Vol. 32, Issue 1 - Autumn/Winter 2008
Nannerl Keohane on Leadership and Political Philosophy
With the view from her fourth-floor office in Robertson Hall overlooking Washington Road serving as a picturesque backdrop, an afternoon conversation with Nannerl Keohane made evident that she has taken an active role in the intellectual life of the Woodrow Wilson School since her move to Princeton from Duke in 2004.
Keohane is the School’s Laurance S. Rockefeller Distinguished Visiting Professor of Public Affairs and the University Center for Human Values, and in her decades-long academic career she has written and taught widely in political philosophy, leadership and feminist theory. She has served in top positions in higher education; as president of Wellesley College from 1981–1993 and Duke University from 1993–2004. Keohane is the author of “Philosophy and the State in France,” and co-edited “Feminist Theory: a Critique of Ideology.” Most recently, she published “Higher Ground: Ethics and Leadership in the Modern University.”
Keohane was also been vice president of the American Political Science Association, and served on the editorial boards of The American Political Science Review, Ethics, Political Theory, and Signs. Keohane recently discussed with the School’s Office of External Affairs a new book she is currently writing, fittingly, on leadership.
Tentatively titled “Leading Questions,” Keohane pointed out that the book was originally intended for current and prospective leaders. As her research progressed, however, the focus expanded to include political philosophers. “I’m trained as a political philosopher and I’m finding that particularly rewarding,” she said. “I’m trying to balance two goals in writing a book that will be helpful for leaders and would-be leaders, but also go deeply enough into political philosophy to intrigue my colleagues who may not think this topic has anything to do with what they’re writing about.
“Political philosophers are trained to think about topics such as rights and liberty and justice,” Keohane noted. “But most of them don’t know first-hand what it’s like to have power because very few political philosophers—as is true of most academics—have ever held office or had significant authority. My purpose is to reflect on leadership as a political philosopher, the way Machiavelli did, but very few other people have done.”
While some have held the dual roles of political philosopher and leader, such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, none have written about what leadership looks like from within. “The few of us who are political theorists who have experienced power,” Keohane said, “should write about it, so that people can see what it is like on the inside. Most of the examples [in the book] are people from the world of politics, particularly American presidents, and some from corporate life. Only a few of them are from academia.” Abraham Lincoln, Lyndon Johnson, Mahatma Gandhi, Ronald Reagan, Nelson Mandela, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt are among those Keohane has researched, though, she explained, there will undoubtedly be more examples to explore.
Bringing some of her research into the classroom during the spring 2008 semester, Keohane taught WWS 528e: Leadership, a graduate seminar that drew from classical political theory (including Plato, Machiavelli, and Max Weber), current leadership literature, and case studies of decision-making.
“Professor Keohane facilitated a learning environment in which students were given the opportunity to talk through their ideas and learn along with her—as she put it—instead of sitting through lectures in which they were exposed to only the professor’s arguments,” said Meghan Nutting MPA ’08. “Her personal experiences with leadership also contributed greatly to the class, as she provided a superb example of what exactly it was that we were studying.”
“I was drawn to Dr. Keohane’s leadership course because of her credentials as both a leader and as a scholar,” added Thomas Minton MPP ’08, who has worked for 18 years in the federal government. “Her enthusiasm for the subject is contagious, and I am the better for having been a part of this seminar. She has instilled in me a real desire to continue my study of leadership theory and to put what I have learned into practice, as I strive to become an ever more effective leader.”
One of the chapters in Keohane’s forthcoming book deals with how and why followers matter in leadership, including delving into the role followers play; what the nature of their expectations may be, as well as the opportunities and limitations this group presents to leaders. “You can’t, according to many theories of leadership, lead people in a direction that they really don’t want to go, unless you are a coercive, authoritarian tyrant,” she said. “Therefore you have to be responsive to what people want. You can try to shape it, but you can’t ignore it.”
Keohane further explained: “Others would go so far as to say that leaders are purely epiphenomenal; they’re just bobbing along on the tide of what other people want, and we project these attributes on to them because we think of them as ‘big folks.’ In fact, they are really just acting in response to what their followers are trying to make happen.” But her own experience running major organizations leads her to be quite skeptical about the view that leaders are primarily shaped by their followers. “It certainly didn’t feel that way to me,” Keohane said. “I really felt as the president of a university that I had a good deal of scope in what I was doing. Still, there is no doubt that the contributions of followers are important to the success of any project.”
She asserted that leaders must be careful to watch out for flatterers and make sure that some people will tell them the truth. “It’s very tempting for leaders to surround themselves with people who tell them what they want to hear,” Keohane observed. “That is a kind of corruption that makes you less admirable as an individual, and also makes you a less effective leader. You get used to being around people who are full of praise for you—you have to be very wary of that. On the other hand, you have to have a lot of self-confidence or you can’t function well as a leader. Thus, the balance lies between self-confidence and your awareness of the way in which power can affect you.”
Keohane noted that leaders are also exposed to significant temptations. “For some people the temptation may be greed, or it may be dishonesty, or it may be manipulation. And I think the way in which power affects you will, to a large degree, depend on your character.” But, she contended, “The kinds of temptations to which powerful people are subject haven’t changed that much since the time of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians.”
Keohane is also examining leadership in the context of small groups, and in democracy generally. “Some people hold that leadership is somehow alien to, or at odds with, a pure democracy,” she said. “In a very small democracy—not a huge one like our country, but something like a New England town or commune—some people would say that if it’s working properly, there is nothing we would recognize as leadership there. According to this view, leadership is something that happens only in large groups or in flawed situations, and I just don’t think that is true. I think that in any group of human individuals larger than a family or a couple of intimate friends, there will have to be leadership if any common goals are to be pursued.”
Without leadership, Keohane argued, even the smallest collective project can’t happen. “Even if, for example, everybody wants to build a bridge over a creek in a little town in New England, you’re not going to be able to do it unless someone steps forward and says, ‘OK, let’s think about where to put the bridge, let’s ask somebody to design it, let’s figure out where to get the materials and decide who will work on the project on which days.’ That person might be a member of the town council, or could be a volunteer. Either way, that’s leadership, yet we generally think of the word as denoting a much huger thing.”
Stanley Katz, professor of public and international affairs and director of the School’s Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies, who has read chapter drafts of Keohane’s new book, commented, “Nan has written an unusually compelling book that uses political philosophy to understand the concept and function of leadership. Too often we are told either that leaders are born, or that they must model themselves on others. She teases apart the idea of leadership in a way that should actually help us understand what leaders should do, and why. This is a wonderful example of how humanistic scholarship can make a difference in the ‘real’ world.”
One of the major points Keohane wants to emphasize in the book is that “in any human community some individuals set goals and mobilize people to follow, and that’s how things get done,” she asserts. “Otherwise human societies wouldn’t get anything accomplished together. The issue is to figure out how you can have leadership in a democracy without having some people become permanently more respected because of having been leaders, gain lasting perks and higher status. This perpetuation of inequality is what we should be trying to avoid, rather than thinking we can do without leaders. There are a number of clues about how to tackle that problem in political philosophy, and pulling those together is one of the major purposes of the book.”