Bush, Obama and the Mythology of Leadership

The real power of leadership may be held in the system. And followers must hold the leader accountable.

THE SMALL MOUNTAIN OF rubble had been Manhattan’s two tallest buildings, a silhouette that made New York’s skyline unmistakable. The twin towers also stood as a proxy for American power, so their fall echoed the sound of cataclysm in American history.

Three days later, on September 14, 2001, President George W. Bush climbed atop that small mountain and, hugging a retired fireman and handed a megaphone, searched for – and eventually found – the words to rally a nation in the wake of unprecedented tragedy.

“I can hear you, the world hears you, and soon the people who knocked these buildings down will hear us all!”

The crowd resounded in approving applause, and his escalating 3-part rhetoric became a famous cry of empathy, inspiration, and retribution. For those at the base of the mound of debris, it was a soaring siren of leadership.

But that was not how it started.

In researching our book “Leaders: Myth and Reality” (with co-authors Stan McChrystal and Jason Mangone), I interviewed President Bush and asked him about this now-iconic moment, and he confided that it had surprised him. The dust had scarcely settled over downtown Manhattan, and Bush arrived without a script, sound system or tele-prompters. Making do, Bush started by offering a few unscripted points with a megaphone, such as “America stands with you on bended knee.” Nonetheless, the president struggled to be heard and connect with his audience.

Then, quite unexpectedly, a cascade of happenstance unfolded. Someone in the crowd yelled out earnestly, “George, we can’t hear you,” capturing Bush’s attention. Instinctively, the president offered a simple but direct response through the megaphone: “I can hear you!”

It was at that moment that the crowd erupted – for the first time – in a cheering applause. President Bush recalled feeling that he was “surfing the psychology of the crowd.” Discussing this moment in hindsight, it was less important that they couldn’t hear him – what now mattered more was that they were being heard. The crescendo of their applause reflected the arrival of leadership, catalyzed simply by a leader becoming responsive to his context.

Nearly a decade after President Bush climbed up that mountain of rubble to rally a nation to war, his successor climbed down a massive red-carpeted stairwell with hopes of winding that war down. On May 6, 2011, President Barack Obama debarked Air Force One and was greeted by Admiral Bill McRaven on the tarmac at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. McRaven had been leading the nation’s counter-terrorism war, and the president’s trip was a discrete visit to receive a briefing on a not-so-discrete mission: the raid that killed Bin Laden.

Then a member of the president’s staff, I accompanied him on the trip and looked on from the tarmac as the pair of men stepped into the president’s over-sized limo for the short ride to the facility where the president presented awards to those who conducted the mission. Several dozen SEALs were seated in rows of folding chairs on the right side of the room, while the Army helicopter crews that flew the mission sat in rows to their left. After the ceremony was complete, a smaller group of operators, military leaders and the president’s staff moved to a side room where a mock-up “sand table” of the target “objective,” bin Laden’s hideout, had been arranged for the debrief.

<strong>We often think of leadership as simply what leaders do. In reality, leadership is driven by context and followers as much as it is delivered by leaders.</strong>

Flying back to DC later that evening, I asked the president for his reflections, many of which surprised me. For instance, the president was struck by the fact that few of the operators looked like what you might expect from Hollywood central casting. The president also took note that the team leader did not dominate the debrief. Rather, when given the floor, the team leader stepped back and said simply: “Mr. President, the team will now debrief you,” allowing others to explain, as a collective, what they had done.

It was striking to the world’s most powerful leader because it was to see another leader resist the irresistible. Even for a first-tier special operations officer, this kind of opportunity was beyond once in a lifetime. And yet, he relinquished the spotlight all the same.

This kind of approach is often referred to as “servant leadership,” wherein leaders achieve results by putting their people first. Humble leaders are especially effective by leveraging the raw power of intrinsic motivation, letting people own their decisions and actions, which drives both productivity and creativity. And while it is known to be effective, servant leadership is relatively rare, and it is often misunderstood.

For instance, where servant leadership does occur within military special operations teams, it is not for the reasons one might assume. It is not because it is generous, or even because it is effective. The explanation is far simpler – it is the approach tolerated by the followers.

I once caught up with the SEAL team leader who led the mission and whose muted debrief style had been memorable to the president that day. I asked him why and how he chose his leadership style. Interestingly, he didn’t point to any book he had read, or to a leadership course he had taken. Rather, his response was simply to ask “how else would you lead a team like that?” In other words, and perhaps surprising to outsiders, authoritarian SEAL leaders don’t last long.

Leadership studies often emphasize this connection between servant leadership and high-performing teams, but they often confuse the direction of causation. Servant leaders may yield high-performing teams, but the converse is equally the case: high-performing teams often demand servant-styled leaders.

Making the World a More Sustainable Place

The CEO of Sustainable Energy for All aims to make energy accessible across the globe.

 

ACCORDING TO RACHEL Kyte, CEO of Sustainable Energy for All, energy is the foremost issue that must be tackled before progress can be made in other areas such as health care and education. Kyte spoke about Sustainable Energy for All’s mission at the 2019 World Economic Forum.

 

Kyte previously served as World Bank Group vice president and special envoy for climate change, leading integration of climate across World Bank Group’s work. Before that, she was vice president for sustainable development at the World Bank. Kyte’s current positions as CEO of Sustainable Energy for All and special representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All allow her to advocate for and mobilize action towards the global goal of sustainable development.

