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In many ways the United States offer the ideal case study for examining different leadership styles, because its particular process of election and governance presents opportunities for each leadership style to flourish. In short, while the election itself favors a charismatic leadership style, the success of the executive branch depends on a transformational leadership style, and the interactions between the executive and the legislature can only be characterized as transactional. This dynamic is partially due to the structure of the United States itself, as well as cultural and traditional standards that have developed over time. By examining how the different types of leadership are favored at different times and places in the governance of the United States, one will be able to understand not only how organizations actually encourage and shape certain leadership styles, but also how certain leadership strategies intended to generate change actually work to perpetuate the same structures and standards.
To begin it will be worthwhile to briefly outline the three main leadership styles under discussion here, before examining how they are actually expressed in the governance of the United States. The first style is called charismatic leadership, and refers to leadership oriented around a charismatic leader, one who inspires devotion, commitment, and sometimes servility from his or her subordinates. One must be careful to point out that of all the leadership styles, charismatic leadership is often the most volatile, because by definition it depends on the personality and charisma of the leader, two things which may be completely unrelated to the leader's actual intelligence, ability, or ethics. As Howell and Avolio (1992) note, "charisma can lead to blind fanaticism in the service of megalomaniacs and dangerous values, or to heroic self-sacrifice in the service of a beneficial cause" (p. 44). While ethical and unethical charismatic leaders ultimately gain and use their power in slightly different ways, they share the same underlying basis for their success; namely, a charismatic personality which allows them to gain people's trust and support, regardless of the content of their ideas or values.
Like charismatic leadership, transformational leadership depends upon the relationship between the leader and his or her subordinates, but with a slightly different focus. While charismatic leadership depends upon the personality and charisma of the leader, transformational leadership depends upon the subordinate's own identification with both the organization and the tasks at hand. The transformational leader attempts to "assist followers to grow and develop into leaders by responding to individual followers' needs, by empowering them, and aligning the goals of the individual followers" (Green & Roberts, 2012, p. 16). Thus, while a successful transformational leader will likely have to be charismatic, transformational leadership actually has less to do with the leader's particular personality and more to do with his or her ability to get followers to invest, both literally and figuratively, in the task at hand.
In contrast to charismatic and transformational leadership, the transactional leadership style eschews charisma and identification for fairly straightforward, pragmatic reinforcement, both positive and negative. Rather than attempting to win followers with an attractive personality or persona, or by wedding their individual interests to the interests of the organization, transactional leadership attempts to achieve goals by encouraging or discouraging certain behaviors through clear-cut rewards and punishments, such that the relationship between leader and follower is less dependent on personality or trust and more dependent on (relatively) quantifiable calculations regarding benefit and cost (Trottier, Wart, & Wang, 2008, p. 320). While transactional leadership might come across as somehow cold or unfeeling, in fact it can be quite beneficial, particularly in instances where individuals might have competing goals but must nevertheless work together. Furthermore, because it is less dependent on personality and charisma, transactional leadership can actually remove some of the nebulous indeterminancies of interpersonal communication that can ultimately hinder the completion of cooperative tasks.
Of course, no leader sticks to one style exclusively, because different situations call for different approaches, and furthermore, no one style has a clear advantage over any other. For example, while charismatic leadership may allow one to gain a high number of devoted followers fairly quickly, those followers may not be critical enough to provide the honest feedback necessary for the success of the organization. Similarly, while transactional leadership allows one to provide clear-cut standards of reward and punishment, this almost mercenary approach to leadership runs the risk of followers giving up at the first sign of a more attractive offer. Transformational leadership could help alleviate this potential loyalty issue, but it also brings with it the risk of indeterminate metrics of follower evaluation, to the point that the leader loses some control over his or her followers. To better understand the strengths and weaknesses of these leadership styles, one may now examine the governance of the United States itself.
Charismatic leadership is easy to spot in the world of politics, because many of the world's most famous leaders have risen to such heights precisely because of their charisma and personality, for better or worse; for example, "the label charismatic has been applied to very diverse leaders in politics," such as "Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, [and] Franklin Delano Roosevelt" (Howell & Avolio, 1992, p. 43). In the case of the United States, charismatic leadership is most evident during election season, because at this point the leaders in question (candidates) have no real power except for that of their personality and charisma (leaving aside the question of incumbents). Furthermore, their campaigns are largely made up of dedicated "true believers"; while policies and positions will ultimately likely draw in voters, it would be practically impossible to marshal the dedicated volunteers that make up the backbone of American political campaigns without a fair amount of charismatic appeal. Charismatic leadership is ideal in the context of an election, because the goal, which is winning the election, is almost entirely dependent on the excitement, dedication, and energy of one's supporters. However, it is worth mentioning that while charismatic leadership is the preferred style for the candidates themselves, their campaign managers more frequently must deploy a transformational style, channeling the excitement generated from the candidate's charisma into genuine investment and commitment on the part of the followers (Green & Roberts, 2012, p. 16-17).
Understanding how charismatic leadership flourishes during an election allows one to better understand its benefits and drawbacks, because the success of a charismatic leadership style during an election does not necessarily translate to success in leadership afterward, due to the fact that actual governance requires a different form of leadership than an election. This is because in many ways elections are designed to favor charismatic leadership, while the structural and constitutional make-up of the United States largely precludes charismatic leadership alone from producing substantive results. While charismatic leadership is often enough to carry a campaign, governments built entirely upon charismatic leadership may have a much harder time, because governance requires a different skill set. To understand why this is the case, one must note the shift that occurs in the transition from campaigning to governance.
In short, during a campaign, the candidate is leading an entirely different set of people than those he or she will lead if elected, and a has a far more specific goal. Charismatic leadership is ideal for a campaign precisely because the people being led are those who would be most susceptible to charismatic leadership in the first place, and furthermore, the goal of being elected can be achieved largely through the generalized efforts of dedicated, energetic followers. In contrast, when governing the United States, the people the President is responsible for leading are not dedicated, energetic followers, but range from committed supporters to literal opposition figures. In the case of the latter, charismatic leadership simply cannot work, because the opposition, by definition, will not be willing to legitimize the leader's authority or instruction simply due to his or her perceived charisma. Furthermore, even when the President is dealing not with opposition figures in Congress but instead subordinates in the executive branch, he or she cannot rely on charisma, simply because the intricacies of maintaining the American bureaucracy require far more detailed decision-making at every level than charismatic leadership allows; in a sense, the American government is structured in such a way as to preclude the rise of a leader whose authority and leadership is based on charisma alone. While this may have the result of sometimes unlikable candidates, it also seems to help prevent any one person from gaining undue power.
Instead, the structure of the executive branch almost demands a kind of transformational leadership, and in fact, empirical data suggests that this is the form of leadership most desired by federal employees. A 2008 study attempted to determine the range of leadership styles exhibited across departments of the federal government, and as part of that study the authors asked respondents about "the relative importance of transactional and transformational leadership" (Trottier, Wart, & Wang, 2008, p. 327). While transactional leadership methods were rated as important by federal…[continue]
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