Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Remember "Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way"?

kw: leadership

Tipped off by a friend, I read an article titled Few follow the leader these days, by David Brooks. He writes of "just authority", and the quandaries surrounding it. His closing words are:
I don't know if America has a leadership problem; it certainly has a followership problem. Vast majorities of Americans don't trust their institutions. That's not mostly because our institutions perform much worse than they did in 1925 and 1955, when they were widely trusted. It's mostly because more people are cynical and like to pretend that they are better than everything else around them. Vanity has more to do with rising distrust than anything else.
In his memoir, "At Ease," Eisenhower delivered the following advice: "Always try to associate yourself with and learn as much as you can from those who know more than you do, who do better than you, who see more clearly than you." Ike slowly mastered the art of leadership by becoming a superb apprentice.
To have good leaders you have to have good followers — able to recognize just authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it.

His premises are questionable. In 1925, national leadership, both political and commercial, was becoming increasingly corrupt, which led to the crash of 1929 and the Depression. The people's trust had been ill-founded. Hoover's bungling then led to a level of cynicism very similar to what we see today. President F.D. Roosevelt had to first re-establish trustworthy leadership before he was able to lead effectively. He was a patrician, but was willing to interact directly with the populace in a way prior presidents had seldom done, with his "fireside chats" for example. In the 1950s, D.D. Eisenhower began his presidency with sufficient moral authority to remake this country, and as a result, American leadership did indeed perform better than the political gridlock that has characterized the 1990s and early 2000s, and through today.

Secondly, President Eisenhower's advice is well taken, but doesn't match the attitude of Mr. Brooks, who clearly thinks us stupid people ought to just follow our "betters". Considering the weaseling related to the current quarrel between a House committee and Eric Holder, there is no way I would consider Mr. Holder or his boss as one of my "betters."

Finally, good leaders, such as either of the Roosevelts, or Eisenhower, emulate good and honest leadership, so that the populace can clearly recognize their qualities and admire them. Joseph de Maistre wrote, "In a democracy, people get the leaders they deserve." Considering how close most national elections are, this is actually only half true; about 51% get the leaders they thought they wanted and the other 49% feel put-upon, unless the elected leader can win over the people by being the good and just leader he or she claimed to be during the campaign.

But when the President's "approval rating" drops below 40% and that of Congress drops to 20% or less, the fault does not lie with the "followers." The great majority of the national "leaders" currently "serving" think of themselves as an elite, and mostly have no way to connect to their constituents with the humility that FDR displayed.

America has a followership problem because it has a leadership problem. If you want to know why, just ask Ed Rendell, author of A Nation of Wusses.

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