Hoping for Leadership

I am always excited when a new school year starts.  This is especially true when I am scheduled to teach one of my favorite classes.  It is called public sector leadership.  In it, we explore different leadership theories, play games to practice leading and hear from elected officials, who give us their thoughts on what it means to be a leader.  The primary goal is to help students identify their own leadership style, preferably one that builds on their strengths and mitigates whatever weaknesses they have.

There are tons of leadership theories and approaches to choose from and you can divide and dissect them in many ways.  However, one of the most fundamental ways of understanding leadership and by extension what kind of leader you can be, is whether the leader is task focused or relationship focused.

Task focused leaders are all about getting the job done.  They are not particularly interested in how their followers feel, as long as they are doing the job and doing it in the right way.  The right way often means the way the leader wants the job done.  Task centric leaders enjoy being the one in charge and often revel in being front and center in the decision-making process.  The literature suggests that leaders like this are less likely to come up with innovative and creative solutions to complex and multifaceted problems, but they certainly can come to decisions faster.

There are lots of examples of successful task-centric leaders. General George Patton was so focused on his mission that he once slapped a soldier with shell shock to get him back to the front lines.  During a presidential debate, Ronald Reagan once grabbed the microphone, effectively saying, “I am in charge.”  There is no doubt Donald Trump puts himself front and center and enjoys showing he is in charge.  If I had to pick a New Jersey politician who exemplified this type of leadership, it would be Chris Christie.  He was (and still is) most comfortable being the one out front and the one in charge.  He clearly can work with others when he needs to (see George Norcross) but still thinks he is the best person to get stuff done.

Relationship focused leaders concentrate more on the work process and less on the outcome.  Under a relationship centered leader, workers feel great about what they are doing.  They enjoy the process of working, often because the relationship centered leader makes improving interpersonal relationships within an organization a top priority.  People in relationship centered organizations and with relationship centered leaders can feel more comfortable taking risks and because they know their leader is likely more comfortable with failure.  Relationship centered leaders are regularly pushing others to take the spotlight.  The literature suggests that these leaders and organizations are less successful in situations with short time horizons, where decisions need to be made quickly.

There are many examples of successful relationship centered leaders.  Both editions of George Bush are often considered relationship centered leaders.  Andy Card, who served as chief of staff for the first George Bush, marveled at the network of relationships the 41st president had developed over the years.  The fact that the junior George Bush won the “who do you want to have a beer with” poll question in every poll ever taken about him is evidence of his relationship focus.  Many consider Joe Biden a relationship centered leader because of his tenure in the U.S. Senate where relationship building is the key currency.  Biden’s time as VP also showed that he was more than willing to push others to the forefront even if he was doing the lion’s share of the work.  If I had to pick a New Jersey exemplar of this, it would be Phil Murphy.  He is the head cheerleader in charge and is quite comfortable letting others shine, especially Matt Platkin.  But I do think he genuinely cares about making others around him feel good about what they are doing. And he cares because he believes that is the best way to get things done.

Academics are good at being agnostic about outcomes and the study of leadership is no different. None of the theories of leadership work all the time.  As both Trump (or Christie) and Biden (or Murphy) have shown, both task centered leaders and relationship centered leaders can succeed and fail.   Donald Trump’s biggest success was arguably the Abraham Accords, something he was very much on his own in crafting and implementing.  Joe Biden’s successes on many fronts, from his handling of Ukraine with the international community to bipartisan bills on gun safety, infrastructure and (as we will see below) the debt ceiling were all made possible by his ability to leverage relationships with others.

While task and relationship differences can explain quite a bit about leadership and help identify how leaders work, some of our most successful leaders find ways to incorporate aspects of both into the decision-making process.  In 1982 Ronald Reagan worked together with House Speaker Tip O’Neill to pass the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which many credited with stabilizing skittish financial markets. More recently, Joe Biden and Kevin McCarthy passed a debt ceiling bill over the objections of the far right and hard left, once again saving the country from a self-inflicted financial disaster.

In both cases, you had different types of leaders working together on things they could agree on.  Each side agreed to defer to the other’s expertise and wishes on some issues in exchange for reciprocal deferrals on others.  This type of cross-party collaboration seems more difficult today than it did in 1982.  Back then, when Reagan and O’Neill had a deal, getting their respective parties to agree was comparatively easy.  Today, after Biden and McCarthy had a deal, they still faced significant opposition from their partisan flanks. Because of this they had to rely on relationships between centrists in both parties to bring the deal home.

A little bit ago, I got to watch two of those centrist leaders in action.  Brian Fitzpatrick is a Republican congressman from Pennsylvania and Josh Gottheimer is a Democrat from New Jersey’s own 5th district.  They are the leaders of the problem solvers caucus and as such held an event at NJPAC in Newark.  It was an interesting and wide-ranging discussion, but more than anything the two congressmen presented a reminder of how different ideologies and leadership styles can work together to solve problems.

Fitzpatrick is a former FBI agent who worked in counter terrorism for many years.  During the discussions about foreign policy there was absolutely no doubt who was in charge.  Fitzpatrick used personal examples to illustrate important points about standing up to Russian and Chinese bullies.  He was strong, authoritative and in control. Gottheimer gave him the space and oxygen to lead this part of the discussion.

But when the topics switched to domestic policies like transportation, infrastructure, the economy, the debt ceiling and healthcare.  The two congressmen flipped the script.  On these issues, Gottheimer was clearly in charge, the most knowledgeable and in his element.  Gottheimer spoke with the authority/confidence of a task centric leader when he talked about tunnels, taxes and debt ceilings while Fitzpatrick stood back to play the role of civil questioner and supporter of that expertise.

Watching Gottheimer and Fitzpatrick interact gave me a sense of hope that there are still smart people in Washington who want to build bridges and relationships with each other to get serious stuff done. The fact that Biden and to some extent Kevin McCarthy, let the problem solvers share credit for getting the debt ceiling bill done offers another small bit of hope.  I realize that this might be naïve, but naivete makes hope easier and we desperately need some hope in our political system.  Perhaps, people like Gottheimer, Fitzpatrick and the problem solvers caucus are a good place to start looking for it.

Matthew Hale, Ph.D

Associate Professor Department of Political Science and Public Affairs

Seton Hall University

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One response to “Hoping for Leadership”

  1. Matt Hale uses bad examples for his article, e.g., Chris Christie, Joe Biden, Phil Murphy, and Matt Platkin. These are leftists and far leftists political frauds. Nothing more than Socialists-Communists. Chris Christies claims to be Republican, but he’s a leftist RINO. Why else would he spend so much time on left-wing media, such as CNN, MSLSD, and the 3 major propaganda outlets on Sunday mornings?

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