A tale of two leadership styles

A tale of two leadership styles

What have the German Prime Minister Angela Merkel, mining magnate Gina Rinehart and Prime Minister Julia Gillard got in common?

They may share a lopsided bias towards forceful leadership at the expense of a more enabling form of leadership, according to theories of Harvard professor Bob Kaplan and leadership consultant Rob Kaiser, the authors of The Versatile Leader.

The majority of leaders would recognise, at an intellectual level, that both forceful and enabling leadership have value.

In the simplest terms, forceful leadership is taking the lead and getting things done by directing the actions of others. Enabling leadership is creating conditions for other people to take the lead for them to direct the action.

In this context it is interesting to note the question posed by Kaplan and Kaiser in their book: “Can you trust people and also go in with the knife when you really have to?” they ask. “You’ve got to have both [styles of leadership], because neither by itself will work in our business environment.”

In the next few months, leading companies will need to find senior executives who have a balanced approach to both forms of leadership in their top team.


The economic environment still has at least three months of extreme turbulence to run.

In the US, the fight between President Barack Obama (the enabling leader) and the presidential challenger Mitt Romney (the forceful leader) for the opportunity to deal with a stagnant economy and a deadlocked Congress will continue until the Melbourne Cup is run (when the US presidential elections will be held).

In Europe, the Egyptians have just completed an indeterminate election poll and, like the Greeks, will head back for new elections in the next month. High unemployment in Spain is persistent.

In China, the struggle between the outgoing forceful leaders and the new generation of enabling leaders is underway, raising concerns about the rate of growth, reduced global business confidence, continuing decline in home values and a growing number of small business closures.

These three forceful women leaders have made good use of their approach.

Angela Merkel is seen as playing a crucial role in managing the European financial crisis, arguing for economic reform in return for bailout funds in struggling countries such as Greece and Spain.

Merkel, sometimes referred to as “the decider”, was president of the European Council and chaired the G8, the second woman (after Margaret Thatcher) to do so.

Gina Rinehart inherited some handsome seed money from her father, Lang Hancock, but she now earns her own $75 million every day and a half, according to reports, with a small leadership team and a forceful and litigious approach to maintaining her fortunes.

That brings us to Julia Gillard. The media continues to make the claim that people do not know what she stands for on the one hand, but raise questions about her personal style, toughness and ability to wield a knife on the other.

The Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, has all the elements of forceful leadership in his relentless drive to the top, but that is balanced with Julie Bishop’s enabling leadership skills as his (perpetual) deputy leader.

For leading companies, the Opposition’s team approach is more likely to succeed than the Government’s attempt to lock it all up in the one ideal leader.

An informed and engaged workforce, as the veteran union leader, Bill Kelty told the ACTU Congress recently, needs to understand the scale of the industrial transformation we are facing. That will only speed up the need for a balanced leadership approach.

The keys to success for leading companies will come down to greater labour market flexibility based upon organisational renewal and passionate productivity. This can only be achieved by a firm stance that involved both forms of preferred and desired leadership.

Dr Colin Benjamin is an entrepreneurship and strategic thinking consultant at Marshall Place Associates, which offers a range of strategic thinking tools that open up a universe of new possibilities for individuals and organisations committed to applying the processes of innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship. Colin is also a member of the global Association of Professional Futurists.


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