Issue 2.12 | August 2011

In this Article: courage in leadership begins with the courage to not think of yourself.

by Jonathan Wilson 

August 2nd, 2011 is a date that will remain infamous in history.  The day saw the close of the US government’s debt-ceiling debacle that, it is claimed, brought the world to the brink of economic crisis.  Whatever the true threat to the world that is associated with America defaulting, it is certainly on a portentous scale.  Yet it was tackled with an utterly disturbing display of brinkmanship, electioneering, posturing and ideological rigidity on fiscal policy.  What the world watched with dismay (and I suspect, increasing anger), Mitch McConnell, the US Senate’s minority Republican leader, described as nothing worse than “the will of the people working itself out”.

What in fact we saw was the most grievous display of self-interested leadership.

It is easy to point fingers.  The world of politics is normally governed (I use the word ironically and intentionally) by the short-term and the expedient.  We expect this in politics and it results in jokes that understandably convey cynicism, such as, “How do you know when a politician is lying?  Answer: his or her lips are moving.”  In truth, however, all leadership – and especially formal (institutional or organizational) leadership – is political.  Everyone of us – writer and readers – has made political leadership decisions.

I once coordinated the executive committee of a major initiative that included nearly a hundred stakeholder organizations and a substantial budget.  For very political reasons, a couple of committee members were opposed to my leadership.  Through misinformation, stalling of processes and direct challenges they made my role nearly unworkable.  At one point they accused me of “gross leadership incompetence” and of financial mismanagement of the project.  The rest of the committee disagreed on the former and an independent audit cleared me on the latter charge (we were in fact under budget).  Nevertheless, the powers that be were unwilling to take any decisive action to address their behaviour or the bid for power that it represented, nor would they allow me to do so.  The reason given was that the individuals concerned were “too politically significant”.

Wherever self-interest is valued at a premium we have leadership politics.  It is the trumping of self-preservation over responsibility, cause or principle.

Many a splendid vision lies wrecked on the rocks of its apparent cost.  Many a critical action dies in the hands of fear.  The perceived cost might be the loss of your job.  It might be the expenditure of yet more energy on frustrating experiences and unpleasant people.  It could be a life made miserable or a reputation tarnished.  It could be a relationship jeopardized.

The real cost of leadership politics, however, is usually much greater than anything the self-serving leader has managed to avoid.  With an eye on constituents (of whom only a fraction are the “people”) and the 2012 elections, among other things, US leaders held to ransom America’s economic health, and by extension, the world’s.  The great irony of the project I mentioned above was that, in the end, everyone lost: the troublemakers didn’t get the platform they wanted; despite its success the project in fact significantly underperformed against its real potential; and because of its dysfunction the committee was unable to capitalize on its strategic success – to the detriment of nearly a hundred stakeholders representing millions of people.   More often, the cost of leadership politics shows up in situations as common and simple as the dysfunctional but connected employee who remains ruinously in charge of an operation, to the detriment of products, colleagues and, most especially, customers.

Emerging leaders in particular need to learn very quickly that politics in leadership is the norm, not the exception.  To expect otherwise is naïve and dangerous.  Furthermore, it will prove a major cause of disillusionment.  Skilled leaders learn to navigate political environments with savvy.  But political savvy and political leadership are not the same thing.

There are at least three things we can do to avoid being leaders whose decisions are political rather than principled, self-preserving rather than leading.

The first is to think systemically.  It is important to consider the reactions of stakeholders, but to inform, not govern, strategic action.  Very often, the urge to please a powerful constituency distracts us from the longer-reach and longer-term implications of a decision.

The second is to think morally.  Although we live in a culture uncomfortable with (at least some) moral claims, it is my observation that what is unjust and immoral eventually plays itself out destructively.  As I’ve said before, my former boss Michael Cassidy has remarked that Apartheid failed in part because it was economically unsustainable: oppression gets expensive.  Expedient business decisions often prove to be insufficient and non-strategic.

The third is what not to think of: yourself.  This is the greatest challenge for every leader, because it cuts to the heart of leadership, but against the grain of being human.  Courage in leadership arises from a heart that considers the welfare of others as more important than the welfare of oneself.   But it also comes with that systemic and moral thinking which can give proper perspective to our inevitable self-interest, and enable us to recognize that there are other powers, other people, and other possibilities that lie outside of the network we are perhaps afraid of offending, that can be our fall-back, our refuge and our resource.

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