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Reputation and Governance Styles: The Leader as a Smart Aleck

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Because we have a global audience, I must start by explaining that, according to the Oxford American Dictionary, a smart aleck is “a person displaying ostentatious or smug cleverness’.  It also reports that one usage of the word ‘smart’ means: “(of transactions) unscrupulous to the point of dishonesty”. If you watch crime movies the way I do, there is a tendency to admire ‘smart play’, that is, ruthlessly clever and effective maneuvers. The best crime bosses are masters of ‘smart play’. In order words, they are smart alecks.

What is fascinating is how often (particularly in the massed punditry of elite global media) a capacity for smart play by political leaders is glorified. Leaders are routinely judged and compared with regard to whether or not they appear to shape the game, determine events, or impose their will on others and so on. If they do not seem to do that, they are dismissed as effete. If they seem to do that, they are admired and glorified.  What is particularly striking is how often the writers who say these things leave out ethical standards. I believe, for instance, that true evil is a willingness to act without ethical considerations. Yet, notice how often leaders are admired for ostentatiously clever play even if the methods are odious.

But I am interested in a much narrower question. And it is this: if we leave out ethical considerations, is a reputation for ‘smart play’ good for a leader? Does it make her more effective?  To throw this into bold relief, I am going to tell two kinds of stories- one domestic, and the other global.

Quote of the Week: James Surowiecki

Sina Odugbemi's picture

“But, if recent history has taught us anything, it’s that self-regulation doesn’t work in finance, and that worries about reputation are a weak deterrent to corporate malfeasance.”

-James Surowiecki, Staff Writer, The New Yorker

-As quoted in The New Yorker, July 30, 2012. Bankers Gone Wild