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The Myth Of The Visionary Leader

Publication Date: 
October 20, 2013
The Boston Globe
Leon Neyfakh

The Boston Globe references Stanford Law Professor Deborah Rhode in an analysis of how traditionally praised leadership activities translate into true leadership ability. 

Rapper Kanye West has been making it known recently that there's a glaring leadership gap in American culture, and he intends to fill it. In one interview, West said he considers himself a successor to Steve Jobs. "I understand culture. I am the nucleus," he said. Also: "I am so credible and so influential and so relevant that I will change things."

Even people put off by West's grandiosity recognized the hat he was trying on. In a country where college freshmen fantasize about running the world before they even pick a major, a certain image of leadership-visionary, charismatic, transformational-has become nearly synonymous with ambition. Parents teach "leadership skills" to their kids, while CEOs and gurus write best-selling books with titles like "Strengths Based Leadership." Our president first won national attention by projecting leadership through his captivating speeches. When Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook wrote a book, "Lean In," intended to transform professional life for American women, she subtitled it "Women, Work, and the Will to Lead."


Prospective leaders, however, aren't typically given a chance to demonstrate their skills at such seemingly mundane work. Deborah Rhode, a professor at Stanford Law School and the author of a new book, "Lawyers as Leaders," thinks of this as the "paradox of power": In the heat of a campaign or a series of job interviews, candidates are rewarded for character traits that have nothing to do with managing a group or solving problems.