Leadership & Kissinger

Leadership & Kissinger

Most mornings I’ll drive my kids to school, head down Monroe and take a left on Ponce de Leon. At the corner, we’ve all enjoyed observing the newest Chick-fil-a being constructed, with each day spotting an addition or enhancement from the day before. The sign on the chain-link fence reads: “Now Hiring Leaders.” I love how they frame their opportunities. Most companies, especially in fast-food, use copy including “positions open” or “now hiring” or "apply here." There’s an aspirational element Chick-fil-a communicates before the applicant even submits a resume.    

The topic of leadership is vast with several levels to study. When I came across Henry Kissinger’s book titled Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy, it was an auto sample download as I do most books on Kindle before a full purchase. Three pages in, I did not wait until the “sample pages” ran out. In the first few moments of the book, Kissenger articulated the variables of leadership so cogently, I was hooked. Below are some of my favorite parts before he elaborates on his specific studies.

Kissinger delineates leaders in two camps: statesman and prophets. Immediately I thought of Marc Andreessen’s Peacetime CEO/ Wartime CEO blog post.

The statesman has two roles:

“The first is to preserve their society by manipulating circumstances rather than being overwhelmed by them…

…The second is to temper vision with wariness, entertaining a sense of limits. Such leaders assume responsibility not only for the best but also for the worst outcomes.”

I read this as statesman leaders have existing institutions, rules, and constraints and the best ones are effective within the rules set by previous generations.

“Wise leaders in the statesman mode will recognize when novel circumstances require existing institutions and values to be transcended. But they understand that, for their societies to thrive, they will have to ensure that change does not go beyond what it can sustain.”

I immediately thought of industrial designer Raymond Loewy’s design principle: MAYA - Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. Derek Thompson of The Atlantic wrote an insightful piece on the man and principle. I’ll spare any sort of contemporary politics around what can be sustained, but the major takeaway is the ebb-and-flow of market conditions matched with individual pressure is a never-ending dance.

“Statesmen are not called upon only to settle easy questions. These often settle themselves. It is where the balance quivers, and the proportions are veiled in mist, that the opportunity for world-saving decisions presents itself.”

Anyone who has ever led anything will empathize with this statement. Easy questions have all the data. The questions where the ‘proportions are veiled in mist’ and a decision affecting other humans, often time millions of people in Kissinger’s case, is where leaders rely on history, experience, intuition, judgment, to name a few. Kissinger put Franklin Roosevelt and Jawaharlal Nehru in this classification.

The prophet leaders start from scratch.

‘Prophetic leaders invoke their transcendent visions as proof of their righteousness. Craving an empty canvas on which to lay down their designs, they take as a principal task the erasure of the past – its treasures along with its snares.’

Leaders in the prophet camp tend to focus the standards of thinking around their visions versus the traditional infrastructures in place.

Kissinger puts Joan of Arc, Gandi, and Lenin in this classification.

‘the test of statesmen is the durability of political structures under stress, while prophets gauge their achievements against absolute standards. If the statesman assesses possible courses of action on the basis of their utility rather than their ‘truth’, the prophet regards this approach as sacrilege, a triumph of expediency over universal principle. To the statesman, negotiation is a mechanism of stability; to the prophet, it can be a means of converting or demoralizing opponents.

What was an interesting conclusion in Kissinger’s intro is how both classifications mix and merge. If you are one, it does not preclude you from being another. This brings up additional questions about the efficacy of one human to make an impact. Would it matter in the course of history if one person was subbed out for another. Do the ‘market’ dynamics matter more than the individual? Kissinger elaborates on ‘the willed versus the inevitable” – which is a brilliant way to explain several levels of a concept. I’m a strong believer in the power of one individual and how they can move markets, campaigns, or as Kissinger eloquently put it: ‘carry societies to the frontier of possible.’

Every individual is a leader, whether elected, applying for a position at work (or Chick-fil-a), or just organizing a lunch, coffee, or dinner. Learning the art and science of leadership is never-ending and Kissinger has a wealth of experience to learn from. For more insight from Kissinger, here is a good interview with him on Andrew Robert’s podcast: Secrets of Statecraft.  

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