Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Redefining Leadership

"Follow the path of the unsafe, independent thinker. Expose your ideas to the dangers of controversy. Speak your mind and fear less the label of 'crackpot' than the stigma of conformity. And on issues that seem important to you, stand up and be counted at any cost" 
- Thomas J Watson 

Reading this quote, I was struck on how it captured the very essence of leadership; something that seems in rather short supply these days. Of course many of you finding yourselves agreeing with this sentiment are now asking who Mr Watson was, not having heard the name before. He was not in fact Sherlock Holmes trusted associate and housemate at 221B Baker Street, that was Dr John Watson. 

Thomas John Watson was the president of a company of no small import to the US and the world from 1914 to 1956, International Business Machines. When the president of IBM during its heyday says something on the subject of leadership, you might well want to listen. Certainly some of those in Washington DC could stand a bit of tutelage on the subject. How else would you describe most of what has been going on in recent days, except of as a lack of this rather critical attribute in any elected official? 

Certainly no one would say that the Democrats who controlled the White House, the Senate, and the House showed leadership for failing to pass a budget in 2010 for the first time in this country's history. Neither would many say that the President showed leadership in brokering what has become the budget compromise that brought this particular drama to a close. That is unless of course, you would call it leadership to accuse both sides in the discussion of being little more than petulant children rather than putting forward a legitimate plan of your own. 

The nation's chief executive likewise showed no signs of primacy in dealing with the situations in Egypt and in Libya, instead allowing events to unfold before attempting to take any role at all. (A role he seems content to play as the rest of the Middle East and Africa continue in turmoil.) Having finally assumed that role in Libya however, he then abdicated such responsibility almost immediately, taking a second chair position to NATO while US soldiers were (and are) put in harm's way. 

Even now as 2011's budget will set aside in favor of the beginning of discussion over raising the debt limit and trying to come up with a budget for 2012, the nation's leader appears only now ready to unveil a plan of his own for the period. While one could say that he enters the fray before Congress begins its debates on the subject, others would point out that he does so a full week after Republicans in Congress (in the person of Paul Ryan) unveiled their own vision of the future. 

Lest Republicans decide to take pride for having now assumed the mantle of leadership in the nation, let us remind them that at no time during the last Congress did any member of the GOP in either House step up and put themselves forward with a budgetary blueprint; even as the jumping off point for discussion. And while I applaud the principles put forward by Rep. Ryan's effort, many with a knowledge of what goes on in DC have said that the timing of the 2012 budget announcement was little more than political expediency to divert attention from the compromise that was eventually reached over the 2011 budget. 

Neither have Republicans, while in the majority in the House, brought any legislative pressure to bear on the ongoing military madness masquerading as the current foreign policy in North Africa and the Middle East. Nor have they chastised the president for unilaterally creating the Libyan no-fly zone without consulting or even informing Congress; or pressed the president, as their counterparts did in Iraq and Afghanistan, on defining the mission goal or devising an exit strategy for this affair before entering it.

It appears that leadership as Mr Watson defined it is in rather short supply in today's politicians in Washington. Rather than accepting the mantle of leadership granted to them by gaining elected office, they instead seem (paraphrasing Mr Watson's words) always ready to accept the stigma of conformity for fear of being called a crackpot. 

In fact, those on both sides of the aisle seem far more concerned with keeping their jobs than with doing them. Unwilling to throw the first punch in the ring of public debate, they seem instead content to circle their opponent, endlessly dancing. Instead of wading into fight that they chose by running for office, they appear instead to be waiting for an opening, ready with a counter-punch when and if the opportunity presents itself. And while this may make for good political strategy, it makes for bad government. 

Truthfully, it seems more like a football game where both sides are trying to play a 'prevent defense' in the hopes of keeping the other team from embarrassing them by executing the big play. Not only has history shown that such attempts regularly fail, but ultimately it makes we spectators the real losers, regardless of which side wins the game. 

The resulting nonsense takes on little more importance than Olympic competition of rhythmic gymnastics. While it shows skill and may be mildly entertaining at times, throwing out the high and low scores in this event normally results in an average score of little more than '0'. 

But perhaps this is how leadership shall be defined as in the 21st Century (and more's the pity). It's a sad commentary of the quality of the leadership (and of the politicians) that we are presented with these days. It seems in fact, more in keeping with the words of French politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin:

"There go my people. I must find out where they are going so I can lead them."


Roland Hansen said...

I always find it interesting when the public cries for leadership in governmental affairs but cannot agree on the type of leadersip. In my opinion, the fact remains that there are as many different opinions on thre overall concept of leadership and opinions concerning the quality of leadership of any one politician as there are people who have those opinions.
If ever there is a consensus amongst Americans of what they want in a government leader, I will know I have died and gone to heaven.
I say to elected officials:
You cannot please all the people all the time. You cannot please some of the people any of the time. You can never please your detractors regardless of what you do or how you do it.

Timothy W Higgins said...


I agree that it is difficult for people to agree on what they want a leader to do, and pleasing even a majority of people is an almost impossible task. That being said, words do have meaning, and leadership cannot be defined as following.

We do not elect national leaders to take a poll before deciding on a course of action, nor do we desire them to be indecisive in critical situations.

This is not about party however, but about the nature of the political animal that we have created. With the next election beginning the day after the previous one ends, we have created a class of timid politicians. Many are simply too wrapped up in insuring that they keep their job to do it.

Roland Hansen said...

Amigo Tim,
Just think what would happen if we had a parliamentary form of government.

Timothy W Higgins said...


I'm not sure that much would change, but the debate might be more entertaining than what's currently broadcast on C-Span.