Leading from Behind or Below or Something

Personal experience informs everything. Understand that when an English teacher leaves the profession and lands a job in industry – perhaps with an aerospace conglomerate in Los Angeles – that former teacher is going to land in Training and Organizational Development. There the job will start out with presenting endless leadership development workshops to first-time supervisors, involving slick prepackaged video-based interactive role-playing stuff, intended to let these guys know the secret to running their little part of the large corporation smoothly and effectively – but it doesn’t work. Those who are good with people and calm problem-solvers don’t need it – save for the minor sections on policies and procedures – and those who are inflexible jerks will never get it. Effective leadership, although it involves certain skills, is not a skill set. It’s more like a personality disorder. It can’t be learned, so there’s a reason the guys called the whole thing Charm School. It was about as useful. Proper etiquette can be learned. Charm cannot be learned. Neither can leadership.

There’s a reason for that. No one can decide what leadership is – a collection of specific traits or maybe attributes, or it’s a behavioral style, or the mastery of positive reinforcement, or that functional-theory stuff, where only the goal matters, or five or six other theories. That’s only made more confusing when one discusses effective leadership styles – as autocratic assholes, while despised and mocked, always get things done, but then some don’t. Supportive and laissez-faire leaders, who let their folks be all that they can be, always fail, except those who succeed, spectacularly. And of course all that is situational. Some folks perform magnificently after you berate and humiliate them, just to prove you wrong, while others fold and give up. Those are the ones you have to encourage and stand behind, even if they screw up a bit here and there, because they’ll be grateful someone actually believes in them and do great things. Of course it’s deadly to get the two types confused.

It’s complicated. Leadership is more than telling folks what to do, or explaining your vision, as they say. Sure, inspire others – enthusiasm is infectious – but know that a whole lot of people are impervious to inspiration. They have their own agendas. You aren’t going to win them over by the force of your personality either. Be firm but sympathetic, or sympathetic but firm, or… something. Needless to say, those leadership development workshops for those first-time supervisors didn’t go well. A few of them were natural leaders, but that was something you could sense, not explain. They’d be fine. The rest of them would never be fine. All you could do was to show them a few things that might limit the damage that was sure to come.

So, if personal experience informs everything, a year or two of presenting those leadership development workshops would color one’s reaction to the week’s big topic, the one endlessly discussed – whether Obama is a total failure as leader, or recently became a total failure, having lost his “juice” or something, because, as much as he tried, and even if more than ninety percent of the country agreed with him, he couldn’t get even the most minor of gun control reforms – expanded background checks for gun purchases – passed. The minority in the Senate had enough votes to block an up-or-down vote on that, and the House, where the Republicans are in control, would never pass such a thing in a million years. He had the whole country behind him. He’s the president. How could this have happened? This was surely the most spectacular failure in leadership the nation had ever seen – or something like that.

That was the discussion after his press conference early in the week – those on the right gleeful that Obama couldn’t get anything done, even when ninety percent of all Americans wanted it done, even what was obviously the right thing for the country, and those on the left angry that the Republicans had made getting anything done at all, good or bad, impossible. How can you lead when the minority will find any way possible to sabotage even what the people want, just to prove you can’t lead? Obama muddied the waters by talking about developing a “permission structure” that allowed at least a few of them to vote for what everyone agreed was a good idea, even if Obama also said it was a good idea. This might be a matter of Obama deliberately choosing to say not one word about any issue, large or small, so Republicans don’t have to oppose whatever it is, to appease their base – but of course that sounds even less like leadership. That’s giving up. Or it’s very clever reverse psychology.

The discussion went on and on – a discussion of leadership actually. Jamelle Bouie explained the problem nicely:

Much of Washington is in the grips of what several observers call the “Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Power.” For those unfamiliar with the comics, the Green Lanterns are a galaxy-spanning corps of space police. Each Lantern is given a power ring that emits a green energy. With it, Lanterns can do anything – the only limit is their will.

Likewise, pundits and journalists from across the spectrum seem to understand the president as a singular figure whose power flows from his willingness to “get things done.” If Obama can’t get legislation through Congress, for example, it’s because he hasn’t been willing to pressure, cajole and influence. What this ignores is that Obama can’t actually force individual lawmakers to do anything – after all, they come to Congress with their own interests and priorities.

In other words, congressional Republicans have agency, and at a certain point, they need to be held accountability for their actions. It’s not on Obama that Republicans refused to expand background checks. To treat it as if it were obscures the realities of policymaking and helps Republicans evade responsibility for their choices.

