This is a complicated question, and not wanting to appear like a total know-it-all, I will admit that I am going to give a partial answer from my point of view. First off, what is a leader? There are many definitions, but one of the most basic is “a person who rules or guides or inspires others,” and “leadership” according to Wikipedia is “process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.” This makes it clear that a leader does need to get (some) people on board to accomplish their vision.
So why do we have so many leaders that really seem to be followers?
1. We often reward actual leaders by defeating or ousting them because they make some of us “uncomfortable,” particularly if they tell us the truth, as we are not used to it.
Whether it’s Al Gore, Adrian Fenty, Michelle Rhee, Jim Oberstar, there are different types of people out there. There are the visionary progressives, the futurists, the risk-takers, the enemies of the status-quo… who by the way are the same personalities that have created our entrepreneurial economy. Then there are those that would rather not rock the boat for a variety of reasons that I will get into later, but my view is that it’s typically due to personality types and traits or because there is $ to be made, although often to the detriment of the longer term health of society.
I want to be clear that I am not saying that there is an absolute “for” progress, and “against” progress in general as that would be too simplistic. But when it comes to the environment, smart growth, human rights, religious and spiritual freedom, health-care as a basic human right, excellent education for all of our children, and the freedom to love and marry who you want as some examples, I think progress is inevitable and obvious, and there are actually those people that are as I term them, “the enemies of progress.” They have always been there, fighting against suffrage, civil rights, gay rights, controlling the military industrial complex welfare system, smart growth etc. Students of history know that you can’t stop progress, you can just prolong the wait, but again, to our detriment on multiple levels.
So when it comes to these cornerstone issues that define who we are as a people, we need leaders with a moral compass with regard to their work, and be un-corruptible, and unwavering in the face of criticism, often by those that claim higher moral ground, but have something personal to gain. Sometimes it’s money or overcoming a personal trauma: false prophets if you will.
2. Personality: We are born with certain personality types, to parents with distinct views and religious convictions etc., and then have millions of positive and negative experiences over time that also make us who we are. To stereotype for a minute, the visionaries, progressives, risk-takers are willing to think outside of the box and actually pursue their ideas publicly, and often quickly. For many of them, they don’t know how else to work and are inspired by the ability to make positive change. For many others, this “change” and the pace of it make them feel uncomfortable. The irony is that this feeling seems particularly strong amongst those that prefer to listen to people outside of themselves primarily vs. their own inner voice. They often have a visceral reaction to someone like an Adrian Fenty… “who does he think he is,” and “why does he think he knows what is best for me,” or “he is arrogant.” My hypothesis is that the biggest piece of the puzzle here is that they simply can’t relate to the Leader because they are so different personality type, or trait-wise. The Leader has some ownership here too, to know thy constituent and relate to them. But in Adrian’s case, and many others, those constituents that intuitively embrace change, also often embrace the Leader.
3. So what about listening to people? Compromising? This can be the toughest part of the equation and a fine line to walk. Obama is doing a fine job of this right now, it’s like a case study. He looks across the aisle, and sees the traditional corporate republicans and the Tea Party types knocking the crap out of each other. He is playing the middle of the road politician, the guy with his head on straight, staying out of the fray and actually leading through change (!) People are complaining that he is compromising too much, that he is giving in. I am going to sound like a hypocrite here, but hogwash, he is getting things done! Does he have his moral conviction intact? I think he does. He has his eyes on the prize: get 2/3 of what you want, take the moral high-ground and get reelected to get the other 1/3 done and another 4 years of progress. Now I am not now saying that people should ignore the voices of others, or on the other side compromise willy-nilly to special interests. Quite the opposite, but you also have to see the forest through the trees, and have eyes on the prize. Yes, a very tough road to walk, and some are meant to be sacrificed after 2 or 4 years, and some are meant to compromise to hold on for another 4 years. It depends on what is at stake.
So what are the take-away points?
Compromise: Don’t compromise your core principals, ever if you can avoid it, but on the details of the policies, you have to give. This will earn you respect and make you more friends than enemies.
Personality: Some people are predisposed to disagree or dislike change-agents based on who they are through nature and nurture. A leader has to make up for this with charisma, and genuinely connecting with people on their level, but sometimes you have to plow ahead because some people won’t get why the progress is urgently needed.
Progress: We need to recognize as a people that democracy means progress. Our leaders need to make this an uncompromising principle and start explaining why progress will make us a healthier society on all fronts: emotionally, health-wise, economically…. And it’s all tied together.
And can we learn from history please?
We have made a lot of mistakes as a society: killing the Indians for being here, enslavement and forced migration of millions of innocent Africans, relying on the automobile and combustion engine for “freedom.” We can’t undo what we have done, but we can recognize a mistake, and change course, quickly, before we do damage that is catastrophic. For example, at various points, and ongoing really, we make African Americans, women, gays, jews, immigrants and others feel like 2nd class citizens out of insecurity and ignorance. Not perfectly, but we have changed course, and now have a mixed race president, women leading major companies and organizations, gays out of the closet, Jews running Hollywood (I’m kidding people), and immigrants… well we are still fighting that one. But much of this change happened in the last century.
Think if we put our minds to it, learned from the inevitability of progress, and lessons from the past, and tried to fix this planet as we would undertake a war. Transformed our cities into zero-emission models of Livability; Re-planned and remade our suburbs into Urban Villages; Saved our farms by creating a clean energy economy on their land, and a 2nd revenue source to make them viable; Invested big $ in electric vehicle and smart-grid infrastructure, as well as solar and wind; reinvented materials used in construction, and rethought transportation so that we are thinking about and working towards moving people vs. cars, and about access vs. costly ownership…
We could create millions of rewarding jobs, have a better quality of life, have a future on earth. We need leaders who will live up to their titles, and stop following the false prophets. Lead, or get out of the way.
P.S. making positive change can be a lot of fun