Where Are the Leaders?

05/03/2017 08:01 am ET Updated May 03, 2017

Given the partisan intransigence, flip flopping, and back-and-forth ultimatums of the last months—about everything from health care to the Supreme Court, from NAFTA to NATO, from Syria to North Korea and jockeying over the federal budget—it’s tempting to just pick a side. But what’s needed in our roiling national discourse isn’t more red or blue, or more from the right or left. What’s needed is leadership on both sides of the aisle, with our elected representatives collectively focused on developing a vision and a set of goals for our country at home and abroad.

That’s a key insight my students have come to this semester, a lesson that both legislators and the general public seem to find hard to grasp. Only with leaders who really lead will we know where we are headed domestically and around the world.

Three years after stepping down from the presidency of Tulane University — a post that requires navigating an intricate web of diverse stakeholders and often-irreconcilable interests — I’ve returned to the classroom to teach an undergraduate course on “the mythology and reality of leadership.”

Ever since November 8th, I’ve been wondering if the attributes that get people elected to positions of leadership—whether president, senator, or congressman—are starkly different from the characteristics required to actually lead. So, I posed the question to my students: What could be learned about leadership from the result of the presidential election?

According to my students, to get elected President of the United States, at least at this moment in time, it pays to be a “sticky leader”—that is, someone boisterous, confident, and charismatic, the kind of person who sticks in everyone’s mind. They also emphasized the importance of listening to and relating to one’s followers, as well as offering a strong vision and the can-do attitude to match it. Many said that being perceived as authentic, transparent, and unapologetic trumps (can we still use that word?) relevant experience and expertise.

My students caught the fact that many voters responded to the aura of a candidate who promised to be as transformational as he was entertaining, but whose rhetoric has (so far) not corresponded with concrete, sustainable results. People often assume that it takes a larger-than-life egocentric personality to turn a company, or a country, around, but psychologists say otherwise. Daniel Goleman, who has written about emotional intelligence as a leadership capacity, observes that “people with fiery temperaments are frequently thought of as ‘classic’ leaders—their outbursts are considered hallmarks of charisma and power. But when such people make it to the top, their impulsiveness often works against them.”

My students, looking at the election, came to much the same conclusion. Razzle dazzle may make you a winner, but it doesn’t make you a leader. But there’s a further insight that my leadership class has been wrestling with—the idea that views aren’t simply black and white, right or wrong, red or blue. The truth is, demagoguery and posturing aren’t confined to a single person or single party, any more than virtue and integrity are the sole property of one side or the other. As we witness the daily reality show and finger pointing in Washington D.C., it’s tempting to see the partisan divide as a Manichaean contest between hot-tempered zealots. But disagreements don’t have to spell the end of civilization, or civility. Anyone who has ever led a complex organization with external stakeholders who have competing goals understands the reality of conflict, but successful leaders still find pathways to productive outcomes.

Now that we have witnessed the administration’s recent moves on health care, foreign policy, budget negotiations, and immigration, which appear bewildering if not downright incomprehensible to many, regardless of party affiliation, it seems a good occasion to reflect not on “the base” but on the basics: what, exactly, makes a good leader? I’m offering a few “ABCs of leadership” here, on the theory that it’s good to go back to fundamentals in times of radical uncertainty.

Leaders understand reality and have a core set of principles that guide their decision-making.

Leaders understand that they work with and through others to achieve a set of evidence-based outcomes that address the needs of those to whom they are accountable.

Leaders unify people rather than divide them, seeking out opposing voices and refraining from insults, mockery, and blame, which only harden the opposition’s resolve.

Leaders empower, motivate, and encourage others to achieve results they never thought possible.

Leaders find and leverage common ground between competing interests without succumbing to watered-down outcomes.

Leaders are transparent, share successes and accept personal responsibility for failures.

Leaders are resilient, self-aware, and persistent.

Leaders are adaptive, with the ability to adjust style and approach depending on the situation.

Though these principles may appear self-evident, they’re particularly difficult to execute—but all the more crucial—in complex organizations, especially in complex times like ours, when Time magazine asks “Is Truth Dead?” and students ponder the meaning of leadership, the difference between fact and fiction, and the stability of the world order. To date, I think we have witnessed a dearth of leadership in both parties that does not inspire confidence in our country’s ability to continue as a global beacon of democracy and achievement in the years ahead. Politics is messy and imperfect, but “we the people” deserve better from those who supposedly represent us.

Lately, many pundits have been asking, “Where are the leaders? Where are the grownups in the room?” I believe young people, my students among them, need an answer to that question. My hope is that clarity will arise from the current chaos, as false leaders are unmasked and emergent ones find their voice—true leaders, who have the persistence, empathy, realism, and vision to guide our nation forward for all the people, not just those who got them elected.

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