On Leadership

Now that the government shut-down and debt ceiling crisis has – for the time being – passed, a call for leadership is all the rage, and to some extent it has been for years now. For many, asking for leadership is code for, “we need someone to push through MY/OUR plan.” There are some more sensible calls that ask for leadership in the sense of seeking wisdom and common ground.

The heart of our country’s division right now has to do with a disparity of groups who differ on very fundamental issues. This is born out when politicians and others say, “The real question is,” or “the real problem is…” Beware of those phrases! There is a deep divide in our country, says every pundit.

What really is leadership? It involves two main components. First, knowing what need to be done. And second, helping those involved get it done. In case the second part is not working, refer back to the first part. Leadership is a behavior; leader is a designation. Leaders do not always lead. Next, leadership can ONLY succeed when there is some agreement, which is based on consensus, which is based on compromise. Consensus comes when people talk and give in. Now, there are principles that some people believe should not be compromised. And thus, in getting to some YES, the devil is in the details.

In standard decision making process, after the nature of the problem is agreed on, we next look for ideas toward solutions. While I am confident that none of us are really ready to agree on the exact problem, which is certainly part of the problem, there is no shortage of ideas and proposals toward a solution. From a view above, we may survey the factions.

First is the Tea Party, whose membership is at least coalesced enough to agree that they dislike government and taxes. I believe they have rallied around only one vague cause of anger, and when the rubber meets the road, it is not really at government or taxes, but their leaders have inflamed them on these issues through rightist media and capitalizing on actual or rumored bad experiences with government. What I mean is this group stands on weak ground. Their leadership has recently been the shrillest, and they have finally played their weak hand and lost. Not Dick Armey, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann or even Ted Cruz has shown they can forge a lasting bloc. But they have certainly gotten the attention of the world with this latest tantrum. It looks like a portion of their ranks are justifiably disgusted; those who signed up on a trial basis are looking elsewhere. For many, only the anger remains, and others hold on to both anger and ideology.

There are moderates on both sides of the isle. Here I characterize moderates not as wishy-washy, or absolute split-the-difference people, but those who see compromise and shared leadership as principles just as important as their political points of view. And those priorities are shared by the left and right. Those on the right tend to be pro-business, skeptical of government and regulation. The left has more faith in government and what it implies.

The farther left group has definite ideas about how government can right social wrongs, and positively intervene in the market. Its membership has shrunk in terms of numbers and influence. But a believing core is still very real, and they turn out in national elections.

Now, what about our two leaders at the present forefront of government? I believe Speaker Boehner has worked hardest to preserve his job, but when the fate of the global economy was at stake, he gave in and did what was best for the country. On the political spectrum, he lies midway between a sensible moderate on the right and the Tea Party. His job requires that he represent both his district and the entire House. His party should come third. I would say this if the Speaker were a Democrat, too. According to the principles I outlined above, Speaker Boehner has not succeeded at leadership.

At various times, a portion of any of these groups can be inspired to leave on group and join another. Talking points, a strategy to coalesce ideas in public, are designed to nab the unconvinced. Furthermore, when given the chance, we tend to predict what we wish for. We do this partly out of human nature, and partly to sway our listeners. Any speaker must admit to this, me included.

True leadership looks for common ground, like a Venn diagram. True leadership requires an awareness of the big picture, and bases decisions within the existing facts and genuinely good values. I believe that is where President Obama has stood throughout this process. The problems have come when people want to see a reality or attack a problem that does not exist.

If we are to have any hope and faith for the future of our country, and its role as global leader, we must put the big things above the small. “Fed up” is not a leadership or governing strategy, it is a symptom. “No compromise” is likewise a symptom and does not belong in legislating. In the past, a common vehicle to rally change is to use inflammatory and extremist language, applying it to more mainstream causes. This well-intentioned strategy tacitly encourages extremism and gridlock. It is not time for a revolution, but it is time for the entire populace to wake up, listen and be heard. If the rest of us don’t wake up, the crazies will fill the void. And that is what just happened.

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About Jim

I've been leading outdoor environmental education in the YMCA since the 1970s. I love teaching nature, history, current events, being a dad, fixing stuff, groups, and general thinking.
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