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George Reed
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George Reed

A retired U.S. Army Colonel, George Reed is an associate professor in the Department of Leadership Studies within the School of Leadership and Education Sciences at the University of San Diego.

Balancing process and progress

Q: Although Washington D.C. residents give Mayor Adrian Fenty high marks for improving schools and other city services, he's fighting an uphill battle for reelection this week because he is seen as having ignored the traditional political process. Yet President Obama's popularity is also suffering precisely because his patient working of a broken Congressional process limited his accomplishments, diminished his stature and alienated his political base. How should leaders balance the often conflicting demands of achieving dramatic results and building consensus?

This is an excellent question, because it highlights the need to consider leadership as both art and science. The inertia of organizations and internal preference for incremental change over revolutionary change is well noted. When fostering change from within an organization, one must be careful to maintain pressure without provoking an allergic response from those who are powerfully invested in the current order. A friend of mine currently serving in Iraq recently told me of an Arab saying, "He who tells the truth should keep one foot in the stirrup." This obviously necessitates a slow and careful approach that can be insufficient if the organization needs to change rapidly or significantly. Working within the system has the advantage of marshalling support, or at least avoiding outright opposition, from powerful stakeholders. Enmity of insider power brokers could derail any sort of progress. Of course this pragmatic and time-consuming process is unsatisfying to constituents who demand big changes right away.

Outsiders who seek to foster change are at a significant disadvantage. They have few friends in the existing order. Insiders control most of the internal processes and have a command of rules and organizational expertise that can be used to thwart change in subtle if not invisible ways. This stranglehold can be broken if the outsider marshals sufficient power from other outsiders or internal defectors in support of their change agenda. In political systems power often takes the form of support from coalitions and the public. The call for change becomes a powerful force that propels enthusiasm and votes. Once elected, however, the outsider must work within the existing system and the enthusiastic support seen during the campaign begins to dissipate. It is one thing to be elected and something else entirely to govern. The advocate of revolutionary change is often seen as "selling out" or cooperating too much with the opposition.

So which approach should the political-change champion take? Like most things with leadership, the answer depends on the situation. Adept political leaders should constantly assess the amount of support they can garner and the amount of opposition they can tolerate. It would be just as foolhardy to say that taking the time to build support and consensus from within the system is always the way to go as it would be to advocate exclusively for sweeping grassroots change from the outside. The art is in discerning the existing pattern and injecting themselves into that pattern in the way that is most likely to produce a desired outcome.

By George Reed

 |  September 14, 2010; 9:21 AM ET
Category:  Government leadership , Political leadership , Politics Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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