Politics and Managerial Leadership

By Brown, Tom | Management Review, November 1996 | Go to article overview

Politics and Managerial Leadership


Brown, Tom, Management Review


This month the United States wraps up its quadrennial exercise in democracy by electing its two top government officers. Along with the president and vice president, an array of other politicians also will be elected--presumably all the way down to the proverbial town dogcatcher. And the United States is not unique; lots of countries are led by politicians who are given their jobs only after securing the required number of votes.

But suggest to any business leader that he or she is, in many ways, just like one of those thousands of politicians around the world, and you'll probably be greeted with a scowl. "The trouble with political jokes is that they often get elected to office," is still considered a truism by many. Groucho Marx once sideswiped that only in a democracy could he "go on the air and kid politicians" while at the same time "politicians go on the air and kid the people." Even the idealistic John E Kennedy noted that "mothers may still want their sons to grow up to become president, but they don't want them to become politicians in the process."

Are Different Leaders Different?

Some argue that politicians and business leaders are fundamentally different. Politicians make it to office by receiving more votes than anyone else; executives make it to office by receiving the nod of a handful of impressed interviewers (in some casas, perhaps only one). Politicos manage a not-for-profit bureaucracy; most execs manage an economics-driven machine rooted in entrepreneurial instincts or priorities. Politicos often become ensconced in their positions (unless prohibited by law) and are routinely deferred to every two or four years by a sleepy electorate that favors incumbency. By contrast, execs and anyone else in business can be fired at a moment's notice.

But brushing aside any simplistic analogies comparing business leaders to political leaders (such as "how a worker's job effort is like a citizen's vote"), there are some new, emerging realities that are pushing political and business leaders to identify with one another. Voters walking into the polling booth and workers laboring on the plant floor or in office suites are coming to expect a few identical things from today's leaders, in town hall or executive row:

* THEY BOTH MUST HAVE A VISION. Then-President George Bush was criticized vehemently during the 1992 national election because he seemed to have little regard for the "V" word. People who can't develop and express their vision for a national direction now have a hard time getting attention, let alone votes. "Where does my opponent want this country to be in the 21st century?" was asked frequently in recent elections, wasn't it? And although there are some business leaders, such as IBM CEO Louis V. Gerstner, who have shown a Bush-like irreverence for a corporate vision, it's really the business world that popularized and cemented the necessity for leaders to have an organizational vision. As Gary Hamel and C. K. Prahalad explained in Competing for the Future (Harvard Business School Press, 1994): "We don't believe that any company can get along without a well-articulated point of view about tomorrow's opportunities and challenges." Managerial leaders can easily come off like perfunctory robots if they can't stir passions on the subject of where they want to take the business.

What are we talking about when we say "vision"? John Gardner, the Stanford professor who served in different roles for six U.S. presidents and who also founded Common Cause, concedes that the term "can mean a variety of things." But his definition of a "leader with vision" is crisp and memorable: "that they think longer-term; that they see where their system fits in a larger context; that they can describe the outlines of a possible future that lifts and moves people; or that they actually discern, in the clutter and confusion of the present, the elements that determine what is to come. …

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