In a moment of crisis, when things seem to be most falling apart, be it after a Katrina-like event, market collapse, or a 9-11 terror, the public turns to its leaders for a sense of reassurance. These are times when leaders have to be smart about how they present themselves. They have to make a calculated decision about not simply about what they’re going to do, but how they will present themselves.
This decision leaders make about presentation of self is absolutely critical, and if mishandled can have disastrous effects. Leadership at this time is a question of language as much as it is of action. In the long run, what leaders accomplish is the litmus test, but in the immediate short run, what leaders say is of psychological and political importance.
Scholars of leadership talk about two types of leadership styles: transformational and transactional. Transformational leadership is based on presentation of a broad vision and new perspectives. It is a style that is embodied by a paradigmatic shift. The language of transformational leadership strives to inspire confidence, by using history, culture, stories, and all those things that are able to mobilize a collective. Transformational leaders instill a sense of collective and a sense of commitment.
Transactional leaders tend to specify how they will move from point A to point B. This is not a language of aspiration, but a language of execution. Transactional leaders specify the nuts and bolts of what needs to be done. They are less obsessed with commitment and concerned with resources and coordination.
In a time of crisis, leaders need to do both. They need to be transformational to instill a sense of commitment that we’re in this together, and transactional to make sure that efforts are sustained and visions are achieved.
Great political leaders, like Lincoln and Roosevelt, understood that in times of uncertainty the importance of using both leadership styles to reassure the public that even if the sky was falling, that we could get it under control. If our present political leaders understand this as well, then there is the hope that they’ll be able to calm the panic and inspire a quiet, confident sense of direction.