June 19, 2008

Is "Political Leadership" an Oxymoron?

A blog on leadership cannot ignore the obvious---what is happening in the political scene. It is clear that today people are cynical about politics and politicians. Polarization seems the norm--one side takes a position, the other side reacts. The other side takes a stance, again a reaction. Few political leaders are willing to stand up and "cross the aisle" to tackle the really difficult issues, knowing it may involve losing support and ultimately being voted out of office. This may be what got us into the Iraq war.

Yet, beyond our cynical views of the state of politics, we have to ask ourselves: to what extent are we to blame? Do we expect our leaders to give us all we ask for? Do we criticize and vote them out of office when they don't? Isn't it true the really difficult issues require some give and take, open debate, and willingness to compromise?

I believe in Contextual Leadership which means that leaders do not live in a vacuum, they operate within a context. The current political context is very polarized--Right/Left, Democratic/Republican, black/white, Christian/Muslim, etc. It makes it almost impossible for a true leader to emerge within this volatile landscape. Though there exists individual politicians truly lacking in integrity, the primary problem is systemic, i.e. a broken system. Therefore, putting all our faith in individual leaders will not get us to where we need to go.

This is also evident in business, which is why the failure rate for newly hired senior managers is so high. Even a really talented executive or politician will need help from within the larger system in which he or she works.


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