kill people and break things.” But, as the United States discovered in Iraq, hearts and minds also matter, and smart warriors need the soft power of attraction as well as the hard power of coercion.

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