13 Aug 2008  Research & Ideas

The Inner Life of Leaders

"Even when leaders try to hide and disguise their character, their traits are recognizable to others," says HBS professor emeritus Abraham Zaleznik. His new book, Hedgehogs and Foxes: Character, Leadership, and Command in Organizations, explores the internal complexities of people in control. Plus: Book excerpt. Key concepts include:

  • Hedgehogs know one big thing while foxes know many things.
  • Applied to leadership, hedgehogs reduce reality to one single principle, while foxes are prepared to adapt to a complex view of the world.
  • An individual's character is outwardly represented while it is a product of development, starting with early childhood.

 

To what extent does a leader's inner life affect his or her behavior and actions toward other people?

HBS professor emeritus Abraham Zaleznik, skilled in the practice of psychoanalysis and an admirer of the insights of Sigmund Freud, is well positioned to study the question. Zaleznik has authored or coauthored 15 books as well as the now-classic 1977 Harvard Business Review article "Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?" His latest book, Hedgehogs and Foxes: Character, Leadership, and Command in Organizations, explores motivation, decision making, and leadership skills as they progress in life and in business.

HBS Working Knowledge asked Zaleznik to reflect on the inner life of leaders.

Martha Lagace: Your book is an intellectual and introspective discussion of leadership that seems rare in the literature of leadership today. What motivated you to write the book, and how did you draw on your background in psychoanalysis to approach contemporary characters and issues in leadership?

Abraham Zaleznik: When I wrote my first book on the job of the foreman (1950), an observation and an idea took hold: Leaders have to achieve psychological independence to enable them to apply their talents to the work at hand. This independence frees the leader to expand on his or her talents and thereby become an object to allow subordinates to identify with and to cultivate and apply their own talents in the interests of meeting and even expanding on objectives.

Through years of research work, writing, and reading it became even clearer to me that I was on the edge of understanding and adopting two principles: Leaders need a healthy dose of narcissism to lead, and they also need a healthy dose of paranoia to avoid the trap of group dependency.

While all this was going on, in reflecting on my research and writing, I became absorbed in extensive reading in the social sciences, notably anthropology and above all psychoanalysis. I suppose I could be accused of hero worship when I read intensively and extensively the writings of Sigmund Freud, leading me to apply for candidacy in the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute and then applying for and being granted a waiver of medical and psychiatric prerequisites so that I could receive full training in clinical psychoanalysis. The American Psychoanalytic Association certified me for the practice of psychoanalysis in 1971.

Hedgehogs and Foxes is my 15th book. It is a study of leaders acting in a role but wittingly or unwittingly bringing to this enactment their character. An individual's character is outwardly represented while it is a product of development starting with early childhood. Even when leaders try to hide and disguise their character, their traits are recognizable to others.

Character is on display as leaders structure their organizations and go about making decisions. Some prefer to be intimately involved in the decision process. Others prefer to delegate early on and to remain at a distance from the give-and-take of reaching conclusions. For the research that led to writing Hedgehogs and Foxes, I relied on secondary sources, but focused on critical episodes.

For example, Dwight D. Eisenhower characteristically favored consensus and only reluctantly faced confrontation. The critical episode here was Eisenhower's difficulty during World War II in confronting Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, much to the exasperation of Generals George S. Patton and Omar Bradley. Montgomery fought hard to convince Eisenhower that Eisenhower should remain in England and turn over command to him, with Patton and Bradley as subordinates. To the consternation of Patton and Bradley, Eisenhower first sought to placate Montgomery but finally confronted him when Montgomery failed to follow orders to play his part in the battle plans. An aide to Montgomery intervened and convinced Montgomery that instead of a stern letter, Eisenhower was on the verge of replacing him as commander of one of the armies.

Q: What do the hedgehog and fox metaphors mean in relation to the complexities of leadership?

A: The title of the book is a debt I owe to Isaiah Berlin, the British scholar. Berlin borrowed the notion from the ancient Greek philosophers that hedgehogs know one big thing while foxes know many things. Applied to leadership, hedgehogs reduce reality to one single principle, while foxes know many things and are prepared to adapt to a complex view of the world.

For example, behavioral psychologists have studied pigeons and found that once discovering randomly which button when pressed yielded a corn pellet, pigeons would repeat the act, a form of repetition compulsion. Unfortunately, leaders often become addicted to the compulsion to repeat in the present what succeeded in the past. Human affairs require adaptation and the avoidance of the repetition compulsion.

Q: Your book describes leadership dilemmas facing well-known individuals historically and currently, including Robert S. McNamara, Ronald Reagan, Martin Luther King Jr., and George W. Bush. Could you focus on just one individual and share with us briefly what fascinated you as a scholar of leadership?

A: In addition to the example above of Eisenhower and his reluctance to confront and instead rely on consensus, another example from the book concerns the education of Robert S. McNamara.