That didn’t stop the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd from once again saying it was his job to make the Republicans behave:

Actually, it is his job to get them to behave. The job of the former community organizer and self-styled uniter is to somehow get this dunderheaded Congress, which is mind-bendingly awful, to do the stuff he wants them to do. It’s called leadership.

That’s her theory and she’s sticking to it, and she’s got the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank and the National Journal’s Ron Fournier on her side, in a discussion straight out of one of those leadership development workshops long ago, where some fool was talking about slapping around his people to get those fools to do their work – and they would, because they’d have to, because of the force of his personality. It was hard to explain that’s not how things work.

Now Jon Favreau is giving it a go:

Much has been written over the last few weeks about the limits of presidential power. Some smart observers have pointed out that these limits are not new; that historically they have had less to do with the personalities of our leaders than the structure of our democracy. The founders, reluctant to entrust any executive with the kind of authority that was so abused by the king they revolted against, created a separation of powers between co-equal branches of government.

But how boring is that? The more exciting story to tell is how Lyndon Johnson charmed and strong-armed his way to massive legislative victories. Much less interesting is the fact that most of those victories occurred while his party held record majorities in Congress. By the end of his second term, following the loss of 47 House seats and three Senate seats, one aide joked that Johnson couldn’t even get a Mother’s Day resolution passed.

This is a structural issue:

Today, a minority of senators can kill bipartisan legislation that is supported by a majority of their colleagues. And they frequently do. In the House, the speaker alone can kill bipartisan legislation that is supported by a majority of his colleagues. And he frequently does. Following some of this country’s worst mass shootings, a Republican senator and a Democratic senator with A-ratings from the National Rifle Association authored a gun safety bill requiring criminal background checks that was supported by 90 percent of the American people. If I were a reporter, I’d be more interested in what was wrong with the Congress that refused to pass that bill than the man at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue who relentlessly campaigned for it at more than a dozen events around the country.

Dowd and the rest are also forgetting recent history:

This president has played plenty of hardball and softball with members of Congress. I was there when he cut deals and cajoled his way to a health-care victory that 100 years’ worth of Democratic and Republican presidents had sought and failed to achieve. I saw him do the same with the recovery act, and student-loan reform, and Wall Street reform, and “don’t ask, don’t tell” – a legislative legacy that, whether you agree with it or not, already stands tall against any other president’s in recent memory.

I’ve also seen what happens to Republicans who dare to even contemplate cooperation with the White House. When Congressman Scott Rigell of Virginia accepted the president’s invitation to join him at an event highlighting the shipyard jobs that sequestration would destroy in his district, the two men had a warm and constructive conversation aboard Air Force One. The president talked about his willingness to pursue entitlement reform. Rigell said he was open to closing tax loopholes for the wealthy. In return, he was threatened with a primary challenge by his local Tea Party, attacked by Grover Norquist as a “cheap date,” and flooded with nasty calls and emails from conservative activists.

If you’re a Republican in Congress, what’s more likely to sway your vote – a trip on Air Force One and a personal plea from Barack Obama, or the threat of a Tea Party challenge that’s taken down so many of your colleagues in recent elections?

Then Favreau quotes Obama himself, from along ago:

This campaign can’t only be about me. It must be about us – it must be about what we can do together. This campaign must be the occasion, the vehicle, of your hopes, and your dreams. It will take your time, your energy, and your advice – to push us forward when we’re doing right, and to let us know when we’re not.

Yes, from the very start Obama wasn’t defining leadership as an alpha-male force-of-will thing, or even a shining-city-on-the-hill vision thing – it was a cooperative thing, a collaboration – which may be too much of a shift for people to handle.

Andrew Sullivan explains:

The president understands his role differently than his predecessor. He is not the “decider” – he is the catalyst for change that must come from below and from the other branches of government. He is not a legislator. And the Congress is the part of government that is currently failing us – not the president.

Sullivan cites the blogger Smartypants explaining the source of this:

I’ve often talked about the fact that in his days as a community organizer, President Obama studied and taught about power relations. It’s clear to me that he has an understanding of the power of partnership and is constantly calling on us to join him in exercising that power.

This is leadership as partnership, which is an unusual concept, and requires an unusual person to pull it off:

Practicing leadership from a position of “power with” requires that you have an independently strong ego and don’t need to dominate in order to prop it up or feed it. And it also requires trust in the people you set out to lead. These are some of the characteristics I most admire about President Obama and ones that are often most misunderstood by his critics on the left and the right.

It’s only natural that when people are so used to the power of dominance that they would dismiss the reality of the power of partnership. It’s why we so often hear Obama criticized as weak and naive.

