Thinking About Leadership

At the National Archives, leadership is shown throughout the agency by staff at all levels — senior executives, supervisors, specialists, technicians, students, and volunteers. Our leaders are important to fulfilling our mission on a daily basis, and crucial to the transformative changes we’ve set in motion at the National Archives. For our agency, it’s important for us to think about leadership — what it is, how it is accomplished, and how it can be improved.


Recently, I read the book, “Thinking About Leadership” by Nannerl Keohane, a former colleague and friend of mine from Duke University. She brings to this book a background in both active leadership (President of Wellesley College and Duke University) and political philosophy. Her goal is to “open up the ‘black box’ and shed light on leadership from this dual angle: as a theorist and a practitioner.” She sets out to provide a “fuller sense of the aims and activities of leaders and suggest how we might judge their performance.”

Leadership, according to Keohane, is “central to almost all collective social activity” and the following broad definition allows for the variety that is to be found:

“Leaders determine or clarify goals for a group of individuals and bring together the energies of members of that group to accomplish those goals.”

Leaders get things done by setting priorities “among issues that confront the group, so that the course ahead is more manageable and they are not trying to do everything at once.” Those leaders that are successful “do not usually make isolated decisions or issue fiats: they develop and pursue game plans.”

In her approach to understanding leadership, Keohane explains that leaders get things done by:

  • Making decisions
  • Devising and implementing strategies to achieve their goals
  • Compromising in order to achieve their goals
  • Listening to proposals or petitions from others
  • Adjudicating conflict
  • Assembling resources and deploying incentives
  • Giving voice to vision
  • Seeking counsel and issuing statements
  • Taking stands
  • Persuading others to follow a course of action
  • Deploying power

Keohane says the most valuable attribute of a leader in any context is good judgment. Other dimensions of judgment include: a quality of mind; capacity for making sense of things around us; capacious appreciation of the various features of a situation; “peripheral vision” or looking around to gauge the tone of your environment; foresight or the ability to understand what is likely to follow from different policy options and recognize pitfalls in the paths ahead; and a good sense of timing.

Additionally, leaders, according to Keohane, need both rhetorical and listening skills. She explains that good listening isn’t just about getting information, but it’s also about understanding complicated situations. She says, “It is easy for a speaker to fall in love with the sound of his own voice and fail to appreciate the importance of listening; but successful leaders usually demonstrate both skills.”

Keohane also focuses on three pairs of characteristics that are often helpful for leaders:

  • Passion and Proportion
  • Empathy and Detachment
  • Courage and Moderation

These seemingly opposite traits are important and the tensions between the traits serve to balance each other. Keohane states that “In many instances, courage involves the willingness to take risks. But at other times, courage may involve patience, humility, and a low-key approach to solving the problems of an organization in the face of great pressure from ministers or followers to do something dramatic and decisive.”

I encourage you to read “Thinking About Leadership,” which is available to all National Archives employees through “Books 24×7” as part of the Learning Management System on NARA@Work. The book is a worthwhile read, spurring you to think about your own experience as a leader and with leadership in general.

5 thoughts on “Thinking About Leadership

  1. Another interesting book on leadership is Mark Moyer, A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq. Moyer positions leadership (civil and military) as the most important factor in determining the success or failure of counterinsurgency campaigns. Many of exemplary leaders Moyer identifies have same qualities that Keohane describes.

    By extension A Question of Command suggests that the difference between an archives or library thriving or faltering rests significantly on the quality of its director.

  2. >good listening isn’t just about getting information, but it’s also about understanding complicated situations.

    The IdeaScale tool that was briefly open to NARA staff seemed a useful way for us to collaborate in proposing ideas. People all over the agency were able to weigh in about the scope of information needed to address various issues through the comments section of each proposed idea, and then we could all participate in voting the ideas up or down to help identify most things most useful to us now.

    Can this sort of collaborative environment be again made available? The brief pilots in 2010 were encouraging.

  3. Very interesting. The analysis certainly rings true to me. Thank you for this post.

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