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Enhancing Organizational Performance

The Fires of Leadership

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“An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure”

Benjamin Franklin

In the last two weeks, in various venues, the name of Benjamin Franklin has come up a number of times as a way of explaining some research or circumstance. That his name still comes up so often really does indicate the kind of impact he had on society with his forward looking ideas and actions.

One occasion where his name was mentioned was a lecture I attended where a categorization scheme of the various types of leaders was reviewed. It was a great lecture even though I disagreed with some of the premises and conclusions stated. This talk by Mike Mumford covered the notion that leaders tend to fall into one of 3 distinct categories.  A leader can be charismatic, an ideologue or pragmatic based on this body of research, and there were some interesting characteristics ascribed to these various types of leaders. The 3 types of leadership could each be described on a separate scale of effectiveness, so that you could have effective charismatics, ideologues or pragmatists at one end of the scale, and ineffective ones at the other.  Much of this research can trace its roots back to the work done by Max Weber, a German sociologist (1864-1920).

A charismatic leader is one that has a “vision” of the future and while they may be short on details on how to get there, they are good at persuading their followers that they should be followed. Interestingly, the research indicates that charismatic leaders create schisms among the larger population, with one segment buying into their “vision” and joining up while another segment really dislikes the charisma and the vision and are vehemently opposed. Charismatic leaders can generate substantial followings but can fall prey to narcissism, convinced to their inner core that they have the right answers and they are on a crusade to convince others to see the light. This narcissism can fuel the abuses that you see among some leaders in terms of the rich rewards they indulge themselves with, because in their mind they of course deserve it, since no one else has the vision and can accomplish what they are doing.

An ideologue is a leader who tends to live in the past, wanting to take society or an organization back to its fundamentals, or the good-old-days, reverting to a concept or an idea of what the past was like. They often do not want to repeat past mistakes but want to capture, from their point of view, the best of what has worked previously. In addition to the obvious ideologues that run some religious groups, political organizations and terrorists organizations around the world, you can see ideologues among serial entrepreneurs. You see entrepreneurs are creating something new and they are doing so by making use of previous lessons that they have learned, not wanting to repeat past mistakes that may have led to previous failures. Ideologues tend to generate smaller followings that charismatic leaders.

And then you have pragmatics. These are people who are driven by the need to get things done and people follow them because they are perceived as someone who can, in fact, get things done. Pragmatists are willing to compromise to bring as many people to the table as possible, but can be seen as comprising ideals in order to do so. This notion of compromise can generate anger or apathy among some followers for “not living up to promised made”. Pragmatics live in the present, analyzing what needs to be done to solve current problems and getting-on-with-it, having less emphasis on future visions of grandeur or a need to return to the good-old-days orientation when things were done right.

When these differing styles of leadership interact with each other or attempt to negotiate, conflict can arise when contrasting leadership styles are present. For instance, if one head of state is a pragmatist, negotiating with another head of state who is an ideologue, about how to resolve a conflict, successful negotiations may be difficult to achieve.

Within this schema, Benjamin Franklin was characterized as a pragmatist, as was President Obama. I had some difficulty with those classifications. I could see how they were arrived at, but the notion that these two gentlemen did not have the future vision thing going on just did not resonate with me. Perhaps I am in error.

Benjamin Franklin it was noted was a problem solver. One example given was that he was the originator of the notion of backing US currency with land, as gold and silver were in short supply within the new nation. He saw a problem, in this case how to generate confidence in a new currency, and he fixed it by having the currency backed up by land.

Benjamin Franklin was also the originator of the first volunteer fire department. He saw a problem, the way fires were being fought, and set out to fix it as a pragmatist would. Here is his description of the problem. “Soon after it [a fire] is seen and cry’d out, the Place is crowded by active Men of different Ages, Professions and Titles who, as of one Mind and Rank, apply themselves with all Vigilance and Resolution, according to their Abilities, to the hard Work of conquering the increasing fire.” But goodwill and amateur firefighters were not enough. Franklin suggested a “Club or Society of active Men belonging to each Fire Engine; whose Business is to attend all Fires with it whenever they happen.” (www.ushistory.org). But in my mind fixing the problem required a vision of the future regarding what firefighting could and should accomplish and I would suggest that leaders would not necessarily fall cleanly into only one leadership style or another.

Another example of his future leanings and vision, if you will, comes from his desire to reduce the risk of fire by arguing that “chimney sweeps should be licensed by the city and be held responsible for their work”. He saw a positive role for regulation and also what oversight accountability could accomplish. Yes, solving current problems, but in my mind with a vision of the future. Through his work and urgings Philadelphia, which once greatly feared fires, became one of the world’s safest cities from a fire damage perspective.

Fast forward to the present day, “Firefighters in rural Tennessee let a home burn to the ground last week because the homeowner hadn’t paid a $75 fee. Gene Cranick of Obion County and his family lost all of their possessions in the Sept. 29 fire, along with three dogs and a cat.” (MSNBC) I have to wonder what this response by the fire department says about their leadership and what Benjamin Franklin would have said about a fire department which let a house burn down. Now there is a lightning rod topic for you. Positively crackling with electricity.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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One Response

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  1. I enjoyed the brief summary of leadership styles. However, I believe that styles are not distinctly separate and the most effective leaders possess and utilize the characteristics of the different styles. I also support situational leadership where you must be able to adjust your style to the specific situation. If you possess the characteristics of the various styles, then situational leadership is possible. I do agree that certain characteristics are stronger than others, but then again highly effective leaders learn how to balance their characteristics.

    tim Garrett

    October 6, 2010 at 6:24 pm


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