Since November, 2008, conservative intellectuals, politicians, and others on the reactionary right have taken every opportunity to insult and caricature President Obama while impugning his motives and defaming his record. In 2011 and 2012, the most recurrent distortion has accused the president of campaigning whenever he delivers a major speech be it the State of the Union or one on a specific issue. This line of attack is as deranged as it is dangerous.
Any president including President Obama has specific Constitutional duties and an implicit and even more important role. This core responsibility of any president is to lead. In order to effectively discharge this vital duty, a president must engage in the five practices of exemplary leadership ultimately identified by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner through a twenty year study involving 75,000 people. Most presidents who have been effective leaders have followed these practices intuitively. Any president who fails to properly employ and deploy these practices falls short in the most crucial aspect of the job. In the corrosive climate of contemporary politics, one cannot expect fanatical partisans or opportunistic politicians to let truth deflect them from potentially advantageous lines of attack or deter them from misrepresenting an opponent’s actions. We can, however, hope citizens care enough about the Republic and their role in its preservation to cherish the truth and choose it over the tirades.
The first of five essential practices of effective leadership is “Inspire a shared vision.” A potent and captivating vision delivered in an inspiring way is the ignition of any leadership effort. Such a vision and such a delivery is vital to overcome inertia and warm up the engines of change that renew systems and cultures. An inspiring vision provides the courage people need to break with the habits and customs of the past and undertake new approaches wherever necessary. It engages the latent energies and channels the efforts of the team, unit, or citizenry. Most importantly, once it becomes shared and understood, a great vision provides the determination and discipline to actually implement changes where and when necessary.
The second of the five practices is “Model the Way.” Judy McDowell and Randy Williams have elaborated on this practice with a set of five values that they propose are essential to success for leaders today. These are especially vital if success is defined by how a leader cultivates and enriches the human condition as presidential leadership most certainly does. McDowell and Williams explain these five values in a mnemonic as follows:
- Always lead with kindness, compassion, and equality.
- Generate hope and faith through co-creation.
- Actively innovate with insight, reflection, and wisdom.
- Purposely create protected space founded upon mutual respect and caring.
- Embody an environment of caring-helping-trusting for self and others.
Candid comparison of President Obama’s leadership efforts with those of virtually every prominent Republican demonstrates his superiority in regard to these five key values. The recent State of the Union address showed President Obama meeting two imperatives to Model the Way. He clarified his values by finding his voice and affirming positive ideals shared by most Americans. Secondly, he has been setting an example by ever more fully aligning his actions with his stated ideals and values. In this manner he is building unity and creating commitment by sharing and a
The third of the five essential practices is “Challenge the Process.” This is a frequently misunderstood and misapplied practice. To Challenge the Process does not mean to challenge hallowed values or standards, just because unity, justice, domestic tranquility, national security, shared prosperity, and ordered liberty are truly hard to achieve and sustain does not mean they should be abandoned. It does not mean attacking other people with whom one doesn’t agree or whose ideas or points of view one disputes. Nor does it mean disparaging or seeking to dismantle what is working well, demeaning and ridiculing the institution one aspires to lead, or attempting to eliminate something that is simply a personal inconvenience or pet peeve such as NPR or Planned Parenthood. To Challenge the Process is to find and implement new and better ways of doing things in order to more fully achieve worthy purposes and constantly improve the state of the union for all Americans.
In order to constructively and successfully Challenge the Process a leader must act judiciously. First, the leader must respect the culture in which the process is embedded. In the State of the Union address, President Obama reminded us all: “What’s at stake aren’t Democratic values or Republican values, but American values. And we have to reclaim them.” Despite slanders and libels to the contrary, the President is not some alien who has misappropriated the Presidency. From the beginning of his political career to the present day, his values have been and are grounded in those expressed by the Republic’s Founding and Framing documents. Second, leaders must understand the process they are challenging. It is likely that they will offend or antagonize people who benefit from the process as it is. For example, calling for a higher tax rate on income from investments arouses opposition from many who pay 15% on millions in investment income. Third, leaders who Challenge the Process must build a compelling case. Part of a leader’s role is to help people go to places they have never been before. That means one will be frequently be calling for the blazing of new trails, with great ideas for doing things differently, which have never been fully proven. One has to find and present evidence and examples to convince people that the approach is worth pursuing. In the Republic government is by the consent of the governed and we are all best served when this consent is informed. Fourth, transformational leaders must build advocates both within and beyond their immediate circles. Leaders need to build a rousing chorus of unity for the new and better way. Having competent, committed people throughout nation carrying the message forth is a necessity to make progress. If one is unable to get others to join in, one can easily run out of energy and one’s better ideas will forever remain simply ideas, not implemented and ongoing improvements. A critical mass of supporters, from a wide variety of levels and interests, is often all one needs to succeed. Fifth, the leader needs to build credibility through small wins. This is one reason President Obama adopted the “We can’t wait” tactic. From the day of his election in 2008, Republicans have been the “Party of No.” It has often been reported and admitted that Republicans want to deny President Obama any win. He has wisely decided to confront and confound this obstructionism. Small wins allow leaders to build a track record with the people, and to show that they can be counted on to deliver what they promise. Following through on promises and commitments is at the core of credibility and credibility is indispensable for every leader. When leaders are viewed as credible, others will have more confidence when they propose a new and currently unproven way of doing something. When leaders do what they say they will do every day and deliver consistently on the small things, they will be trusted on and with some very large opportunities about which they are passionate. Finally, leaders must choose their battles thoughtfully. In hopes of demonstrating how smart or important they are, some aspiring leaders are seduced by the dark side and .become constant critics. Effective leaders accept the fact that they cannot Challenge every Process. They selectively apply their time, talent, and energy toward improvements or breakthroughs that are worth the pursuit. Like every aspect of leadership, Challenge the Process is about performance and possibility. It is not the easy way of “Monday-morning quarterbacking” that calls out problems or inefficiencies and tries to blame others for them. It is the much harder task of inspiring and mobilizing people to figure out and implement better ways. Effective leaders focus on a few opportunities where they can take some real and measurable action. As President Obama stated, “We will not go back to an economy weakened by outsourcing, bad debt, and phony financial profits. Tonight, I want to speak about how we move forward and lay out a blueprint for an economy that’s built to last, an economy built on American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers, and a renewal of American values.”
