How Do We Spot Leaders

In my last column, I left open the question of “how do we spot leaders who are prepared to commit themselves to principles that transcend, but do not necessarily conflict with their personal and political interests,” and then elect them. I also quoted Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “a Democrat with a Ph.D, who worked as staff for a Republican President, Richard Nixon, and who was also a Professor Ambassador and, ultimately, a United States Senator, who suggested that we would all be better off if we recognized that, in the formulation of public policy, “We’re all entitled to our own opinions, but we’re not entitled to our own facts.”

Well here is my opinion, in an abbreviated form, on what qualities to look for when choosing Maryland’s leaders in the next election. I remind readers that you will be choosing all of Maryland’s legislative and executive branch elected officials for the next four years. They, in turn, will choose their institutional leaders and, within the next few years, a near majority of the unelected judiciary. So we need to be careful – perhaps more careful than we have been in the past, in selecting our elected officials in the next election.

Leadership has been defined in many ways. The one I like best is by a political theorist named Benis: “The ability to translate ideas into reality and sustain them over time.” That ability encompasses a vision for the future, commitment and perhaps most importantly a willingness to persist.

Rapid technological change is upon us. The central and most difficult challenge to us as leaders of today is to shape the changing human organization so as to harness these forces in a way that serves all of the people and to persuade those whose relationship to their company, community or government is altered by these rapidly emerging technological developments that change is rational and in their interest in the long run.

John F. Kennedy used to talk about leadership quite often. When he did, he used to facetiously quote a long since forgotten leader of the French Revolution as an anti-role model who said: “There go my people. I must find out where they are going so I can lead them.” I suspect that this individual was and should be forgotten because he thought and said things like that.

To exercise leadership in the new millennium, those we elect and appoint to do so must recognize that our society is so intricately organized that the working of the whole system may be halted if one part stops functioning. Thus our capacity to frustrate one another through non-cooperation has never been greater. We must, therefore, resolve not to hold the system hostage to anyone’s rigid ideological position or institutional intransigence.

This is particularly important in a representative democracy such as ours where our leaders, who are elected, must balance the need to at least appear to respond to their core constituencies with the need to maintain a vision beyond their constituents’ perceived prejudices. That is not the same, again, in the words of the forgotten leader of the French Revolution, as “Find out where the people are going so I can lead them.”

Many times when decisions are made on the great issues of public policy, they are made by leaders balancing the political factors that must be considered, including the feelings of uncertainty, sense of loss and other stresses that those affected almost always feel in the face of change, with the need to institute change as comprehensively and as rapidly as possible.

What emerges from this process is very often a compromise between the status quo and the comprehensive change sought by its advocates. This degree of change is usually not all of what the proponents of change had sought, but it almost always produces a policy or institution which is better than the idea or organization it replaced. It is also very significantly reconcilable with existing values and needs.

At that point, as leaders, we have a duty to use our abilities as well as the skills we have developed to gain acceptance of the compromise to the same extent that we used them to take the lead in the introduction of the new order of things at least to the extent that stability is restored sufficiently to those affected by the change so that they willingly alter their established relationships in the social organizations and structures in which they live and work.

It does no good to elect men and women of vision and courage to public office and then insist that they take action, albeit innovative and desirable, which will result in their being irreparably damaged or, worse, destroyed politically. Leaders willing to take grave political risks are rare enough in public life to be considered a precious commodity to be treasured and preserved, not thrown to the prejudices of the crowd without support.

This kind of cooperation in the form of compromise is not always viewed as desirable. Indeed, at times, it is viewed as downright unfashionable.

Felix Rohatyn, the brilliant, tough minded businessman, who did so much to save New York city in its time of crisis said, “Commitment is not fashionable: cool is the order of the day … we face the loss of our most precious assets all because we are cynical, self-indulgent and unwilling to make the effort.”

In short, we should recognize that what Machiavelli observed long ago in the Prince continues to be a valid premise on which to proceed: “there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from the fear of opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in the new things until they have long experienced them.”

For these reasons, the resolution of the great social issues today and tomorrow will not be found by those who are content with today and, therefore, are guided solely by polling and focus groups in their decision-making so as to reap the maximum short-term political benefit. These issues will also not be effectively addressed by politicians who are apathetic toward the problem and their fellow human beings, or timid and fearful in the face of new ideas and bold projects. Rather it will belong to those who can blend passion, reason, courage and perhaps, most importantly, the patience to sustain a personal commitment to ideals which may not be reached or even visible in their lifetime.

How do we identify these leadership qualities in a candidate for public office? We focus far more on their record and, most importantly, their reputation among their peers and in their communities for being able “to get things done” if they are incumbents. If they are not, we focus on their positions on issues to see if they are logical and substantive as opposed to rigid and ideological. At the risk of bringing on a charge of heresy from certain Advocacy Groups, I think a hard look for these qualities of character and temperament is infinitely more important than a candidate’s position on individual issues. There are issues, however, that are important and they will be the subject of future columns. Tune in same newspaper, same space bi-weekly.

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