Sullivan sees that as the misunderstanding:

The archetypal achievement of this president in that regard is his deployment of “power with” with respect to gay rights. The power to change came from below – but he masterfully guided it, nudged it, and helped without getting in our way. Ditto universal healthcare, when he refused to impose a bill, but demanded that the Congress come up with one along similar lines…

This is the same dynamic with immigration reform. A president is not a dictator or even a decider. He presides and enables, articulates and maneuvers the entire body politic. He can screw up – Toomey and Manchin were not the most connected Senators on Capitol Hill and couldn’t deliver many votes compared with the NRA’s relentless fanaticism. Baucus wasted critical momentum for universal healthcare. But he is emphatically not a legislative dictator in our system. And real conservatives will admire this – not leap to dismiss him as a “lame duck” because of it.

They won’t, because they are still stuck in the old narrative. They don’t realize it died. Bush killed it:

It began with the 2000 election, continued with 9/11 and a dubiously legitimate president marching the country into two deeply divisive and disastrously costly wars, trashing the country’s hard and soft power, and wrecking the government’s balance sheet before leaving his successor with the worst recession since the 1930s. Obama was elected to heal that gaping wound. And he has: one war is over, the other winding down; torture is over; alone among Western countries, the US economy is slowly, slowly returning to health – its rebound cramped by spending discipline. Obama’s re-election also cemented a deep social shift: we are now emphatically a multicultural country that celebrates that fact. Latinos and gays are part of the American spectrum. These are profound changes in five short years. And many seem ready now to relax and see his re-election as the end of the central narrative of the 21st Century so far.

Sullivan just wishes everyone would stop complaining:

You want more from him? Get off your asses and make him and the Congress do it. We’re a republic, not a benevolent dictatorship. And we remain lucky to have such a sane, stable, no-drama pragmatist to marshal the forces we can muster.

The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein is on the same page:

Fournier and other adherents of the Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency are caught between a question they can’t answer and an answer they can’t abide. They don’t know exactly what Obama – or any other president – could do to overcome the structural polarization that’s cracking Congress. But the idea that there’s nothing the president can really do is too displeasing to entertain. It suggests that politics is broken, and it won’t be fixed, at least not anytime soon. And that’s an unacceptable answer, even if rejecting it leaves you with an unanswerable question.

They have it backward. It’s raising the white flag to cling to an unanswerable question rather than staring down an unpleasant answer. The problems of American politics today are not overly complicated, or even overly controversial. They’re just hard to fix.

But we do have to fix them:

That means the work of repairing American politics is the work of understanding what tweaks and reforms are needed for the American political system to withstand this new world of polarized political parties. That’s going to be a lengthy and difficult project, and many political fights in the coming decades will, on some level or another, be about it.

But that work is made harder by pundits who continue to falsely promise that the glowing briefcase of president leadership can fix what ails us. Telling the American people that the only thing missing is the president being more awesome promises them the easy way out. It says that all they need to do to fix our politics is get inspired by a new presidential candidate and then cast a hopeful vote for him or her at the polls. That’s terrifically convenient, because that also happens to be the part of American politics that voters most enjoy participating in and that media most enjoys covering. …

But since the problem in American politics is not presidential leadership, telling them that the president – whether this one or a new one – can fix it traps voters in an endless cycle of inspiration and disillusionment. They vote for presidents expecting them to be “uniters,” expecting them to “change Washington,” and then they’re bitterly disappointed when their heroes fail. But on this score, presidents are going to continue to fail because they can’t possibly succeed.

This Green Lantern crowd, hoping for that awesome leader, saying we must have one of those or we’re doomed, as Obama is doomed and should just pack it in, simply has things backwards:

It’s not waving the white flag to say that the president can’t fix Washington. It’s waving the white flag to resist other explanations because they’re too depressing, or because the work they imply is too hard, or the fight they require will take too long. If the first step toward political recovery is admitting we have a problem, surely the second step is admitting what the problem actually is.

The problem is that we can’t even define leadership. No one can agree on just what it is, and lack of leadership, or the wrong kind of leadership, isn’t the problem anyway. As Klein says, presidents are going to continue to fail because they can’t possibly succeed in the system as it has evolved. The whole discussion may be moot.

Personal experience informs everything. All this did come up in those endless leadership development workshops for those first-time aerospace supervisors long ago. The idea was to teach those young engineers, with their advanced degrees in physics and mathematics and astrophysics, how to become awesome leaders of men and all that. They’d smile and say fine, so define what we’re talking about here.

That was a real problem. It was then. It is now – but at least back then we’d shrug and have a good laugh, and go out for a beer after we’d put in the necessary time pretending there was a way to figure it all out. It seems that’s no longer an option. Now it’s serious – but that still doesn’t mean there’s an answer. There never was.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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