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Don Vandergriff
Military leadership consultant

Don Vandergriff

A retired U.S. Army Major, Don Vandergriff is a teacher, writer and lecturer who specializes in leadership education and training, and the future of warfare.

Cheerleading syndrome

In response to the On Leadership question: Federal budget: Can we handle the truth?

I would rephrase the question this way: Do Americans have the leaders that will deliver the painful truth about government budget deficits -- that getting them under control will require both tax increases and cuts in government services -- or will the Washington establishment reject any leader who dares to deliver it?

Over time nations take one of two evolutionary routes: They either continue to adapt with changing environmental conditions in order to sustain core beliefs, or they become complacent, resting on their laurels. In the latter case, success has led to isolation in a changing environment. Choosing the easy wrong over the hard right dominates. Decisions based on facts and assumptions that led to success become dated. In turn the nation fails to demand critical analysis from its leaders.

The right course of action may in fact force leaders to make hard choices and, in turn, to ask followers to change their accepted habits and even make sacrifices. The other option is doing nothing, keeping things as they are while pretending to do something through colorful rhetoric and complicated PowerPoint presentations. In order to justify doing nothing or making hard choices a culture adapts the cheerleading effect.

The cheerleading effect happens when the only acceptable message is a positive one. Everyone wants the party to go on, even after they have forgotten what the celebration was for. Over time, cheerleading transforms history into a one-sided view supporting the current accepted message. It becomes a cultural norm as it accompanies and justifies complacency.

Professions also have "cheerleaders." They are the members that keep the profession upbeat and retain the faith in the doctrine of the organization. This is especially needed in bad times, or when senior members of the profession try to sell ideas that may be seen as unpopular with the rank and file. Most of the time those that are cheerleading are also the ones who have benefited the most by how the profession works, especially in terms of how to be successful. Thus, slowly over time "cheerleading" receives a place in the upper-most part of the profession.

Cultures even evolve a system of incentives that only award behavior that is seen as favorable in maintaining the status-quo. For whatever reasons, everyone gets caught up to do whatever it takes to keep the victory celebration going. Over time "committing the truth" is not an accepted norm if it contradicts positive themes. Labeled by such terms as "malcontent," "rabbel-rouser," or even "zealot," truth tellers are faced with two choices. They can comply and cave in morally, or they can quit or resign from the profession. In order to maintain their pride and uphold their character, they can still fight the organization from the outside (where they normally have less impact) or go do something else all together. Over the long term, driving those "who commit the truth" drives professions to look more and more inward versus outward at adapting to the changing environment.

Success is now measured by how much wealth one has amassed displayed through material goods. The pressure is there every day to achieve this success, competing with everyone. It explains the wealth of corporate scandals that occurred in the beginning of the 21st century, record high consumer debt, and President Bush's call for citizens to spend more in response to the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. This trend toward self-serving leadership has impacted how leaders are chosen and promoted, and the game becomes focused on retaining position, status, and most importantly, earning power.

Only leaders of character will solve our problems, and the truth hurts.

By Don Vandergriff

 |  February 1, 2010; 2:39 PM ET
Category:  Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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