He was a brilliant student at the University of California and at Harvard Business School, where he became a member of the HBS faculty. McNamara was a devotee of managerial control, an expertise he applied in his work at the Ford Motor Company and later at the Department of Defense as secretary in President John F. Kennedy's cabinet.

His mantra was measurement. As secretary of defense, McNamara developed, along with key subordinates, including Robert Anthony of the HBS control faculty, long-range procurement cycles. He even tried to get the U.S. Navy to subscribe to a common aircraft for the three branches of the military. The Navy refused to go along, since this branch was concerned about aircraft operating from carriers.

McNamara urged field commanders in Vietnam to apply measurement to enemy losses, but did not realize until it was too late that the measurements were unreliable to assess enemy losses. The most reliable assessments came from correspondents like Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam. McNamara published a book years after he retired to reassess the Vietnam War and his role in it as secretary of defense. His main theme was the failure to examine critically the assumptions leading to U.S. involvement in this disaster. Editorial writers took no pains to spare McNamara's feelings.

The moral I took away from his story is to avoid the perils of the hedgehog and its reliance on a single belief, in this case measurement, and the technology of control.

Q: You authored the 1977 Harvard Business Review article titled "Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?" As you think about business 31 years after that article appeared, do you see changes in the roles you described back then? What have you learned about leaders and managersin business today that encourages optimism, and what gives you concern?

A: Managers are oriented to process, while leaders are attuned to substance. Process is concerned with establishing procedures for solving problems, while substance deals directly with the problems at hand. Process is soon related to obsessive thinking and depressive emotional states, while substance energizes and draws on imaginative thinking. Managers tend instinctively to delegate; leaders like to get involved in working toward solutions to substantive problems.

The picture in business today (along with government) is bleak. The mantra today is to lay off workers and staff, cut costs to the bone. The American automobile industry may not survive as we have known this bellwether star in the industrial firmament. This industry is a prime example of the dangers of the repetition compulsion. I am in a pessimistic frame of mind, and I don't see change until after the U.S. presidential election, and we rid ourselves of the disastrous George W. Bush administration.

Q: How will you continue to explore the rich aspects of leadership that you have described in Hedgehogs and Foxes? What is your next project?

A: I just signed a contract with Palgrave Macmillan for a new edition of a book that I wrote in 1990, Executive's Guide to Motivating People: How Freudian Theory Can Turn Good Executives into Better Leaders. The book is an introduction to psychoanalytic theory and aims to help the executive develop psychological mindedness. It will be sent off to the publisher in December 2008. After that, I will work on two volumes of my collected papers. The first volume will be addressed to an academic audience and the second volume to an audience of practitioners. Both volumes are rich with ideas that have intrigued practitioners and academics, and together will stimulate the imagination of readers.

Book excerpt from Hedgehogs and Foxes: Character, Leadership, and Command in Organizations, by Abraham Zaleznik

Individuals who are caught up in empowerment movements, both nonviolent and violent, substitute one form of dependency—on an authoritarian program or leader—for another—economic privation. Liberation, from these and other forms of dependency, requires freeing the ego from group psychology and from neurotic disabilities that restrict the development of the individual.

Once restrictive governments are replaced, new goals have to be developed with the aim of enhancing the ego through education, economic opportunity, and personal freedom. …

Empowerment movements have sprung up in the United States and other developed countries with democratic institutions. Empowerment movements have been adopted in the name of feminine liberation and equality of the sexes. In complex organizations empowerment programs seek to alter hierarchies, to "flatten" the organizational structure, decreasing the authority of top levels while increasing the autonomy of the lower levels. These ideological approaches carefully avoid the fact that hierarchy is a form found in nature. Assemble a group, give it a purpose, and if left to its own devices, it willorganize itself into a hierarchical structure in the shape of a pyramid.

True empowerment is a result of individual transformation from dependency to autonomy following the path of maturation from infancy onward. … Education and training to develop competencies is the sure, albeit slow, route to empowerment through the enhancement of talents, whether in developed economies or third world nations. In underdeveloped nations the route toward self-engendered empowerment may be longer, and the results may be slower to materialize, but whether in developed or underdeveloped economies, self-empowerment requires motivation. The desire to develop and strengthen the ego must be internalized, and this comes with the cultivation of talents.

Unlike mass movements under the leadership of a charismatic leader, empowerment of individuals through the development of talents comes through education and training. Identification with gifted teachers, who stimulate learning, is a microscopic process that occurs not only in the formal atmosphere of the classroom but also in the seemingly mundane activity in factories and offices—wherever people assemble to accomplish work.

Excerpted with permission of the author. Copyright Abraham Zaleznik, 2008.

About the author

Martha Lagace is the senior editor of HBS Working Knowledge.