Broadly speaking our fixation on leaders is centered on two distinct phenomena: the leader’s substance and the leader’s style. By substance I mean the content of what a leader does or tries to do. For example, to ask about President Joe Biden’s leadership on China is to ask about the content of his administration’s policy as it pertains to China. And to ask about Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s leadership on Bitcoin is to ask about the content of his company’s policy as it pertains to cryptocurrency.
Similarly, to describe Biden as moderate, collaborative, and transactional is to describe his leadership style – how he performs, how he interacts, how he gets other people to do what he wants them to do. And to describe Musk as immoderate, innovative, and transformational is to describe his leadership style – how he performs, interacts, gets other people to do what he wants them to do.
This distinction, between substance and style, is at the heart of the recent kerfuffle – or is it a scandal? – involving New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Scion of one of the most formidable figures ever in New York politics, the late Governor Mario Cuomo, the current governor was once thought to have it all. Brash and good looking, educated, and smart, and with a resume to match. He served in the Cabinet of President Bill Clinton, as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. And for over a decade he has served as governor of New York State.
Moreover, no one ever questioned his dedication or competence. He has worked hard as New York’s chief executive and has has gotten things done. In fact, notwithstanding several serious mistakes during the early months of the pandemic, spring 2020 was a time during which Governor Cuomo seem to flower. Most prominent were his daily news conferences which showed him and his team, including doctors and scientists, to best advantage. They were excellent events especially in comparison with their wretched counterparts, briefings held by the White House dominated by President Donald Trump. Trump was reliably ignorant, withholding, and narcissistic; while Cuomo was reliably informative, forthcoming, and empathetic. New Yorkers loved Cuomo’s briefings and they loved him. People across the country had Cuomo-envy.
Remarkable then to see him – just in the last week – crash to the ground. Some of the errors of Cuomo’s ways are said to be about substance. He has been charged with fudging figures: underreporting thousands of deaths of nursing home residents. But other of his errors were about style. His leadership style now widely reported to have been, for many years, bullying. There had long been rumors about Governor Cuomo being borderline abusive. But they were random, scattered, never close to constituting a critical mass. Now though the stories are consistent, focused, and accumulated. Reports of his yelling and screaming at his administrative underlings; threatening and intimidating his legislative colleagues; and demeaning and debasing members of the press have mushroomed. Cropped up all over the place, his many longtime adversaries and even enemies, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio high on the list, rubbing their hands and licking their chops in unmitigated Schadenfreude. How delicious!
If these stories signal Governor Cuomo’s impending political demise it will not be because he fudged figures, deliberately lied – or had subordinates lie for him. It will not be, in other words, because of substance. For it is relatively easy to backtrack on substance or even, if necessary, abjectly to apologize. However, to apologize for being a miserably bad boss, an aggressive and unreliable colleague, a nasty man with a short fuse and mean temper is not so easy. Which goes to show that while substance matters style matters more.