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Exploring Leadership in the News with Steven Pearlstein and Raju Narisetti

West Point Cadets
West Point cadets and instructors

West Point Cadets

A group of 13 cadets and four instructors from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point take on the weekly 'On Leadership' questions. Who better to explore the gray areas of leadership than members of The Long Gray Line?

More honest than ever

Q: Opposition protests against Kyrgystan's government today, like the protests in Iran late last year, demonstrate the power of citizens to challenge and even overthrow their political leaders. How can leaders recognize the signs of growing rage among followers? In the age of YouTube and Twitter, do citizens and followers have more power to challenge leaders?

One of the arts of leadership is finding a way to hear accurate feedback. This means providing a medium that doesn't intimidate followers. Give your people a place where they feel free to speak and be heard with minimal consequence. Once you have the medium, then you just have to remember that a leader's best tools are his ears. Just giving the time to listen to the grievances of the people is a way to intervene before a situation turns into a catastrophe.

Leaders have to find a creative way to stay "in the loop." Each must find their own way to be in touch with the masses. Remember, leadership is the business of dealing with people. Without knowing how your people feel and react to your decisions, it's hard to make decisions that will best benefit your organization. It's all about the feedback.

To answer the second question: With the Internet and instant media sources, videos like the U.S. military helicopter attack that killed two reporters (posted on YouTube, of which the military cannot yet locate their copy) and real-time Tweets keep politics more honest than ever before.

At the same time, political forces can use media as a platform for important issues. Iranian demonstrators used Tweets to let the world know what was going on when Iran closed the country to foreign media. The "instant" culture of the Internet puts more power in the people's hands to challenge leaders or provoke change. A population with the power of instant knowledge is a force to be heard and reckoned with. -- Cadet Christina Tamayo

The listening leader

As a leader, it is important to understand your subordinates, as growing rage is not an uncommon trait of a populace over time. There are rules and regulations that citizens will get sick of eventually, which then require change. If a leader does not have a system in which complaints are being sent up to his level, problems will erupt and rage will be inevitable.

Technology channels, such as YouTube and Twitter, are a method for distributing opinions to people around the world. Increased awareness is the result, and leaders are challenged at a higher level. This new level of mass communication might be good, in that a leader can learn about problems quickly, but leaders beware: Citizens may be faster to learn about problems before the leader. -- Cadet Jonathan Bulls

No excuses

The question is not necessarily how do leaders recognize rage but why haven't they anticipated it already? It is the 21st century and the age of communication technology. A leader's actions can be communicated, analyzed, and criticized by the masses instantly.

But as much as this appears as a detriment of a leader whose actions may be unpopular, communication technology is not a one-way channel of opinions. Leaders are able to harness this same medium of communication to disseminate and promote their ideas, and they certainly take advantage of this. A leader can Google himself minutes after taking an action to assess the public's reaction and then defend his choices.

In terms of having power to challenge leaders, citizens only have as much influence as a government allows them to have. The process of political scrutiny is expedited with technology, so the public can mobilize quickly and, in that way, may be more powerful than ever. There really is no excuse for a leader to be oblivious to his followers' criticisms. -- Cadet Katie Miller

Dissent amongst a common populace is not bred overnight. Often it is caused by a series of debatable acts that affect the personal lives of citizenry, and followers are inadvertently provided the necessary fuel for fiery reactions. In aiming to identify the precursors of fury among a populace, leaders must recognize those decisions likely to result in citizen uproar. A leader must also provide communication channels, with the intent to hear the word of his followers. Proper expectation allows for preparation and minimizes the potentially destructive effects of disorder.

The present age of technology (i.e. YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) does give citizens and followers more of an opportunity to challenge their leadership. Through technology, individuals have the opportunity to voice their opinions and grievances like never before.

Ironically, the same outlets used to challenge leadership are often the very same ones that leaders can use to manage followers. Citizens and followers need a voice they can trust and one that mirrors their own. A leader who is hidden from public view can invoke despair and resentment among among followers. The mismanagement of such challenges is what leads to turmoil and the eventual defiance of a common people. -- Cadet Lawrence Brown

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

By West Point Cadets

 |  April 8, 2010; 11:51 AM ET
Category:  Followership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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