BLOG: Leadership role models roulette


A leader is by definition and in essence at the TOP. Leaders are not only at the top of the organisational hierarchy or, traditionally, at the top of the food chain (higher risks, higher responsibility, higher pay), but they are also literally put on a pedestal by everyone in society. We listen to leaders, we write blogs about leaders, we interview leaders, we disseminate the teachings and learnings of leaders, we intrinsically associate leadership with wisdom. Leaders are often sought as role models. In a nutshell, we want to be leaders.

Yet, many leaders throughout history make terrible role models. Others are barely mediocre. A few are exceptional role models. So, how does one play this roulette game and end up with a great leader as a role model? Here are three questions that can guide you.

1) What do you believe in? What are your values?

A leader is as good as its followers. All leaders are followed by people who associate themselves with their leaders’ vision and values. In 1513, Machiavelli wrote one of his most famous books, The Prince, in which he advised that a ruler should instil fear in his subjects to maintain order. The most prominent quote: “Since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved” has been the subject of interpretation for many military and political leaders from Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon to John F. Kennedy. The quote made it into sitcom culture, being humorously distorted in The Office by the Manager of the branch – an inefficient leader figure:

Thinking that a leader should instil fear is tantamount to the approval of authoritarian leadership styles. On the other hands, the principle of being loved as a leader is an underpinning factor for many leadership styles including transformational/charismatic leadership, authentic leadership, servant and ethical leadership. Machiavelli did not think that the ‘subjects’ or followers had a say in whether the leader should choose fear or love. But, in reality, followers are the fuel of such principles in leaders.

So, what do you value more? A directive leadership style or a more democratic approach? An effective, even if ruthless leader? Or someone you can love for their principles? Would you choose a leader who seeks achievement or happiness, family, community, profits, results? What is essential?

2) Which ‘C’ is more important? Customers or Culture?

Jeff Bezos, CEO and Chairman of Amazon, is commonly associated in articles with transformational leadership, innovative vision and focus on customer service. Sounds like the perfect role model to have in our age and time. However, recently, outrage sparked on social media at the idea that Jeff Bezos might become a trillionaire in 2026. Opinions are mixed. Jeff Bezos followers defend the tech billionaire quoting his vision that has the customer at the forefront of Amazon’s entire vision and business model, further quoting the merits of this company focused on speedy service and creating a new model for an online global market. Non-followers and critics, on the other hand, highlight the scandals involving the company from tax evasion to antagonism towards trade unions and poor treatment of workers.

So, is Jeff Bezos the transformational leader we all need as a role model? Depends on what ‘C’ you are prioritising. If you are a Jeff Bezos fan, you probably think that the customer is always right, that employees should be expected to work more and harder, that work satisfaction is directly linked with customer service. If you are a critic of Jeff Bezos, then you probably are an adherent of ethical leadership and you put an emphasis on a positive work culture: customers aren’t more important than employees, employees require better work conditions and work satisfaction that is not related to customer satisfaction.

If you are unsure which ‘C’ is more important to you, here’s an exercise. This is a story shared in the Wall Street Journal about the beginnings of Amazon, used as an example of the customer-focused vision of Amazon and of Jeff Bezos’ leadership style.

Everyone at the company was working until two or three in the morning to get the books… shipped. Mr. Bezos had neglected to order packing tables, so people ended up on their knees on the concrete floor to package the books. He later recalled in a speech that, after hours of doing this, he commented to one of the employees that they had to get knee pads. The employee, Nicholas Lovejoy, “looked at me like I was a Martian,” Mr. Bezos said. Mr. Lovejoy suggested the obvious: Buy some tables.

Which ‘C’ is more important to you? Do you agree with Jeff Bezos’ style? Would you choose him as a role model?

3) Which ‘R’ is more important? Results or Relationships? Jacinda Ardern, the PM of New Zealand, has enforced some of the strictest rules of lockdown during the Coronavirus crisis, whilst promoting a philosophy of compassion and empathy. She has been praised for her leadership style by many notable journalism outlets, as well as by the ILM. From a values perspective, Jacinda Ardern has made her vision clear as a leader: “I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong”. As a political leader, she dealt with challenges from her first term in the office: motherhood, a terrorist attack and a global pandemic aside the usual domestic agenda. Jacinda Ardern cares both about delivering results as well as investing in relationships – maintaining a clear dialogue with the population, open communication and promotion of empathy and compassion as values.

Critics of Jacinda Ardern might challenge some of the results. Many jobs were lost during the pandemic and the economy is severely affected. Some of the highs and lows of her Office term so far were analysed by The Guardian.

However, the praise is not unjustified. Jacinda Ardern has so far managed to deliver results as well as maintain relationships. In business terms, this would translate as a business manager who achieved desired financial targets whilst supporting the team and making them feel empowered. From a theoretical perspective, according to the Blake-Mouton Managerial Grid, the middle ground is an effective leadership behaviour.

So, what would you prioritise? Results or relationships? Should they meet half-way or do you think that one takes priority? Is it dependent on contextual factors? Are results or relationships more important in a pandemic scenario? What type of leader would you follow?

If you answer these questions, you might get an understanding of what type of leaders are your role models. I hope this exercise has been useful! It is never easy to choose a leader role model. There are many factors you might take into account from values and vision to the importance given to the customers and employees to the behavioural focus on relations or results. Leaders also change over time – they make mistakes, they prioritise different values, they grow, so it is absolutely ok if you decide you like one leader today and not tomorrow or vice versa. As long as you are true to yourself and your values, so will your chosen role models be. Don’t be afraid to change your picks after reflection.