Leadership in the Federal Budget Debate

The airwaves are filled with charges and counter-charges as to which politicians are, or are not, providing leadership in attempting to resolve the impasse relative to the need to reduce the federal budget deficit. As we seek to sort through these contrasting voices, we do well to reflect on the nature of effective leadership.

An effective leader is driven by a vision, a dream as to how bad things can become good and good things can become better. To be always satisfied with the status quo is to settle for being a manager and not a leader. Rather than saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” an effective leader says “whether it’s broke or not, let’s work to improve it.”

A leader committed to improving on the present state of affairs does not wait around for others to take initiatives for change. He or she must be able to carefully articulate the need for change, a vision for the desired end result of such change, and a viable game plan for accomplishing that desired end.

But a common mistake made by would-be leaders is that once such a vision and game plan have been articulated, then it is the responsibility of the leader to “just do it,” effecting change from the top down. The fatal flaw in that command-and-control approach to leadership is that the quality of the change that is brought about will only be as good as the giftedness of the boss.

In stark contrast, consider the type of leadership that Parker Palmer suggests Jesus exemplified, a form of leadership that fosters community (The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring, p. 138)

Jesus exercises the only kind of leadership that can evoke authentic community—a leadership that risks failure (and even crucifixion) by making space for other people to act. When a leader takes up all the space and preempts all the action, he or she may make something happen, but the something is not community. Nor is it abundance, because the leader is only one person, and one person’s resources invariably run out. But, when a leader is willing to trust the abundance that people have and can generate together, willing to take the risk of inviting people to share from that abundance, then and only then may true community emerge.

The strength of this collegial approach to leadership, in addition to fostering community, is that it creates the potential for the end result to be as good as the combined giftedness of all members of the community being led.

That is the kind of leader I aspired to be during 22 years as an academic administrator in Christian higher education. Others will have to judge the extent to which I did, or did not live up to that lofty aspiration. In retrospect, I had my share of failures. But, to make all of this more concrete, let me share a strategy I found to work many times. My friends called this “Harold getting his oar in the water.”

When I had a vision for significant institutional change, I didn’t wait around for someone else to take the initiative. I did not hesitate to plant a first seed by suggesting to an appropriate faculty committee or task force the need to examine a particular academic program, policy, or procedure for which they had been delegated responsibility. However, I didn’t just suggest a topic for their consideration. I also had a second seed to plant. With my request for their consideration, I initially came to the committee/task force with a first draft of my present thinking about the issue at hand. What I would then say to the committee/task force was in effect the following: “Here is my present best thinking about this issue. It is now in your capable hands. I expect you to come up with a proposal for eventual faculty action that is better than what I have just given you, a proposal that reflects the best thinking of all of you, not just one person. If you come to the faculty with exactly my proposal, I will be disappointed.”

I then was careful to give the committee or task force the freedom to chew up my initial proposal and improve on it (possibly leading to a variation that I hardly recognized).  When the committee/task force eventually developed a draft that was ready for faculty discussion, their draft went to the whole faculty for an “open hearing,” during which the faculty could provide significant input. After the open hearing, the committee/task force went back to the drawing board, making revisions in their draft that reflected the best thinking of the entire faculty. When a final draft came to the faculty for a vote, it was no longer my proposal, nor was it the proposal of the committee/task force. The whole faculty had shaped it and owned it. How could they vote against a proposal they had so much input into shaping? Of course, this process involving seemingly endless conversations requires much time and patience, but the quality of the result justifies that commitment. To those readers of a more impatient bent, I leave you with a question we used to pose in the aerospace industry: “Why is there never time to do it right the first time, but always time to do it over again?”

There was a precondition that was met in these academic settings that explains the frequent success of this collegial leadership strategy. Neither I, as Chief Academic Officer, nor the faculty began the deliberative process with unyielding, fixed positions on the issue at hand. We were all open to the possibility of learning from one another so that the final result could reflect the best thinking of all members of the academic community.

Unfortunately, meeting that precondition seems to be a remote possibility in our current political climate. Unyielding, fixed positions seem to be so prevalent that my attempts at providing visionary leadership in the academy can be likened to a Sunday School Picnic when compared to the present task of our politicians seeking to find a resolution to our current budget deficit. But if you resonate with the above reflections about the nature of leadership, you can form your own views as to whether President Obama or congressional leaders are, or are not, providing political leadership. If you believe my views on effective leadership are all wrong-headed, or couldn’t possibly work in the political realm, then I welcome your comments.