by Esther Schindler

Comparing Management Styles: Which U.S. President Are You?

May 31, 20074 mins
IT Leadership

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell was this morning’s keynote speaker at the AMR Research Supply Chain Executive Conference. His talk touched on many subjects, some of which I may comment on elsewhere, but leadership (the real stuff, not the buzzword) was a key theme throughout the speech.

“Leadership is all about followership,” General Powell explained, and you must put your followers in the best position possible. That means you have to give followers (whether soldiers or IT workers) the tools and resources they need to achieve the goals you set. Otherwise, he cautioned, they’ll realize they’re being misled. “You can’t con the followers for long,” Powell said.

General Powell served under four U.S. presidents during his career. During the Q&A session, he was asked to compare and contrast the individuals whom he called Boss (and all of whom, he made a point of saying, he liked and admired). Without regard to political ideologies or the nature of specific presidential decisions, I found Powell’s comparisons instructive about the nature of leadership and how top executives make decisions.

This are interesting simply from the perspective of character studies of important men. But in a practical  fashion, perhaps these four views of leadership will give you another ohm of enlightenment about the way you — or your CEO — run the company. Which is most like your own? Which would you prefer?

President Reagan’s strength, according to General Powell, was that he was “a great conceptualizer.” Reagan could view the USSR as “the evil empire” and then construct a plan to deal with that reality. But, Powell said, that conceptual approach could be difficult on a day-to-day level.”

For instance, Reagan would listen politely to Powell explain a work-related challenge, but in a distant manner; he made it clear that the problem was Powell’s problem, and he had been hired to deal with such things. Once it became Reagan’s problem, however, he was right there, ready to make decisions.

“Bush 41” (as Powell referred to him) did have “the vision thing,” but he just wasn’t as good of a showman. Bush also let his staff argue in front of him, “which is something we’d never do in front of Reagan.” The first President Bush wouldn’t ask questions, but instead would let the fight unfold and listen to each viewpoint. He would stay out of the way until it was all over… and then he’d be extremely decisive.

President Clinton, on the other hand, wanted to talk about everything: on and on and on. “He loves to talk a problem to his conclusion,” noted General Powell, though Clinton discovered that wasn’t always the best thing to do.

“Bush 43,” according to Powell, is very different from the others. He wants to hear what every advisor has to say. But then he decides “in a very instinctive way,” said Powell; he’ll make the decision alone, and then inform others what his instinct is. Bush 43 gets in trouble (leadership-wise, folks!) when only a few people give their presentations, and then his instinct is formed with incomplete data.

This isn’t to say that you need to adopt any of these management styles yourself. And, of course, there were more than 40 other U.S. presidents, each of whom presumably had their own ways to get input and to make decisions. (Teddy Roosevelt may be my personal favorite; as I learned elsewhere, Roosevelt ran outside with a shotgun when someone tried to assassinate him instead of letting the Secret Service deal with it. Definitely not someone who delegated!)

However, I think the contrast between the last four individuals to hold the top office is an interesting one, and highlights the different ways in which people wield power.

“You need to have a leadership style consistent with who you are,” Powell commented.

It would be easy to respond to this message with a political/emotional response, depending on your opinion of these politicians. Please don’t. I’m interested here primarily in the nature of leadership styles: how they vary (particularly among people who have this awesome amount of power) and what we can learn from those differences.