A recent opinion piece by David Harsany a writer for Creator’s Syndicate said that the increased clamoring for leadership found in the news a lot lately is “unsavory, dangerous, and un-American”. What he thinks is that most of the folks quoted in the news seem to want is a “leader” who will aggressively push their preferred policies. The headline of the article is “Admit it: you just want your own dictator”. His several examples that support the headline are people of different persuasions who have condemned different president’s executive actions when they did not agree with them. The problem seems to be not who took the action, but comes only when the action supports something they do not like. I think he has a point. Our government in Washington seems to have been dead-locked over a number of issues that need to be addressed. But the voters and news media do not seem to understand what the term leadership should mean. By most of today’s textbook definition of “leader”, we don’t have any.
“The best form of government is a benevolent dictator.” This was something an early boss of mine liked to say, but then he would add that “benevolent dictators tend not to stay benevolent”. Dictators are more efficient at setting policy and can do things that people need, but may not want. (When I was boy not able to swallow pills, my Mother made me take medicine that did not taste good because it would make get me well more quickly.) Today there are things that we need to do to make us better in the long run, but they won’t be fun in the short run. Dictators can do anything that they want to do, whether it’s good for the people or not. They may try to get people to believe in their actions at least to the extent that they don’t revolt. But dictators are not leaders by most of the definitions that I had in grad school. Representative government is not particularly efficient and ours seems to be getting less so. I believe some things in the environment that have changed over the years have made it less so.
What is leadership?
My perspective comes from nearly 40 years of management experience, but none in government. My MBA had a concentration in management, and I have had numerous short courses on various aspects. My experience has included leadership positions in the military and more than 20 years of successful management experience in the corporate world responsible for several different service functions. I believe that similar leadership practices would work in government, but there are several things that make it more difficult. So first I would like to define what leadership is and then point out some things that currently get in the way.
The corporate world is not a democracy, but leadership is not dictatorship even in the corporate world. Corporate managers do make decisions, but the good ones don’t do it in a vacuum. There are probably two things that good leaders are concerned about. The first is of course a good decision. The second is to have all employees buy into it and be committed to making it work. These are not two independent events. None of us – leaders included – have perfect ideas. Better ideas and plans come from small groups that can discuss problems or issues from different perspectives. As a manager, I have always – even as an officer in the Army – asked people in my unit for suggestions. Steven Covey in his writings on effectiveness, talked about the 3rd alternative that can come from productive discussions between two or more people with different perspectives. People with different perspectives and knowledge will almost always find alternatives to complex problems that are better than either would have come up with alone. Books on creative problem solving have developed methods that can be used by groups to develop better solutions to complex issues that none would have come up with alone. This approach also helps with commitment. The more that people are allowed to make suggestions and participate in the group processes to address problems and policies, the more likely they are to be committed when the decision is made. Even if the final decision was not their preference, if they have been heard and allowed to participate, they will have a better understanding of why the decision was made, and be able and willing to support it.
Issues with Federal Government Leadership Practice
The world in the late 1700’s was different from today. Leadership at the Federal level was probably much easier then. Our founding fathers set up a republic, not a pure democracy, but a representative democracy. There were probably several reasons for this.
- Communication lags – It would take days or weeks for people in South Carolina or in main to hear from Washington – or each other.
- Time Constraints – people were responsible for them selves, providing food and shelter for themselves and their families. With a full-time job, who has time to study and understand the political issues.
- Judging on results – We could send people to Washington for 2,4,6 years and judge them – not on what they said – but on the results of governmental decisions and actions. One of the consistent ideas in Human Relations Management the last few years is that employees should be judged on results. Not on what they are saying or doing on a daily or weekly basis, but on a longer time frame and based on the results that have been achieved. Our founding fathers – accidentally or on purpose may have been ahead of their time.
- Travel issues – It was difficult and time-consuming to travel to a central location where one could meet and know something about the people who might be candidates for president. So the solution to that might be to elect representatives to go to Washington where they meet and hear from the candidates first hand; and so the solution seemed to be the electoral college. This would at least seem to have a chance of getting someone elected who might have leadership qualities and be willing to listen to all sides, rather than some dictatorial lines that might sell voters on voting for him or her.
Where are we today?
Listening to the news commentators today, one could get the impression that with the increases in the speed of communications and today’s ease of travel, that the type of representative government that our forefathers set up is obsolete. In today’s world, with the speed of our information systems and ease and speed of travel, we could have (maybe should have – or do have) a democratic government, not a representative government. I think there are some problems with this line of thinking that we will cover in Part 2 of this post.