Leaders doesn’t count for much if all we expect is that they follow an existing playbook. Effective leaders absorb facts, take in recommendations, weigh the consequences of their actions and make decisions.
From the days of the Alien and Sedition Acts to as recently as what many viewed as the premature end to The First Gulf War, US presidents have made some gutsy, unpopular calls in response to novel conditions. Of course, in both those cases, the decisions of Presidents Adams and of Bush most likely cost them re-election. Nevertheless, being prepared to face the unknown and to inspire others to follow you is a hallmark of courageous leadership.
When things go wrong leaders, fairly or unfairly, often take the blame. But I’m less interested in blame, a highly charged pejorative word. What interests me more is exhibitions of genuine leadership, most especially from our highest elected officials.
But what is genuine leadership?
Leadership is responsibility
The outstanding management guru Peter Drucker, who influenced so much of my early thinking about effective leadership, gave us several guideposts more than a half-century ago that stand up admirably even today.
“Leadership,” Drucker wrote, “is not rank, privileges, title or money. It is responsibility.” As Dr. William Cohen, a retired major general from the US Air Force Reserve, wrote in synopsizing Drucker’s work, Drucker believed that leaders are responsible for everything that happens or fails to happen in the organization.
It’s for this reason that strategic planning is the highest calling of a genuine leader. “Professional strategic planners,” Cohen wrote, “can develop plans and make recommendations, but it is the leader’s responsibility to give general direction, oversee the process, establish the strategy, direct the implementation, obtain and analyze the feedback, and adjust the actions and movement toward the results desired.”
In Drucker’s view, the purpose of strategy is to help ensure an organization can achieve success in an inevitably unpredictable environment. It’s not enough to say you didn’t expect a problem; you can’t simply point to the past officeholder. The essence of the job is to be ready to work without a playbook.
If we demand strategic leadership from our business executives, how much more should we expect from our most senior elected officials? Surely, the American Founders envisioned more for the Executive role than base rallies, media bashing, and bluster. It’s past time for all of us to demand as much, too.