The fourth of the five essential leadership practices is “Enabling Others to Act.” This practice is critical to any leader’s success. No leader can survive long term without a team of people working together to take advantage of all the opportunities and to resolve all the challenges they face. No American political leader can succeed without a corps of committed citizens acting on behalf of the leader’s vision and message. As Margret Mead stated, one should “Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.” This power increases as the group of committed citizens progresses from small to large. Exemplary leaders know they do not go it alone and key to this practice is when they are able to create an environment in which people do —not the least they must but the most they can – not because they have to, but because they want to. President Obama explicitly recognized this in his conclusion to the State of the Union. “So it is with America. Each time I look at that flag, I’m reminded that our destiny is stitched together like those fifty stars and those thirteen stripes. No one built this country on their own. This nation is great because we built it together. This nation is great because we worked as a team. This nation is great because we get each other’s backs. And if we hold fast to that truth, in this moment of trial, there is no challenge too great; no mission too hard. As long as we’re joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, and our future is hopeful, and the state of our union will always be strong.” Leaders who “Enable Others to Act” spread their influence far beyond their physical sphere. Committed citizens reflect the leader’s vision and persona. They act in the best interests of the leader and the Republic because they are committed to the same things and dedicated to the same purposes.
The fifth and final practice of exemplary leadership is “Encouraging the Heart.” For years, people have operated under the myth that leaders ought to be cool, aloof, and analytical; they ought to separate emotion from effort. It has been repeatedly said, “Real leaders don’t need love, affection, and friendship. “It’s not a popularity contest” is a phrase all of us have heard often: leaders purportedly feel “I don’t care if people like me. I just want them to respect me.” This is nonsense. Leadership is all about people, and if one is going to lead people, one must care about people. Simply put, people will not care how much leaders know until they know how much leaders care.
The Center for Creative Leadership in Colorado Springs through an assessment of three factors, Inclusion, Control and Affection, has found that the single factor that differentiates the top performing leaders from the bottom is higher scores on affection. Contrary to the myth of the cold-hearted commander who cares little about people’s feelings, the highest-performing leaders show more warmth and fondness toward others than do the bottom 25 percent. They get closer to people, and they’re significantly more open in sharing thoughts and feelings than their lower-performing counterparts. Not caring how others feel and think about what they do and say is an attitude for losers in leadership —an attitude that can only lead to less and less effectiveness. The evidence suggests that expressing affection is important to success, and all people need it. People do not love leaders because of who they are; they love them because of the way they make people feel. This axiom applies equally in a political context. It may seem inappropriate to use words such as love and affection in relation to politics. Conventional wisdom has it that governance is not a popularity contest, however, all things being equal, people will work harder and more effectively for leaders they like. And people will like leaders in direct proportion to how leaders make people feel.
Courage and encourage are two words with one origin: Heart. “You gotta have heart; miles and miles of heart. There’s no bravery or boldness without heart. There’s no spirit or support without heart. There’s no sacrifice or soul without heart. Nothing great ever gets done without heart. You gotta have heart. Without caring, leadership has no purpose. And without showing others that they care and what they care about, leaders will never get other people to care about what they say or what they know. In the words of President Obama, “But what we can do, as flawed as we are, is still see God in other people, and do our best to help them find their own grace. That’s what I strive to do, that’s what I pray to do every day.” For all those who question the President’s Americanism or his faith or his legitimacy, this statement should prompt a thoughtful pause. Perhaps these critics could find the grace to follow the president’s lead toward one nation, indivisible with liberty, equality, equity, and prosperity for all. Perhaps those who relentlessly carp and censure should consider this as well: “If the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists – to protect them and to promote their common welfare – all else is lost.”
Whether incumbents, candidates or ordinary citizens now is the time for us to unify and follow this charge: “Think about the America within our reach: a country that leads the world in educating its people; an America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs; a future where we’re in control of our own energy; and our security and prosperity aren’t so tied to unstable parts of the world. An economy built to last, where hard work pays off and responsibility is rewarded.” This is not simply campaigning, it is leading. Let us be wise enough to recognize the difference and brave enough to act on it. If we fail to follow the lead of this good man, in years to come when we look into the eyes of children entrusted to our care we will cringe in the knowledge that we had a chance to make a difference, but lacked the courage to try. Is it not better to mutually pledge to one another our energies, our fortunes, and our sacred honor so that this nation moves ever closer to being one nation, indivisible, with liberty, equality, justice, and prosperity for all?
As Robert Kennedy declared forty-four years ago:
“The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of bold projects and new ideas. Rather, it will belong to those who can blend passion, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals of American society.”
Let us ensure by our choices and actions in 2012 and beyond that we are the people who “blend passion, reason, and courage” in an enduring and effective commitment to the hallowed ideals of the American Republic.