 

Sustainable Energy for All can be traced back to a question asked by then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2010: “Why are we not all working on energy, and what are the big energy issues?” Even before the landmark Paris Agreement, Sustainable Energy for All had committed itself to ensuring universal access to energy, improving the energy efficiency rate and doubling the share of renewable energy around the world.

 

Sustainable Energy for All works on both a micro and macro level, helping people gain access to energy in an affordable fashion and facilitating the adoption of cleaner energy practices by more powerful actors with energy-intensive operations. “[Sustainable Energy for All] is born of the idea that we can decarbonize the energy mix and provide energy to everyone affordably and reliably, and that those two things are not in competition,” Kyte said.

As the leader of a global organization, Kyte leads by listening to and understanding the unique voices of those she seeks to help before taking action. That being said, she has witnessed a “universality” of the need for sustainable energy infrastructure. Regardless of different cultures and languages, “a reliable, affordable energy system” is key to helping people address other priorities like jobs or health care.

Everyday citizens might view sustainable energy as too complex or intimidating of a challenge to tackle on their own, but Kyte believes there is power in the choices made on a daily basis, no matter how seemingly insignificant. “Just one action by you, multiplied by millions, is a shift,” Kyte said.

Leading the Charge for Gender Equity

Zero Gap’s CEO is bringing men and women together to close the gender gap.

CLOSING THE GENDER GAP isn’t solely a “woman’s issue” – it’s a human issue. Sarah Gerber, co-founder and CEO of Zero Gap, spoke about her company’s efforts to unite men and women around the issue of the gender gap at the 2019 World Economic Forum.

In addition to Zero Gap, Gerber founded the boutique production studio Twenty Twenty Studios. As the executive producer of Twenty Twenty Studios, she has produced award-winning documentaries and traveled the world capturing compelling, mission-driven stories. Gerber also advances gender parity in workplace culture through her work at Zero Gap.

Zero Gap was launched in 2017 with the aim of shifting the narrative of the gender gap to include men, not just women, in the conversation. Instead of framing the issue as a problem that women must solve alone, Zero Gap urges both men and women to get informed and empowered about challenging inequality in the workplace. “It’s about everyone being able to engage in it,” Gerber said. “It’s going to benefit everyone, not just a subset of people.”

For all the talk about creating more inclusive workplaces in recent years, the gender gap remains largely intact. Gerber identified “siloed conversations” and anxiety about change as central factors in the slow pace of progress. Zero Gap helps eliminate invisible barriers and fears by arranging 50/50 dinners comprised of an equal ratio of women to men that provide a space for everyone to communicate about, reflect on and embrace the changes that need to be made. Leaders, Gerber said, should be the ones creating those spaces in which people can be “brave” about sharing and learning.

Zero Gap’s guiding principle – unity over division – can be applied to leadership as well. According to Gerber, elevating and listening to as many voices as possible is an essential component of successful 21st century leadership. Initiatives with too narrow an audience, for example, won’t be as effective in changing the culture of a company as programs that involve a broader scope of employees. Zero Gap’s mission asks a question that Gerber believes leaders should ask themselves: “How are you making it an inclusive conversation rather than a siloed conversation?”

 

Building Better Leaders Together

Ascent Leadership Network’s managing director explains how leaders can improve by collaborating.

 

LEADERS AREN’T ALWAYS born – they can and often have been made through effort and dedication instead. Stephen Kelner, managing director of Ascent Leadership Networks, spoke about the roles that constructive feedback and focused training play in building effective leaders at the 2019 World Economic Forum.

Kelner has over 25 years of experience in evaluating and developing executive leadership. Prior to joining Ascent, he served as the global thought leader for assessment and development at the global executive search and leadership consulting firm Spencer Stuart. He also previously held the position of global knowledge manager at the global executive search firm Egon Zehnder. Kelner now oversees leadership assessment and developmental practices at Ascent.

Stephen KelnerCOURTESY OF ASCENT LEADERSHIP NETWORKS

Ascent’s mission is to help leaders keep abreast of the rapid pace of progress by putting CEOs and other leaders in conversation with each other and creating programs that address pressing leadership challenges such as technological disruption or stakeholder engagement. “We bring leaders together from diverse backgrounds to have intensive, immersive experiences together over time that are tailored to them,” Kelner said. “That allows them to develop each other as well as themselves over the long term.”

One of Kelner’s personal leadership heroes, Abraham Lincoln, exemplifies the idea that leadership potential can be cultivated into greatness. Although “he didn’t start out as a great leader,” according to Kelner, he eventually grew into one in part because of his willingness to listen and learn from the input of others. In fact, he was known to bring those who opposed him into his administration so he could learn from their perspectives.

Ascent aims to utilize honest, constructive feedback as effectively as Lincoln did by forming networks of diverse leaders who can keep each other from falling behind the curve. Kelner pointed out that once leaders reach a certain level of power, their employees tend to be more hesitant about offering help – whether it’s because they believe leaders don’t need, want or welcome it. Through these networks, Ascent provides executive leaders with “objective and supportive” feedback from other changemakers that they can use to boost innovation and efficiency.