Leading Blog






02.26.10

Are Leaders Destined to Disappoint?

Historian David Greenberg wrote in the Atlantic, “Americans have fallen, starry-eyed, for leaders who speak of a future unencumbered by history’s weight.” Intellectually we must know that this isn’t possible, yet is it too much to expect real change, fundamental change—a break from the past? It’s unsettling to think that we are only slaves to our past. Are we demanding too much?

Greenberg continues, “Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism, Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom, FDR’s New Deal, JFK’s New Frontier, even George H. W. Bush’s New World Order—all began with the promise of the new. Of course, after the flush of a campaign, both voters and presidents have invariably discovered that history imposes constraints.” And we are left disappointed.

Of course, this dynamic affects not only political leaders, but leaders everywhere. One always has to deal with what is (past and present) and the real level of desire (the crisis)—for transformational change to occur. Leadership is a creative act. A leader seeking transformational change needs to have three basic elements in place:

clearly defined goals (the how),
strong values with which to measure those goals (the why), and
an environment that is urgent to change (an opportunity).

Expectations create opportunities for leaders. The motivation from which springs the leader’s initiative is most often influenced by certain expectations on the part of the potential followers. Rosalynn Carter once said, “A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don't necessarily want to go, but ought to be.” This suggests that a leader’s responsibility is to do more than just serve up our wants. As Insead’s dean J. Frank Brown said, “Leaders must learn to listen and question before they act.”

We get the wrong kind of leaders when we place all of the responsibility of our expectations on their shoulders. In that environment we will always find individuals that are all too happy to pander to us and promise what they can never deliver in return for a title—placeholder leaders. Leadership is a shared responsibility.

A great leader must elevate their followers and give them power and responsibility to act or they can never really lead them. Greenberg writes, “Twenty-five years ago, the political scientist Theodore Lowi published a book called The Personal President. It argued that the increasingly large responsibilities placed on the president since Franklin Roosevelt’s time—of regulation, social provision, and economic management, to say nothing of the leadership of the free world—have exploded into impossible expectations. Every postwar chief executive, Lowi noted—and the observation still holds—has begun his presidency with high approval ratings and left office with the public chastened of its early optimism, if not disillusioned altogether.”

He concludes, “It is easy to propose that we lower our expectations for our new presidents—even, or perhaps especially, for presidents who come bearing lofty promises of transformation. But we can’t correct the problem, Lowi’s diagnosis suggested, simply by resolving to demand less from our chief executives or by vowing to learn from the past. The problem is rooted in nothing less than the presidency’s assumption of immense powers, and of a central role in our imagination. Candidates have no better path to victory than by inspiring us with dreams of a new political era, and presidents have no choice but to attempt “too much.” In doing so, however, they can only disappoint us.”

Perhaps we aren’t demanding too much of our leaders, we are instead, demanding too little of ourselves. Can we separate ourselves from our “history” and act creatively for real change? Maybe we need a little less heroic leader and a little more heroic follower?

It requires leadership at all levels.

Posted by Michael McKinney at 04:16 PM
| Comments (0) | This post is about Followership , Government , Leadership



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