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Ben Bernanke: indispensable leader?

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers,Leadership Skills

In my presentations and group coaching, I’m fond of quoting Charles de Gaulle’s observation that “The cemeteries are full of indispensable men.” While leaders have opportunities and responsibilities that only they can do, no one is indispensable. Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke may be the exception to de Gaulle’s rule.

As Robert J. Samuelson writes in The Washington Post, Bernanke, as one of the world’s foremost experts on the Great Depression and his willingness to take decisive and innovative action to restore the credit markets, could merit a Time magazine cover headline as “The Man Who Saved the World.”

While the praise for Bernanke’s reappointment is just about unanimous among economists, there are two basic criticisms of his performance. He didn’t see the crisis coming (who, in a position of authority did, by the way?) and along with Hank Paulson and Tim Geithner, he allowed Lehman Brothers to fail, thereby taking the global economy to the brink. Fair enough, but these criticisms come with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.

The great thing about Bernanke as a leader is that while the global credit markets began to freeze, he didn’t. He drew on his technical knowledge and immediately pivoted to exercise what two of my mentors, Harvard leadership experts Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, would call adaptive leadership. He recognized that new solutions were needed to keep the credit markets alive and, with his team, came up with new “liquidity facilities” that pumped $1 trillion into the system. The world’s finance chiefs followed his lead.

How did a guy whose previous leadership responsibilities were primarily within Princeton faculty pull this off? As I outline in The Next Level Model, Bernanke demonstrated strong performance in three main categories of personal presence, team presence and organizational presence. He demonstrated confidence when the world desperately needed him to and he stepped far out of the mold of his predecessors to custom fit his communications to vastly different constituencies. For team presence, morale at the Fed is high because Bernanke is the kind of leader who seeks input. Finally, in organizational presence, Bernanke clearly gets the concept of collaboration.

His work is far from over. But if he continues to lead as he has, I’m optimistic.

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