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John Baldoni
Leadership author

John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online. His most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

Time for pragmatic political leadership

Q:The overwhelming consensus among economists is that the economy needs another shot of short-term stimulus spending. But as the president and congressional leaders have discovered in trying to pass a new stimulus bill, voters want to start bringing the deficit down now. Is this one of those leadership moments when it is better to accommodate strong constituent beliefs rather than trying to convince them they are wrong?

The real question is this: As an elected official, do I do what the people want or do I hold true to my values?

In an ideal world constituent needs and personal values are synonymous but we do not live in a utopia so every elected official faces this people vs. values conundrum in his or her political life.

This is the proposition posited by 18th century Anglo-Irish statesman, Edmund Burke. Burke tended to favor the individual standing up for conscience. And it is a popular notion; one that John F. Kennedy turned into a memorable tome, Profiles in Courage, that told the stories behind the decisions that defined the careers of eight U.S. Senators.

Among them is the story of Edmund G. Ross, a veteran of the Union Army, who bucked his own party, the Republicans, to save President Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, from conviction in the impeachment trial of 1868.

Ross was no friend of Johnson but he believed that trial was more about politics than the law. Ross's former colonel, Thomas Ewing, later wrote, "In making [that] decision, you [Ross] knew perfectly well that it could consign you to private life and the vehement denunciation of almost all your party friends."

There are other times when the leader must and should bow to the will of the people. Revolutions are predicated on this premise and in electoral politics those who are seen as unrepresentative are voted out of office. Whether to follow conscience or the people is a challenging question for which there are no easy answers, but to bring clarity to the issue, here are three questions that leaders facing such a dilemma can ask themselves.

What is best for the organization? This is not the same as "best for the people." For example, no politician likes to vote for higher taxes. These days most politicians like to run on a no new taxes platform. While lower taxes are more politically palatable, elected officials - be they presidents or school-board trustees - know that lower revenues may mean cuts in programs that provide security, welfare and jobs.

What is best for me? Adherence to party discipline may be the most expeditious course; it can ensure re-election. Yet if every politician acted solely out of self interest then the will of the people would seldom ever be enacted. Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860 on a platform of preserving the Union. Shortly after his election, Southern states began to secede one by one. Lincoln had to make the fateful decision to adhere to his platform as well as to his conscience even if it doomed the nation to the bloodiest war in its history.

What is best for the people? Polls provide snapshots into the electorate but savvy leaders know that polls fluctuate daily. Every politician likes to say the polls be damned, but following the political winds can ensure re-election. So politicians can convince themselves that if they do what the people want (that is follow the polls) they will be elected. Voters can see through this, however. Grassroots movements (on either side of the political aisle) are a rejection of such politics as usual. Its adherents argue people and issues come before politicians.

The answers to such questions should provoke informed thought about people vs. conscience. In truth, successful politicians do a little bit of both.

Consider Franklin Roosevelt. In 1940, he ran on the platform of keeping America out of the war in Europe. He knew it was only a matter of time before our nation would have to get involved but in public he stood in opposition. Legislatively however he pushed for Lend-Lease, which provided money and materiel to Britain in the form of loans. His administration also pushed for Selective Service which began conscription and was the precursor to mass mobilization. Going to war was political non-starter prior to Pearl Harbor but preparing for war was feasible and Roosevelt pushed for it vigorously.

Every leadership decision in any organization has political implications. To make those tough decisions we need men and women of good intention who will do their best, even when they will sometimes get it wrong. And that gets to the heart of what has enabled America to succeed: pragmatism over ideology. With few exceptions (such as the Civil War and Civil Rights) we adhere more to what works rather than what it is ideological. Such pragmatism requires political leaders who can both think for themselves as well as do the will of the people. And that is never easy.

By John Baldoni

 |  June 22, 2010; 3:22 AM ET
Category:  Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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"The real question is this: As an elected official, do I do what the people want or do I hold true to my values? "

You are assuming that our elected officials have true values. They do not. Right now the Republicans coudl care less if the economy gets better. They just want Obama to fail. The Dems were the same way under Bush.

Posted by: jimbom | June 22, 2010 1:21 PM
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