September 27, 2012

Political leadership: moving beyond individual heroes

It is September 2012 and election day is fast approaching.  It is an interesting time to examine leadership in the political arena.

What can we apply from our knowledge of leadership in business and nonprofit settings to the political context? How are the issues similar, or different?

When applying leadership theory to the current political situation, I am struck by the importance of context and systems theory.  No leader operates in a vacuum. Even in business, but especially in politics, the larger setting in which the leader operates is critical.  A CEO entering a new organization has to contend with an executive team, an existing structure, an organizational history, a culture and sub-cultural groups, a diverse employee base and many other factors, both internal and external to the organization,  that will impact his or her success.  This is even more  true of the political context which is more complex and demanding.

So, when we think about the presidential election and the end result, we cannot think only of the individual leader i.e. the President. That is one individual, granted one with significant power; but one individual who works within a very large and multi-faceted system, that includes: other branches of the government, our business and social/cultural institutions and the global world in which we live.

In essence, we need to appreciate the total context in which leadership operates within our political system.  We live in a heterogeneous, and multi-cultural world. Collaboration and compromise for the greater good is the only way we will solve the critical problems we encounter. We don't need, nor should we expect, an individual hero to save the day, whether it is the economy or our foreign policy matters. We need a strong, competent visionary president, but we also need ethical, committed leaders in all branches of the government. Leaders who will keep us moving forward, even when it requires compromise or taking an unpopular position. We also need an educated, informed and engaged population that exercises critical thinking and understands the complex issues we face as a nation and a world. Wishful thinking? Maybe....but then again, I have always been an optimist!


  1. I have often thought about this. What successful organization would intentionally set up their organization in a design to be at opposite sides? Everything we read, learn, and teach about leadership does not seem to apply in politics and yet we wonder why the system isn't working. Each of the candidates makes promises that they can't keep because of the lack of real power that they have. So, they must use their power of charismatic persuasion which the other party promises to their constituents that they won't accept. Their appears to be no sense of compromise, doing what is "right," or looking at the greater good. I use to feel so strongly about which candidates wins but as I have gotten older and seen from experiience, it really doesn't matter all that much. The wheels just don't move fast enough and they are so clogged in the quagmire that one or other candidates isn't going to change our lives that significantly.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Charles, and sorry I missed it when it was first posted. I generally agree with you that the system is set up so that compromise is practically impossible. It is interesting that people seem to want compromise; yet, at the same time, many will vote out a candidate who does compromise. Kind of a catch 22. So the wheels of justice do move slowly, though I do believe a particular individual as President can have a major impact (for example, a Supreme Court appointment), which means it is still worth voting for someone you believe in, even if the person's leadership capabilities are limited. Thanks again for your post!