The Next American Leader

Cambridge -- The American presidential race commands attention around the world. The fact that the final three contenders included a woman, an African-American, and an older man who often challenged his own party suggests that the United States, after a decline in popularity during the Bush years, retains a capacity to reinvent itself. But the next president will need to recognize that the nature of leadership also is changing.

The information revolution is transforming politics and organizations. Hierarchies are becoming flatter, and knowledge workers respond to different incentives and political appeals. Polls show that people today have become less deferential to authority in organizations and in politics. Soft power – the ability to get what you want by attraction rather than coercion or payment – is becoming more important.

Even the military faces these changes. The Pentagon reports that American army drillmasters do “less shouting at everyone,” because today’s generation responds better to instructors who play “a more counseling-type role.” Military success against terrorists and insurgents requires soldiers to win hearts and minds, not just break bodies. Leadership theorists speak of “shared leadership” and “distributed leadership,” and suggest images of leaders in the center of a circle rather than atop a hierarchy. 

Of course, the hard power of command remains important. Hard and soft power are related, because they are both approaches to achieving one’s objectives by affecting the behavior of others. Sometimes people are attracted to others with command power by myths of invincibility. As Osama bin Laden put it in one of his videos, “when people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.”