Beware the Romance of Leadership

February 15, 2017

“Leaders are responsible for everything their unit does or fails to do.” Some of us old soldiers reveled in that platitude as accolades were thrown our way regardless whether our accomplishments were truly caused by our own actions, or whether subordinates or even the circumstances of life actually played the larger role leading to our achievements. Of course, we also held our tongues as we took the blame for failures and missteps that happened without our knowledge or occurred outside our control. In either case, we accepted and promulgated the larger-than-life role of leadership in the military.

Leadership researchers have a theory for the tendency to over-attribute organizational successes and shortcomings to the leader. It’s called the romance of leadership. The romance of leadership implies that we are inclined to attribute to leaders the credit for thrilling victories or the blame for agonizing defeats, even if they don’t deserve it. We make these unconscious attributions to simplify the complex causal relationships often involved in significant organizational outcomes. As a result, we view the leader as the driving force for everything and anything that happens to an organization during the leader’s tenure. Unsurprisingly, military institutions embrace the romance of leadership. By design and perhaps by necessity, they almost fetishize leadership. While cadets may labor over the complexities of Austerlitz and Waterloo, what they remember most is Napoleon.

Cautionary Tales

Romanticizing the role of the leader makes it easier to make sense of the world, but it can also mislead us into overlooking the true causes of success or failure. For example, during the nascent days of the Global War on Terror, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld rode a wave of popularity. As hard as it is to believe today, he was named one of the world’s sexiest men by People magazine in 2002. Yet his aura of leadership, fortified by early victories in Afghanistan, led some in the national security community to overlook the contributions of traditional ground forces, the competency of the Northern Alliance, and the reliance on fire and maneuver in achieving early success. Likewise, it was misguided to blame the chaos of Iraq in 2006 solely on Rumsfeld — who was, by that point, being demonized by people on both sides of the aisle. It is true that many of the war’s failures were related to the conduct and planning of the war, such as the incompetence of the Coalition Provisional Authority and the fact that most post-invasion planning carried out by the U.S. government was almost uniformly ignored. Rumsfeld bears no small amount of responsibility for these, but certainly not all of it and probably not even most of it. Other arguably more profound reasons for this chaos were largely outside of Rumsfeld’s control, such as the role of Iran in supporting extreme Shia actors and — more distantly — issues rooted in history, such as the configuration of Middle Eastern borders and Shia resentment stemming from decades of Baathist and predominantly Sunni repression. Defense and political analysts at the time largely discounted these other factors contributing to the unrest in Iraq.

The case of retired Gen. Eric Shinseki as Secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs is another example of the far-reaching effects of the romance of leadership. Following the revelation of an effort to misrepresent scheduling delays for patient appointments, many in Congress called for Shinseki’s resignation. Shinseki complied, but many endemic and enduring problems in his department still plague the department years after Shinseki’s departure, including obsolete computer systems, the Bush-era failure to modernize despite a spike in veterans in need of care, and a corrosive ethical culture. There is something darkly poetic about Shinseki, who rose to national prominence as a critic of the Bush administration’s plan to invade Iraq, being felled in part by traps left by his Bush administration predecessors. Regardless, this once-beloved retired general fell victim to a tawdry Washington tradition: the sacrificial lamb meant to atone for a political sin.

The romance of leadership presents a cautionary tale of the propensity to overestimate the role of the leader and consequently disregard other salient variables. For the national security community, this is especially important given the sweeping leadership changes unfolding in our government, especially in the White House and Department of Defense.

The Roots of the Romance

Studies reveal that the more leaders are perceived as charismatic, the more likely their impact as a leader will be romanticized. Charismatic leadership is characterized by having a strong vision, possessing an intense dissatisfaction with the status quo, and exhibiting behavior that is out of the ordinary. Remarkably, those descriptors are often used — regardless of political stance — to portray President Donald Trump and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. When successes or failures happen, these charismatic leaders are more likely to be praised as protagonists or denigrated as demons regardless of their actual contributions to the outcome. Research also shows that the media can play a significant role in fanning the flames of over-attribution. The American appetite for sound bites is voracious, and portrayals of leaders often reinforce the already romanticized view.

As noted earlier, the allure of the romance of leadership is especially strong for the uniformed military. For example, leadership research shows that people who score high in the personality trait of conscientiousness (hard working or reliable) and low in the personality trait of neuroticism (anxious or nervous) are especially likely to overestimate the role of the leader. Interestingly, personality assessments conducted at the U.S. Army War College consistently confirm that military leaders tend to be — no surprise here — high in conscientiousness and low in neuroticism. In other words, while the penchant to romanticize leadership is universal, it is particularly powerful for those in uniform. Other research finds that leadership is romanticized more in organizations in which power and prestige are concentrated at the highest echelons of the organizational chart. When people with personalities inclined to give excessive credit to the impact of leadership are placed into a hierarchical organization like the military, where power and decision-making are concentrated at the cloistered top of the pyramid (or E-Ring of the Pentagon), a culture emerges that is ripe for the romance of leadership to operate.

The Perils of the Romance

Where does this leave us? We live in a polarized country. A large part of America looks at the White House and sees a charismatic hero. Others see a charismatic villain. Both camps are falling victim to the romance of leadership, but little of this is unique to this particular president. The first camp will take any positive outcome and credit the leader who may have had little to do with the triumph. The doubters will single out every deficiency and attribute them to the leader who may have had little role in the failures. We can already see this happening. An understanding of the romance of leadership brings to light the dangers of this attribution error and prompts us to reconsider other factors involved in the situation.

Accurately assessing national security policy requires recognizing the limits of leadership. Those of us who analyze the military — and this includes the readers and contributors at War on the Rocks — cannot be so quick to heap blame on leaders for systems or processes that have been broken for decades for a myriad of reasons. Nor can we wildly applaud leaders for accomplishments that result more from factors that are outside their control. For us to accurately observe, analyze, and comment on the military and the world around it, we must be detached and dispassionate. And we must be wary of the romance of leadership.



Leonard Wong is a research professor in the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College.  Stephen Gerras is a professor of behavioral sciences in the Department of Command, Leadership, and Management at the U.S. Army War College. The views in this article are their own and do not represent those of the U.S. Army War College, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

Image: DoD photo by D. Myles Cullen