"Political leadership" is an oxymoron in Washington by any fair measures: enduring and woeful congressional job approval ratings, the enormous national debt and deficit, absence of a credible federal budget, and foundering unemployment, just to name a few hot issues.
Yet there are things we can do to deal with our epidemic of leadership incompetence, beyond voting people in and out of office every few years, while complaining between elections about the mess we have on our hands.
Yes, this "mess" drama is grimly entertaining to many, and feeds the economic needs of news media and their advertisers, but I'm betting that's just not good enough anymore. As the president is fond of saying, "There's more to do."
As an author and executive coach in the leadership field over the last 10 years, following a 17-year career as a senior executive and management consultant, I've experienced, practiced, studied, researched, and reflected deeply on the good, bad and ugly of leadership.
For our purposes, I've boiled all that down to 10 essentials of great leadership, which I sincerely hope will be helpful reminders to our elected officials what working leadership looks like when practiced skillfully.
1. Engage and represent your people: Leadership means creating a common mission and vision with the people you lead, and representing it relentlessly. Do that, and we all tenaciously rally and do our best. Yet, for example, in April, the Senate struck down a bill proposing background checks for gun purchases. In doing so, senators turned their backs on something over 90 percent of Americans support. This is the exact opposite of leadership -- a kind of anti-representation.
2. Collaborate and compromise with colleagues: Leadership means working together -- with give and take -- toward a common goal of a shared good. When instead egos get in the way, people, rather than ideas, take center stage in distorted ways. Case in point: the "anything but what Obama wants" Congress, thanks to Sen. Mitch McConnell. Leaders collaborate through rigorous debate of ideas, not by demonizing people. The childish tactic of withholding what a political leader wants simply because he or she wants it is, again, the opposite of leadership -- and frankly, it's trashy.
3. Supervise at an appropriate level of detail: Leadership means finding a healthy balance between being "informed" and "involved." When leaders misjudge their needed level of scrutiny or involvement, they make mistakes of omission that lead to serious consequences. Potentially this was the case in the consulate shootings in Benghazi, and in the FBI's missed opportunity to monitor the Boston Marathon bombing suspects.
4. Be decisive in a timely manner: Leadership means having the courage to take timely corrective action on someone or something that's not working. Timely decision-making is intrinsic to good leadership. Delays in fixing VA benefit payment hold ups, avoidance of critical infrastructure spending, ignoring the cost issues of Obamacare, leaving troops for too long in Afghanistan are among many examples of initiatives that aren't working for too long before being changed or addressed.
5. Be accountable: Leadership means owning inevitable errors and failures, even though fear or stress would tempt you to distance yourself from them. Aside from being good leadership, an error owned and transcended tends to result in great achievements. Our political "leaders" are epically far better at blaming or stepping back from mistakes than they are at owning a failure or misstep.
6. Innovate: Leadership means innovation. True innovation isn't in a method, process, book, or workshop. It's in the mirror of our imagination and courage. Intrinsic to the survival instinct of politicians is avoiding what takes courage to change. The key to change our leadership for the better is to remind our leaders that innovation -- like the Human Genome project, or the privatization of space travel -- is a cool and popular way toward a rewarding shared future. President Obama's proposed brain mapping project is a glimmer of hope on the innovation front.
7. Make a positive impact on people, planet and economy: Leadership means making positive impacts on individuals, communities, natural resources, and on the economic ecosystem. A leader's achievements and legacy are ultimately measured and moderated by their impact. Through the sequestration and denial of climate change, congress has done more harm to their fellow humans, the environment, and the economic ecosystem then our enemies could dream of doing, and it's time to remind them that doing well by doing good is indeed great leadership.
8. Be honest: Leadership means candor with yourself and others -- both emotionally and intellectually -- and being willing to ask for and hear such honesty from colleagues, clients, and the communities you impact. Great honesty brings the humility needed for great leadership when things are going well, and the necessary fuel for critical change when things are in trouble. With the prevalence of distrust among the parties in Washington, great candor is greatly lacking, and therefore little or no great leadership can happen. It's in our shared national interest that this lack of trust and therefore candor gap be changed.
9. Delegate effectively: Leadership means delegating the "what," and not the "how," to launch people into effective, independent action. It's honoring them as adults, and coaching / supporting them to find their own ingenuity, even when telling them would be faster. Partisanship and party line votes are proof that delegation and independent thinking is simply not happening in congress. Individuals in the Senate and House would operate as true leaders by thinking more for themselves and those they represent, than for their parties.
10. Listen: Leadership means asking and listening, rather than doing the talking the majority of the time. It's trusting the people who know best what's needed are the ones actually living with the results of your leadership. Your job is to quiet the noise of your own preconceptions and ego in order to hear those who know best: the wisdom of the people. Washington's loyalty to the NRA over the 90% popular opinion that we should have universal background checks for gun purchases reminds us there's more to do on the "listening" front.
I don't expect miracles here, but if you imagine the above ten essentials each on a scale of 1 to 100, progress on some of them -- even from 10 to 20, could drive significant and positive change in our ability to be represented well by "leaders" in Washington.
Let's work together to make "political leadership" a truism versus an oxymoron. I encourage you to share these 10 essentials with those in office, and also score your own leaders and candidates, and make your choices accordingly. Remember that great leadership isn't a gift -- it's a choice.