Blogs & Comment

In business and politics, leadership doesn’t look like it used to

The most successful leaders today are consensus-builders who persuade, not top-down generals who command

Prime Minister Stephen Harper

Prime Minister Stephen Harper. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Canadians are still weighing whether they want Stephen Harper as prime minister, but they think he’d be an outstanding CEO. A poll conducted earlier this year by Abacus Data found respondents identified the Conservative as the party leader who was best suited to running a large company. They also said he’d do a better job than Liberals’ Justin Trudeau and the NDP’s Tom Mulcair in leading a trade mission or offering the best ideas for investing. As Bruce Anderson, chairman of Abacus, wrote: “Mr. Harper is seen as a solid choice when it comes to some key attributes people look for when it comes to leadership, especially financial and management skills.”

This image has always been one of Harper’s best assets. He comes across as disciplined, dispassionate and decisive—all attributes that fulfil our idea of what a leader should look like. Read enough anecdotes about his managerial style and a sketch emerges that isn’t that different from Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer or Oracle’s Larry Ellison. All three are demanding bosses known for withering criticism and brooking no dissent. That description also fits Donald Trump, who dominates the Republican primary race with his burlesque performance of a businessman. As Bloomberg Businessweek recently noted: “his corporate leadership is a kind of teenager’s fantasy of adult power.”

But there’s an incongruity between this caricature and what good management actually looks like. Asked to identify key leadership skills, North Americans cite a global perspective, an ability to collaborate and a knack for building consensus as the most important traits, reports the World Economic Forum. Furthermore, companies that identify openness as a core value outperform their peers by 30%, according to a survey of 1,700 CEOs conducted by IBM. That same study found 75% of CEOs see collaboration as a major driver of employee success. It turns out the stereotype of a strong leader that dominates our collective imagination isn’t what individuals actually respond to when it’s time to follow.

The “command-and-control” school of leadership also has significant downsides. It exaggerates the strength of a leader when things are going well and leaves them with few allies during tough times. As Stanford management professor Robert Sutton once told Wired, being a bullheaded boss means “your enemies are lying in wait. When you have performance issues, then they come and shoot you.”

This all might read as an indictment of Stephen Harper’s leadership—it’s not. Throughout his public life, he’s demonstrated an ability to collaborate and build consensus when needed, from the creation of a unified Conservative party to the long list of trade agreements signed during his time as prime minister. But polls now suggest the public has become disenchanted with his strongman management style. Meanwhile, Mulcair and Trudeau continue to make gains in polls surrounding leadership ability, partly driven by promises of greater collaboration with the provinces and more transparent decision-making.

The stereotype underlying Harper’s reputation as a strong leader is an outdated one. For those who aspire to lead, in politics or in business, it’s time recognize that a willingness to be open and engaged is strong leadership—not a detriment to it. Those who want to be the next Donald Trump (or Larry Ellison) need to choose a different role model.