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Marty Linsky

Marty Linsky

Co-founder of the leadership-focused consulting firm, Cambridge Leadership Associates, Marty Linsky teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School, co-authors the advice column, Leadership House Call and blogs at Linsky on Leadership .

Disappoint your own people at a rate they can absorb

Q: Winning an election often involves taking a strong ideological position to energize a partisan base. Actually governing, however, usually requires compromise. Will today's Republican leaders be able or willing to pivot successfully from campaigning to governing? Are there lessons from other fields on how to do it?

Leadership is about disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb. There are three elements here: disappointing, your own people, and at a rate they can absorb. The last is about survival.

Elections themselves are the antithesis of leadership. They are as pure a form of authority seeking and pandering as exists in a democratic society. Public yearning for leadership in the run-up to elections is inappropriate and naive. We have designed it that way, creating a system that keeps aspiring office-holders as close to voters as possible.

But shame on the successful politician who does not exercise leadership in the months right after the election. That is when the opportunity for leadership exists, when maximum political capital has been accumulated and when there is a moment of breathing space before the next election. Given the presidential election looming in 2012, this window for leadership will be very short.

If the Republicans are successful in gaining control of the House and/or the Senate, they will have to face governing. Governing well will require addressing complex and difficult challenges where Tea Party anger and glib campaign rhetoric will be no help. They will all be looking over their shoulders at primary opposition if they do not toe the line often enough.

The Republicans will have to provide political cover for their own leadership by finding opportunities to feed their base in the midst of the few moments of political courage when they collaborate across the aisle.

The White House, and the Democrats if they still control the House or the Senate, will have their own challenges. They will have to tolerate some considerable Republican pandering if there is any hope of legislative solutions. Any comprehensive legislation on immigration or energy, for example, will have to include some provisions that are unpalatable to them. In fact, they too will have to provide political cover for the Republicans and for themselves by angrily denouncing those unpalatable elements even as they vote for the bills. The president will have to bemoan the compromises that had to be made.

How will we know that there is some leadership going on? That's easy. When the bases of both parties are angry at their own, we will know that something real is happening. When the Tea Party activists and the labor unions are both decrying a piece of legislation, then we will know that something important is going on.

By Marty Linsky

 |  October 26, 2010; 10:03 AM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Congressional leadership , Government leadership , Political leadership , Politics , Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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