Transformational leaders are not always better
They can inspire and unite followers, but effectiveness and ethics can suffer.
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Good leaders design and maintain systems and institutions. Well-designed institutions include means for self correction as well as ways of constraining the failures of leaders. As the top legal officer of GE put it, a leader needs to create an institutional framework where "the company's norms and values are so widely shared and its reputation for integrity is so strong that most leaders and employees want to win the right way."Skip to next paragraph
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Poorly designed or poorly led institutions can also lead people astray. Obedience to institutional authority can be bad at times. Several decades ago, the Milgram experiment at Yale showed how easily ordinary people could be encouraged to administer (simulated) brutal electrical shocks to another person when told to do so by an authority figure. Likewise, the infamous Stanford University prison experiment of 1971 showed how morally toxic conditions set by a leader can induce regular people to commit abusive, even sadistic behavior.
The recent case of the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq reminds us of this danger in real life. The Abu Ghraib guards were reservists without special training who lacked supervision and were given the task of softening up detainees. It is not surprising that the result was various forms of torture. The moral flaws were not simply in the prison guards, but also in the higher level guardians such as then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who failed to monitor adequately a flawed institutional framework.
Voters need to remember that transformation is not enough. Good leadership is not merely inspiring people with a transformational vision, important though that can be, but also involves a capacity for creating and maintaining the systems and institutions that allow both effective and moral implementation.
• Joseph S. Nye Jr. is university distinguished service professor at Harvard and a member of the board of directors of the Belfer Center at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is author of the new book "The Powers to Lead." His views are his own.