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Wonks, Shamans, Warriors, Dealmakers & The Protean Leader

History may record the current presidential campaign as a turning point in how we think about leadership, choose a leader, and approach complex issues and difficult conflicts in the Twenty-First Century. The candidates present an interesting juxtaposition of leadership styles that is seldom seen in such high relief and clarity. John McCain is the prototype of the traditional and classic warrior as leader, Hillary Clinton, takes on the mantle of the pragmatic, technical, problem-solving wonk, and Barack Obama has cornered the role of the moral/inspirational shaman. The choice between them, not surprisingly, is framed as an either/or proposition, as if one style or the other is sufficient in itself and inconsistent with the others.

The time has come to consider the cultivation of a form of leadership that has the tensile strength of a composite of each of those leadership styles to be effective. The ‘protean leader,” as Peter Adler has termed it, dynamically shape-shifts as circumstances require, between being a competitive warrior, a pragmatic problem-solver, a collaborative dealmaker, and a visionary moral guide.

“The best leaders tackle conflict if they can’t steer around it. Sometimes,they create it by raising the hard questions rather than providing the easy answers. They take risks, but not without calculation. They push boundaries, but not recklessly. They use a loose rein most of the time, bring out the best in others, and then get out of the way. Above all, they bring a big heart and a clear mind to resolving conflicts and brokering change.” (“The Protean Leader,” in Eye of the Storm Leadership, forthcoming March, 2008 at

Great leaders, Abraham Lincoln, for example, have always been protean. It is not a new notion, even if relatively rare in occurrence. We have, however, tended to believe such leadership happens by chance and can not be obtained by design.

McCain, the war hero, is the steely, hard driving, authoritarian, take-charge, “I may be in error, but never in doubt” sort of man that has been the gold standard for leadership for a good part of American history. He follows in the footsteps of Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson, the seventh President, know for his uncompromising toughness, and a string of other war heroes who became presidents. He is also well within the Hollywood tradition that has given us the movies that shape American myth and folklore and help to construct the reality of the heroic leader. Not quite as outwardly brash as John Wayne in The Searchers (“Don’t believe in surrender”), McCain fits more in the mold of the sturdy, strong, silent type of Gary Cooper in High Noon, resigned to do his duty and fight the bad guys, whatever the consequences.

Be it a CEO or a President, negotiation, if any, is confined to the back room, and any residue of doubt becomes a state secret. That is, if the leader has been willing to leave his ‘bubble’ of ‘yes’ people and even entertain opposing views in the first place. Being viewed as a decisive—- “the buck stops here”— willing to take risks and make the hard decisions, is the hallmark of this kind of leadership. Sometimes that “stay the course” determination is necessary to counter-balance the forces of conventional wisdom. Sometimes, however, it can be nothing more than dumb stubbornness and lead to disaster.

Hillary Clinton has developed a point-by-point master plan for the achievement of her various goals for Iraq, the economy, health care, and so on. Each is wrapped in a package ready for delivery, “when” she is elected. Her planning is considered by many to be analytically impressive and under-girds her assertion that she can solve many of these thorny problems. This style is especially attractive in a techno-rational society, where people have a desire to believe that an “experienced” expert has the answers. She is indeed the hard-working striver she presents herself to be, and her knowledge of the ‘levers’ to pull in Washington to get things done is formidable.

On the other hand, being too well planned can be risky. Her detailed health care proposal, done by experts in secret sessions, left too many people and interests out and invited and deserved the resistance and sabotage it garnered. Rationalist wonks think all people want is solutions; they get out too far ahead of people. All of the brainpower and hard work is useless unless it is wrapped in a vision that captures peoples’ imagination, engages them, and makes them feel a part of the action. Power point presentations do wonders for presenters’ egos, but little to inspire passive viewers.

Experience and expertise are elusive. Many think elections should be based objectively and dispassionately on the candidates stands on the issues, examining the smallest details of similarity and difference. That analysis stuff is not irrelevant, but to believe that human beings make any decision on a purely rational basis is irrational. While frequently dismissed, there are always emotional ‘gut-level’ responses that must be figured in. Do we trust this person and do they ‘speak’ to us? Rightly or wrongly, Hillary Clinton has a history that may well neutralize her ability to sell her plans. She galvanizes resistance and stirs opposition. That does not rule her out, but does need to be considered. Being smart may not be enough.

Obama, of course, appeals to many by offering a refreshing departure from the divisive gridlocked politics of the past. Instead of continuing the culture wars of the 1960’s and the Vietnam Era, his focus is the future. His vision—-“the audacity of hope”— is inspirational and has an energy that resembles a spiritual movement. To some, however, and not just the hardboiled cynics, his message comes across as vague, unfocused, and insufficiently hard edged or realistic. Stirring people, giving hope without a carefully drawn plan of attack is not enough.

Some of how Clinton, Obama, and McCain are seen is of their own making based on what each of them think will sell, and in part, a media concoction. We can’t rely on either. People need to look behind these candidates and assess their leadership ability not just by what they are telling us, but by sizing them up by the other criteria as well. It is no longer enough for the measure of leadership to be just tough, just smart, just inspirational, or just cooperative. He or she must exhibit all of those, at least competently, if not proficiently.

If it was ever sufficient to be a “one note” leader, it is no longer. For Clinton and McCain, the question is their ability to set a vision for the future, not just be tough or smart. For Obama, is he smart and tough enough to draw a line in the sand, and know how to cut a deal? Can he formulate and articulate a plan of action that will give hope some muscle? Without vision, the best plan will disintegrate quickly; a vision, without a plan, is a pipedream, and being tough without more, is more of the same.


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

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