Thinking About Leadership by Nannerl O. Keohane.

August 1, 2011
 
 

Thinking About Leadership Book Cover
Thinking About Leadership by Nannerl O. Keohane.
Princeton University Press, 2010. 312 pages. $27.95

Several former university presidents have offered lessons about leadership derived from their own experiences. Few such books, however, are as grounded in a deep knowledge of the history of political theory and the relevant literature as is this work by Duke president emerita Nannerl O. Keohane. Although it provides useful information about how to meet the challenges and avoid the pitfalls inherent in leadership, this book is primarily a work of scholarship, enriched by the observations of an extraordinarily successful college and university president. It is a masterful combination of the theory and practice of leadership.

Keohane’s analysis draws on a remarkable range of sources, including political theory, literature, contemporary scholarship, and the biographies and autobiographies of major leaders.

For Keohane, leadership is an interactive effort to “determine or clarify goals for a group of individuals and bring together the energies of members of that group to accomplish these goals.” Keohane concentrates on those methods of leadership that fall between subtle persuasion and rigid command structures; she recognizes that leaders exercise power, but that the successful use of power in most structures of authority involves combinations of “persuasion, strategic calculation, example, incentives, threats, sanctions, and rewards.”

Further, Keohane recognizes the essential dialectic between leaders and followers, using several metaphors that provide insight into her own style of leadership. She discusses the spatial metaphor of “leading from the middle,” suggested by Joseph Nye of Harvard University, in which leaders balance the interests of the various groups they serve. She uses the metaphor of the admiral and the flotilla to describe the nature of authority in complex, decentralized institutions like universities. At Duke, she used a seminar model with her fellow administrators, seeking to put all ideas on the table for discussion before a decision.

The leader-follower dialectic is complex, blending warmth and accessibility with detachment and reserve; earning the respect of those one leads, but keeping sufficient distance to be able to make decisions. To the age-old question posed and answered by Machiavelli about whether it is better to be feared or loved, Keohane believes a leader “should strive to be both loved, in the sense of being affectionately esteemed by followers and feared, in the sense of being respected rather than being a source of terror.” Followers, too, have a responsibility to “speak truth to power,” but this requires leaders who are open to constructive criticism and not given to punishing the messenger.

Keohane stresses the need for balance in leaders—passion for the institutions they serve, tempered by a sense of proportion, empathy and detachment, courage to take risks, and moderation. She recognizes the importance of leaders developing a guiding and compelling vision for their organization, but cautions them against superimposing an imported vision on those institutions.

One of the most intriguing chapters in the book explores whether gender makes a difference in leadership. Keohane’s reflections on her own experience lead her to conclude that though there may have been some differences in how she led at Wellesley and Duke, the “effects of institutional culture and the demands of institutional leadership outweigh any effects of gender.”

In another chapter, Keohane grapples with the dilemma of democratic societies: Although based on the premise of political equality of citizens, they require leadership, which introduces an element of inequality of power. Leaders in democracies are set above average citizens by access to information, associations with wealth, and the trappings of office.

Keohane was drawn into positions of academic leadership as a political scientist because she “wanted to learn about leadership from the ‘inside’ as well as from the ‘outside.’ ” It may not be the case that all power corrupts, but it does insinuate itself into a leader’s consciousness in subtle and insidious ways. She discusses how easy it is to succumb to vanity in the face of fawning followers, to lose perspective on oneself, to allow self-confidence to devolve into arrogance, to believe leaders create their own reality.

She also identifies the costs of leadership: the demands on time, eliminating the capacity for reflection; the need to avoid close friendships with co-workers; having every action subjected to speculation, the questioning of motives, and open criticism; the inability to offer sardonically playful comments because every utterance of a leader is amplified; the loss of privacy and much of personal life.

Keohane closes the book with a chapter asking whether leadership can be taught and learned. While she concludes that not everyone will have the talent to become a leader, many of the skills required for leadership can be acquired. She agrees with Harvard’s John Gardner about the value of a liberal-arts education in gaining the appreciation for a historical perspective, the nature of economic and social realities, and the framework for scientific and technological change that are essential to leadership today. Students, she insists, need to be exposed to the values of a democratic system, the principles of responsibility, and the ethical dilemmas they will encounter.

The only way to learn about the essential elements of leadership is to examine their most fundamental dimensions. In Thinking About Leadership, Keohane has provided us with a most thoughtful and provocative guide.

Robert Berdahl