Fred Wilsons post called “Executives vs Leaders” got me thinking about my senior honors thesis called “Signs of Leadership.” Fred’s observation about the current Democratic front-runners is one which many share: Obama and Edwards are daring and visionary leaders, while Clinton is efficient and detail oriented. As Fred puts it, it’s “the visionary leader versus the consummate executive.”
From my theoretical research on the subject of leadership, there are good reasons why these candidates are how they are (and why real, structural change can only happen with one of these types leaders in power).
Visionary, disruptive, and creative leaders are socialized in a world from which they either come from the starkest margins or the most privileged center. These folks are either of MLK cloth or RFK’s cloth (or today’s Obama and Edwards, as well as Bill Clinton came to their leadership from the margin).
However, bureaucratic/executive leaders – the most common type of leader – neither have the luxury of coming from the margin of society or its center. This makes them rather dull and ordinary on the leadership front. Sure they may be proficient and handling the structures that be, but they are incapable of changing the structures all together.
So the question of Obama & Edwards-style leadership vs. Hillary Clinton’s style of leadership is one answered by looking at their backgrounds and understanding how they (and others) came to see them and themselves as leaders.
Here are the concluding paragraphs of my senior thesis (note that the capitals, goods, and marketplaces I’m talking about are sociological parlance for social capital and its marketplace, cultural capital and its marketplace, etc):
And so it is vocation. We have quoted Ronald Burt as saying, “If all you know is entrepreneurial relationships, the motivation question is a nonissue. Being willing and able to act entrepreneurially is how you understand social life” (36). Similarly, to be a leader, one must have to understand social life as an experience either rich with structural opportunities that reward deviation, or so significantly marginalized that any deviation is not heavily sanctioned. As this dynamic plays out in every marketplace and with every conceivable good, the elements and qualities of leadership may emerge, depending on the varying degrees of tension experienced in the various marketplaces. When there is no tension experienced, however – when one’s life is caught in the middle of the neglected margin and the privileged center – opportunities to deviate shrink as the required investment and likely sanction of deviating seem to increase. Not likely to consider the sovereign action essential to leadership, the person owned by this struggle operates as a bureaucrat, in life and vocation.
However, when a person stands in the stark margins or insulating center of a punitive and rewarding social structure, and makes herself “leader” to those around her, she does so by defiantly and innovatively creating a front composed of the variable goods of life – material, cultural, social, symbolic, political, and otherwise – consigned by her market specific structural position. Working with that capital, and by the filling the social-structural, political, and cultural holes, the prospective leader “gives an account of [her] personality and life by the choices [she] makes between the limited possibilities” (Lèvi-Strauss 21). This is how she shows her strength as a truly charismatic leader. Eventually, as a personality and life-story emerge from the tensions of everyday life, the leader’s front may be taken as real, and thus magically begins to confer all the signs of leadership.