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Robert Goodwin

Robert Goodwin

Robert J. Goodwin is CEO and co-founder of Executives Without Borders; former deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force and appointee at USAID, the State Department and the White House.

Guided, not governed, by popularity

Q:Today Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is riding high, judging from his press clippings, while a year ago the same pundits wondered if he'd be forced to step down. Many leaders face these wild swings of perception: one moment a genius, the next a dolt. Should leaders pay attention to their own popularity - or lack of it?

Leaders are judged on results, and Tim Geithner is no different. A year ago, he had few accomplishments to fall back on - as he was best known for failing to deflate a bloated credit bubble before it burst and then throwing hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars at the problem he helped create. But today, a different story is emerging. With modest recoveries in the job and stock markets underway, a financial reform bill likely pass Congress, and the news that the federal government may actually profit from the Wall Street bailouts, Mr. Geithner is enjoying a reversal of fortune.

While questions abound as to just how large a part Secretary Geithner's policies have played in a still nascent economic recovery, popularity contests aren't won in shades of grey. The public loves a win and it now looks as if Secretary Geithner finally has something upon which to hang his hat. Had he let his past infamy sway him from the policy course he charted before its outcomes were even evident, he likely wouldn't be able to take the credit now. But because he stayed the course amid sagging poll numbers and rumors he would soon be looking for another job, he's positioned himself as key driver of recovery - regardless of his actual role.

In so doing, Secretary Geithner demonstrated an understanding that effective leaders can't get too low when times are tough and can't get to high when things are running smoothly - regardless of what the polls or pundits are saying. In the erratic public opinion environment leaders inhabit today, that's a trait they all must share.

That said, however, great leaders must also have their fingers on the pulse of their constituencies and be willing to reach out to the displeased among the ranks when necessary. While full policy reversals aren't advisable based solely on the public's whims, a healthy dialogue can often open leaders' eyes to viewpoints they haven't considered or options that were previously unseen. Because leaders often can't generate the results they seek without a broad base of support, they must always be attuned to the public sentiment to know when greater efforts at compromise or communication are required.

Effective leadership is guided, but not governed, by popularity. It's fine line to be certain - but those we choose to lead must possess both the confidence and wisdom needed to walk it successfully.

By Robert Goodwin

 |  April 16, 2010; 11:07 AM ET
Category:  Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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