In a recent New York Times article, “Asking China to Act Like the US,” experts call for rethinking a United States foreign policy approach of acting unilaterally and attempting to force other countries—particularly China—to pursue policies aligned with American interests.

In fact, current US struggles to engage China on issues of common concern present an opportunity to rethink what it means to lead in today’s world. With the US ability to use political and economic force waning, officials could learn key lessons from an often overlooked source: small nonprofit organizations that have long operated on the margins of power with few financial resources. These grassroots nonprofits have been forced to find alternative ways of achieving policy and cultural change through leadership practices—including meaningful engagement and confrontation—that US diplomats could consider adopting.

Rethinking the US as a Global “Superman”

The recent failures of US attempts to lead as a singular superpower, particularly when it comes to China, reflect the broader limits of the traditional leadership model that relies on a single, “heroic” leader to set the agenda and use power and authority to get others to make it happen.

New theories in academic leadership research recognize that in a world characterized by uncertainty, interdependence, complexity and diversity, traditional leadership styles that assume a single leader’s ability to influence others by “whatever means necessary” are quite limited.

Leadership must be reframed for a world where power is more dispersed, and where no one single actor can claim to have all the resources needed to solve the problems at hand.  New approaches must rely less on the authority of an individual at the top and more on the wisdom of all participants involved in the work of achieving a shared outcome, independent of where they sit in the system. 

This perspective affirms the significance of each actor for making things happen (including the formal leader as well as the so-called traditional followers). It also highlights the power of developing a shared understanding among all parties involved so that they can devise a common vision and clarify the role each plays in making it happen.

Transcending “Winner-Take-All” Approaches

Recent research—including the results of a multi-year research program with 92 social change organizations conducted at NYU Wagner’s Research Centerfor Leadership in Action—has yielded intriguing results about how leadership can produce effective results experienced as a shared achievement among all participants. The best known example of this leadership as a collective achievement is the Civil Rights Movement, in which the contributions of people working at all levels transformed US laws and culture.

By looking at leadership as a process of trying to identify shared goals and ways to work together in benefit of the larger community rather than simply trying to achieve the immediate “wins” in which a single leader (in this case the US) prevails, the United States can transcend the dichotomy of undertaking either a tough policy stance of refusal to negotiate or feckless diplomatic exchanges with China. 

Leadership Practices to Manage Confrontation and Dialogue

How a leadership based on long-term connections and reciprocity works in practice can be seen in the ways nonprofit leaders engage with policymakers and public officials who have decision-making capacity over the conditions in their communities.  As nonprofit leaders work to address issues such as inadequate services, unjust policies or unsafe housing conditions, they must artfully manage the seemingly opposing demands of confronting those who obstruct change while keeping doors open to engage them in genuine dialogue.

The leadership practices they employ in this work offer insights to US diplomats working with China on ways to lead together:

  1. Cultivate and maintain credibility to help interlocutors see you as more reliable and trustworthy, which will mean threats are taken more seriously during confrontation and offers for collaboration are more convincing during dialogue.
  2. Act at different levels of a given system (at local and national levels in the case of the studied organizations) and develop many relationships across the system to help you gain a multi-perspective on the issues, manage information more strategically and gain leverage when entering relations with other major players.
  3. Promote a multiplicity of personal and institutional relationships within each organization and across organizations to engage in strategies of dialogue and confrontation simultaneously with different actors and levels within the same target, while preventing “burning bridges” with the entire organization.  Deep relationships, combined with credibility and connections in different parts of the targeted system, guarantee opportunities to introduce dialogue before or after confrontation while maintaining a strong relationship.

This type of leadership work runs counter to the US mental model of individualism and will not be easy. It requires significant energy and is often “invisible” work. It also may mean sacrificing expediency for stronger long-term relationships and can appear inefficient from the outside.  And yet it is necessary work to transform a shared vision into desired results.

Bringing diplomacy back to the forefront of foreign policymaking is consistent with new understandings of leadership that point to horizontal and dialogue-based approaches more appropriate for today’s uncertain, interdependent and complex world.  The recent exposure of internal diplomatic cables through WikiLeaks and the associated consternation worldwide should not distract us from the pressing issues that call for forging a new leadership relationship with China.  There are critical issues we must face together—from the question of a unified Korea to international trade balances.

US State Department diplomats, officers and public managers, as well as all participants at every layer of this agency’s hierarchy, must enact a type of leadership that helps them manage deliberately, with care and in unison, the relational requirements of their work so that they can engage their interlocutors around the world effectively. Investing in leadership development programs that promote and enhance this capacity represents a prerequisite to a new US foreign policy more in accord with today’s unstable and volatile times.