The Leaders We Need: A book review by Bob Morris

The Leaders We Need: And What Makes Us Follow
Michael Macoby
Harvard Business School Press (2007)

The importance of “principled pragmatism” in a “market-dominated world”

Note: I reviewed this book when it was first published and recently re-read it while preparing some interview questions. If anything, I think even more highly of what it provides in abundance than I did then. In my opinion, this is a “must read” among the resources that aspiring leaders should check out ASAP.

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Those who have read Michael Maccoby’s previously published Narcissistic Leaders already know that he has formulated a number of unconventional opinions about effective leadership. That soon becomes obvious in this book as he explains in the Introduction that his approach to the study of leadership “is shaped by my academic training and professional experience as a psychoanalyst and anthropologist for over thirty-five years has studied and counseled leaders in business, government, universities, and unions. As an anthropologist, I view leadership within a cultural context, a system that weaves together modes of work, political institutions, family structure, and values. And as a psychoanalyst, I focus on the way personality determines how we relate to others, especially at work.” Therefore, Michael Maccoby’s focus is on what he characterizes as “Personality Intelligence,” (i.e. the ability to understand people). My own opinion is that Macoby is among the most original of business thinkers, especially when the subject is what effective leadership is…and isn’t.

Although he does not agree with all of Sigmund Freud’s theories, “I do make extensive use [in this book] of his concept of unconscious transference, and I build on his theory of personality types. Transference helps to explain why people sometimes idealize leaders, projecting onto them comforting childhood images of protective parents. And it also explains why they sometimes turn against these leaders, seeing them as inept or neglectful parents.” These brief excerpts, I hope, indicate Maccoby’s specific approach as he explains who “the leaders we need” are, and, “what makes us follow them.”

What are their dominant characteristics? According to Maccoby, the leaders needed “in these tumultuous times” possess a combination of leadership types: transformational visionaries, operational obsessives, and trust-creating bridge- builders. “They are the leaders motivated to achieve the common good who have the qualities required to gain willing followers in a particular culture, at a historical moment when leadership becomes essential to meet the challenge of the time and place.”

In this context, “Personality Intelligence” is best understood in terms of certain qualities that add up to a leader’s personality. The leaders we need have it or can develop it with proper supervision and support. They also have or can develop “Strategic Intelligence” which is an interactive mix of analytic, practical, and creative elements that are needed to anticipate future trends, think systematically, understand how to design effective social systems, communicate meaning and purpose to motivate and educator collaborators, and partner with other types of leaders who complement these strengths.

Curiously, there is no reference in this book to the research of Howard Gardner who has made a number of valuable contributions to our understanding of multiple intelligences, most recently in Five Minds for the Future in which he examines five separate but related combinations of cognitive abilities that are needed to “thrive in the world during eras to come…[cognitive abilities] which we should develop in the future.” Gardner refers to them as “minds” but they are really mindsets. Mastery of each enables a person:

1. to know how to work steadily over time to improve skill and understanding;

2. to take information from disparate sources and make sense of it by understanding and evaluating that information objectively;

3. to build on discipline and synthesis, to break new ground;

4. by “recognizing that nowadays one can no longer remain within one’s shell or one’s home territory,” to note and welcome differences between human individuals and between human groups so as to understand them and work effectively with them;

5. and finally, by “proceeding on a level more abstract than the respectful mind,” to reflect on the nature of one’s work and the needs and desires of the society in which one lives.

Gardner notes that the five “minds” he examines in this book are different from the eight or nine human intelligences that he examines in his earlier works. “Rather than being distinct computational capabilities, they are better thought of as broad uses of the mind that we can cultivate at school, in professions, or at the workplace.”

These are essentially the same capabilities that, according to Maccoby, leaders need in order to attract interactive followers by engaging and convincing them of the purpose of the work to be done together. Then, “by understanding them and fitting them into roles where they can demonstrate and develop their strengths,” leaders gain their respect, perhaps even their trust. Only then will the people [led] become collaborators who help [their leaders to] succeed.”

I congratulate Michael Macoby on a brilliant achievement. Bravo!

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For additional, more recent perspectives on essentially the same subject, I highly recommend Erika Andersen’s Leading So People Will Follow, published by Jossey-Bass (October 16, 2012).

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