Today is President’s Day and the pundits are engaged in a ranking of our nation’s presidents as if it were the ‘leader board’ in a PGA tournament. I think this illustrates our national compulsion with polls and pundits compiling endless opinions and assessments about almost everything. For better or for worse, our president is the person that can shape the direction and potentially the destiny of our nation and the world. It is a thankless and paradoxical job in many ways. It is thankless because there is virtually no way any human being will garner unanimous approval for any decisions they make and the impact of most of their decisions will be left to history to judge anyway. It is paradoxical because in spite of their authority and power, they are limited by the mass and inertia of the bureaucracy, other nations and the institutional limits placed on the job. Guiding the ‘ship of state’ requires almost super-human compassion, a powerful and trusted team of advisors, extraordinary political acumen, and humility. To compare or rank these 45 men as if they were in a horse-race is an exercise of spectator-citizenry and a media who traffic in points of view without appreciation or ownership of what it takes to sit in the Oval Office. Moreover, our tendency to judge tends to mask what our responsibility as citizens could be for our leaders and for their success in Office.
For example, during Watergate it was almost impossible to find anyone who would admit to voting for Richard Nixon. We elect our president and within weeks if not days, begin to pass judgment on every policy or decision or appearance. We become seduced by a kind of national voyeurism, watching our nation’s leaders as if it were a reality TV show. A president’s “approval rating” takes on a significance beside the daily ‘Dow Jones’ report as if it’s meaning was somehow connected to what is actually happening or more importantly what should happen. Imagine if you spent as much time at work thinking about and reacting to your popularity index as our president does, how much work would you really get done.
While the competencies of our leaders may vary and they may be more or less effective in formulating policies or responding to National or International issues, they all must at some moment make critical decisions. If their decisions are governed by a scorecard of public opinion then they are going to mostly be making decisions to avoid disapproval rather than core values or principles or character. As I’ve shared in many of these blogs, when we try to resist or avoid something we generally get more of what we don’t want.
So rather than focus on whether we like or dislike the President or some aspect of his or her leadership, I suggest we reflect on what sort of citizen I am being? Who is responsible for leadership?
There is a lot of talk in government and most organizations about leadership. We say we need it. We hear endless commentary on who to blame for misdeeds and abuses of authority and trust. The question we don’t hear being asked however, is “who is responsible for leadership?” Moreover, if we stop and reflect, we recognize that leaders don’t lead without the commitment of those who follow and that uncommitted followers can destroy any leader no matter how talented or sincere. Leadership can be a solution to many problems, but it is a solution ONLY IF we are committed to a different future and take responsibility as leaders and learn to empower those we follow.
The key to this idea being more than rhetoric is in understanding that responsibility is about how we relate to the circumstances and is not a judgment of who is to blame for the circumstances. Responsibility is about ownership of the way things are; it is a state of being-in-the-world. No one can legislate responsibility or any other human quality… but responsibility can be learned and it can be coached and it can be the foundation for building a culture of leadership in which all of us share in creating the future.
I suggest that responsibility is a declaration of “who one is” in a situation. The word literally means ‘response-ability’…. the freedom to act. When we take a stand, we bring ourselves forth as committed in a manner that is not subordinate to the circumstances or the conventional wisdom of what is and is not possible. For example, if we say “this is my country, my government, my organization, my circumstances and my issues” then we might also declare that “I am responsible” for everything in my environment — not as an admission of wrongdoing or having created the issue, but as a commitment that opens a possibility of choice and action. If we aren’t responsible individually, then there is no possibility beyond continuing to cope with circumstances and becoming spectators of our situation.
Any situation or circumstance is the consequence of action. Whatever the future, we can safely assume that it will be the product action taken today…right now. This seems obvious whether we are speaking of having coffee with a friend, an individual’s career or the future of the whole Public Service. What is less obvious is that all of us are acting to the best of our ability based on the way we observe our circumstances, but these observations are a function of our historical stories of how the world works and what we believe to be possible. In other words, our actions are normally responses to our explanations and justifications for what has happened in the past. We assume that our organizations are ‘fixed’ realities and therefore commit only to what we think is reasonable and feasible. Actions based on this view however, will always lead to more of the same based on the past and reinforce the cultural and circumstantial status quo. Perhaps this is what George Bernard Shaw had in mind when he said:
Reasonable people adapt themselves to the circumstances
Unreasonable people adapt the circumstances to themselves
Progress (leadership) depends upon unreasonable people
What if we were committed to being unreasonable? What if we stopped blaming the system, or the politicians or the media or our workloads for whatever we consider negative in our current situation? What if we transformed the idea of leadership from being a solution to a problem to being an expression of each individual’s responsibility for creating the future? What if our actions were based on our commitment to and responsibility for a future worth having… a vision of mutual respect, straight talk, full and open cooperation, and a culture in which we value individual differences?
To have these ‘what ifs’ become ‘why nots’ will require we take different actions than we might ordinarily take. If we accept the premise that our actions are already correlated to the past, then it follows that to have a different future, we will require action that is a correlate of the future we are committed to creating. Our leaders need to stand for this possibility — not for reasonableness, not for public opinion and not for excuses of why it is hard to achieve our dreams in the current circumstances.
Becoming a leader and being responsible requires we challenge some of our most basic assumptions about the nature of ‘reality’ and who we are. We might begin by accepting that whatever we consider to be ‘real’ is always and only an interpretation. This can be heard cynically as ‘cheerleading’ or it can be heard as an opening for new forms of expression, new conversations about our values and who we are and most importantly, new action consistent with what we say we want. The question isn’t what the ultimate truth about ‘reality’ is, it is what interpretations of reality are we committed to and given those interpretations, what actions are we committed to today?
A second notion we should challenge is that one needs position, authority or control to have power and to make a difference. In our history, we have seen countless examples of individuals such as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Pierre Trudeau or groups like Amnesty International and Greenpeace taking a stand for what they considered to be right. While many might not agree with everything they espoused and sometimes they have had to pay a price, even their lives for what they stood for; they also shifted the larger conversations and interpretations for the rest of us and created a new reality based on a concern for the well-being of the whole society and future generations. These acts are always unreasonable; they always go against the prevailing wisdom and even sometimes against common sense. Yet these are the most powerful acts of leadership imaginable; they are acts of individual human beings being responsible for their situation and moving forward from a deep sense of trust for their vision, other human beings and a willingness to risk what is necessary to make a difference.
Another notion we can examine is the idea that leaders are special people with some innate capacity that allows them to become leaders. A more powerful idea is that leaders are ordinary people who make extraordinary commitments. In addition, leadership doesn’t happen inside an individual, but in the context of relationships and in the coordination of actions and practices in a community. In this sense, it is a social phenomenon that is a much a product of those who follow as of those who are recognized and acknowledged as leaders.
Finally, we should constantly remind ourselves that the future doesn’t happen ‘out there’ and it isn’t a problem to be solved or a ‘fixed’ reality waiting for us to arrive. The future is always a possibility and when it arrives it will always be a function of our individual and collective actions…today. Whether we are waiting for a great leader, aspiring to being leaders ourselves or simply seeing leadership as missing in our current circumstances — our choice is whether we participate and be responsible for bringing leadership into existence or whether we wait and watch and assume that someone else is responsible. If we choose the later interpretation, then we will remain trapped in the past and may end up with what we fear most — which for many is ‘more of the same’. On the other hand if we can be responsible and participate in creating the future then as Mahatma Gandhi said, we are “being the change we wish to see”…. We are being responsible for leadership and working together to transform our difficult circumstances into the raw material with which to create a future worthy of who we are.