Leading with Force

by Misha Galperin

Robert Kaplan, leadership writer and formerly part of the Center for Creative Leadership, makes a distinction between enabling leadership and forceful leadership. Both approaches have merit and both have a great deal to do with personality. It would be difficult to read about these differences, choose one approach and adopt it as a leadership style. The clinical psychologist in me understands that our leadership styles usually emerge from a combination of genetic disposition, environment and experience. They are not about choice, but they are about choosing. If we approach leadership with intentionality, we pick our responses and we make our decisions, hoping that we retain some element of inner consistency.

As some of you might know, my two favorite quotes listed on my Facebook page are: “A leader is someone who has followers” by Peter Drucker and, “People are rationalizing beings, not rational ones” by Sigmund Freud. And in these two quotes we find a landing ground for what leadership can be at its worst and best. By Drucker’s standards, anyone with followers is a leader. This is not a moral measure; it’s a measure of charisma and influence. Hitler. Stalin. Lenin. These were all individuals who were great leaders by this simple measurement, but they were horrific leaders by any ethical standard. And they were also rationalizing leaders who built up self-defenses and justifications for leading people astray to the point where they even fooled themselves.

In its best sense, when leaders understand they are measured by their followers, they understand how to use power and influence for the best ends. They understand that since we are more rationalizing than rational beings that we must use our authority delicately and to good purpose. They also understand the attractions and corruptions of power-based leadership alone. When leadership is all about being forceful and not twinning that force with enabling, it will often become malignant and dangerous.

Using this dichotomy, I want to look at two powerful men. One died some years ago, and the other is currently sitting in jail. Charles E. Smith was a property developer in the Washington, DC area. He was a man of force and inspiration whose name graces college campuses, schools and museums. He wanted to build a Jewish campus in a suburb of DC but was opposed by almost everyone who mattered. He was tenacious and twisted the arms of friends and colleagues until he built the heart of Jewish Washington. He was forceful in order to be enabling. He built trust in his peers through years of helping them and their business and philanthropic interests. So he could almost strong-arm these friends and business partners to invest in his charitable projects because he felt that he could do good in the world through them.

Contrast this to another powerful Jewish man: Bernie Madoff. Madoff engendered people’s trust through deception and by appealing to their baser instincts, allowing the rationalizations about wished-for steady returns to overcome the unlikelihood of what turned out to be “too good to be true.” But the force of his personality was not in the name of building anything higher or greater outside of his personal fortunes. He betrayed even the closest of friends for his own gain. Some people I know invested in both of these individuals, and they were taken to very different places.

Leadership is an art just as much as a science. It is also a discipline. Knowing that leaders have the power over others and that we are not rational beings most of the time, we need our leaders to bring out the best in us and take us to great, unexpected places. We trusted the force of Moses because he wanted to take us to the Promised Land for our sakes, not for his. Trust is difficult to earn and easy to lose. As followers, we need to trust not only the force of personality but also where that force is driving us to; is it enabling us to be better human beings or is it confining us to endless followership?

Misha Galperin is president and chief executive officer of Jewish Agency International Development. His forthcoming book “Reimagining Leadership in Jewish Organizations: Ten Practical Lessons to Help You Implement Change and Achieve Your Goals”, published by Jewish Lights, will be available July 19th.