Some people, I have found, are displeased when we mix politics with talk of leadership. Readers who feel this way, I surmise, just want to stay focused on what they know to be an important subject without having to wade through someone’s political opinions to get to the point. They want to be free to talk business and share knowledge of their profession without slipping down the dark hole they suffer through every Thanksgiving with their relatives. There’s also this element of liking what someone is saying about leadership only to learn that he voted for the other guy that can be a real buzzkill.
I get it, I really do. But I also disagree that we shouldn’t mix leadership discussion with politics, and here’s why.
Government and the private sector are conjoined (sometimes in ways they should not be), and running a government involves politics. To try to extract politics from talk of leadership would be negligent. We don’t pretend to be able to talk about economics or history without involving politics, nor should we with leadership.
The political world is filled with highly visible leaders who make critical decisions that sometimes have a global impact. We are able to see the effects of their leadership and decision-making on a massive scale and that helps those of us who study leadership learn from them and point to them as examples of what to do and what not to do.
No, it’s not entirely objective, and yes, there is a way to report on politics and government without picking sides. Once upon a time, the news media was rather good at this. But leadership theory and development is not necessarily about staying dispassionate (sometimes it is, but not always). More often it’s about getting passionate, angry, excited, or scared and then doing something about it. More to the point, leadership development is about getting people passionate, angry, excited, and scared enough to take take action. And that means getting people out of their comfort zone.
While some of us might wish leadership was pure science, it is not. There is a lot of opinion involved with the study and practice. People will disagree with methods and even outcomes. For instance, Scott Pruitt, Betsy DeVos, and Ben Carson were appointed to the president’s cabinet in the hope that they would bring down the offices they are leading (EPA, Education, and HUD respectively). One might therefore argue that they are effective leaders because their intentions are being realized. But as Barbara Kellerman teaches us, when we talk about good leadership, we need to consider ethics as well as effectiveness. My opinion would be that, by evaluating them on both criteria, they are disastrous leaders, and I could have a pretty rousing discussion on the subject. Others may not agree, but if we’re going to discuss leadership and learn from each other, we’re going to have to be OK with disagreeing. In fact, we’re going to have to venture into areas where we know there will be disagreement. That’s how we learn.
When teaching leadership, people like to lean on sports metaphors because there are clear winners and losers and no one’s going to get too offended when they hear a story about Vince Lombardi or Red Auerbach. Those leadership lessons play it safe (for the most part).
But many of those anecdotes are a bit shopworn and sometimes pretty shallow in terms of leadership theory and analysis. We need to be willing to go out on a limb—sometimes making people feel uncomfortable—in order for them to understand the underpinnings of leadership. What’s more, we need to be willing to point to poor leadership when we see it because calling out bad leadership is just as important as calling out good leadership.
The alternative is complacency. If we’re not clear about what bad leadership is and explicit about who those bad actors are, we start accepting it as normal. By not calling it out, we are allowing it. It slowly destroys our standards and when it comes to leadership, the corrosion of standards is catastrophic.
The bar keeps getting lower and we don’t notice it. Slowly the caliber of leaders descends until we look up and find ourselves awash in leaders who are toadies, nincompoops, and assholes.
When we don’t point out bad leadership when we see it, we start thinking that it’s perfectly acceptable for people like Scott Pruitt to be in a leadership position.
It’s not acceptable. It’s wrong and it’s tremendously damaging. And if we’re going to discuss leadership and get better at it, we need to be screaming that from the rooftops.
While leadership worship needs to stop, we also must have increasingly high standards for our leaders. We don’t get the likes of Devin Nunes into positions of leadership because our standards are just too high. They are there because the standards are too low. And every day they hold positions of leadership, the bar gets lower.
We need to continually improve leadership, constantly striving for better. It is an issue that is just too important to be bashful about.