Monday, August 30, 2004

Leadership and Accountability

Rudy Guilani seems to have a distorted view of leadership, at least as far as his speech will communicate tonight at the Republican Party Convention:
"In choosing a President, we really don't choose a Republican or Democrat, a conservative or liberal. We choose a leader. And in times of danger, as we are now in, Americans should put leadership at the core of their decision. There are many qualities that make a great leader but having strong beliefs, being able to stick with them through popular and unpopular times, is the most important characteristic of a great leader.

Now, there is something to be said for sticking to your beliefs, in good times and bad, but this alone cannot prove a great, or even good, leader. For, if the ship is astray, a leader needs to be able to change course, to hold those (including himself) accountable for mistakes that hurt the cause for which he/she leads, to transmit confidence in those of us who are looking to our leadership to guide, adapt and adjust to the changing times and circumstances, and most of all to prevent variations or embarrassments in terms of our strongly held beliefs and values. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel editorializes along these lines:

Two reports emanating from the Defense Department last week constitute a powerful indictment of the failure by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his top aides to prevent the abuses that occurred at Abu Ghraib and other military prisons in Iraq and elsewhere. In fact, both reports assert that a failure of leadership helped to create the conditions that led to this scandal.

It is not enough that the atrocities should be documented, blame fixed, apologies offered and corrective action taken; those responsible for what happened at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere need to be held accountable for their actions or their failure to act, no matter their rank. Otherwise, the damage inflicted by this affair - on its victims and on this country's reputation and moral standing around the world - will not be fully healed.

I and many others don't point this out primarily for any partisan political reasons either. We are concerned with the fabric of our society, the increasing trend towards secrecy and plausible deniability, the accompanying decline in accountability and citizen faith in our leadership and governance, not to mention the overall success in our endeavors (as opposed to failures). In America, this is a great scandal right now, that so many of us don't trust our leaders or government, and seemingly as a result we barely manage to get over 50% of the populace to vote, while calling ourselves the greatest democracy and free nation in the world, and also while mucking up so many of our adventures and objectives.

American's trust in government and business continues to falter, often at 40 percent or less according to Brookings, Pew, and others. Similar studies show that distrust is tied to deceptive and dishonest leaders, leaders who rely on myths to create a mantle of leadership. According to Steve Carney of Power Of We Consulting, there are three important leadership myths that cause distrust:

  • 1. It is often said that leadership is about delegation. Telling others what to do reflects a more authoritarian, power-based approach - leadership is not really defined by delegation.

  • 2. Many espouse that leadership is "Bold and decisive action." Cutting in front of another car might seem bold and decisive - it is also reckless and shows poor judgment.

  • 3. Executives and officials often claim, "I didn't know about it," posing as victims to avoid accountability. That is not leadership either.

    These statements are common among government and business executives, says Carney. They reflect a cafeteria-style approach to leadership where they choose the things they like (power, glory, status), and ignore the qualities they don't (performance, responsibility, accountability).

    According to Carney, management and workplace expert, a true leader is a team player who inspires excellence in achieving a mission or goal for their teams, customers, or citizens - the common good. True leaders use

  • persuasion rather than domination;
  • they plan strategically and exercise good judgment;
  • they empower others and recognize their teams' contributions;
  • they manage complexity and stay connected to what's going on; and
  • they rely on facts and information rather than beliefs.

    "True leaders lead with honesty and integrity; they are responsible for their decisions and accountable for their actions; they encourage and motivate rather than devalue and demean; they lead by example and avoid deception, manipulation, and scapegoating because they are committed to high standards for leadership.
  • There's more to Carney's assessment of leadership if you follow the link. If we do anything this election season, beyond getting out the vote and debating the issues, let's try and clearly define the essence and ideal of leadership so that we can try and cut through the BS and point straight to the heart of the matter.