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Katherine Tyler Scott
Business leader

Katherine Tyler Scott

Katherine Tyler Scott is Managing Partner of Ki ThoughtBridge, a leadership consultancy, and is author, most recently, of Transforming Leadership: The Episcopal Church of the 21st Century. She is a board member of the International Leadership Association.

'A wish for leaders'

Question: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week confronted a dilemma faced by many leaders: whether to step aside when things go wrong. What should be the criteria guiding such a decision? Did Pelosi make the right choice? Should she have offered to resign but let her caucus make the decision? What about Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid?

Many years ago after completing an executive leadership series, the executive director gave our group a poem by Earl Rehm, titled, "A Wish for Leaders." It was disconcerting upon first read, but over the years I have come to treasure its truth and wisdom. Three passages seem particularly appropriate for this conversation:

"I sincerely wish you will have the experience of thinking up a new idea, planning it, organizing it, and following it to completion, and then have it be magnificently successful. I also hope you'll go through the same process and have something bomb-out.

I wish you could know how it feels to run with all your heart and lose...horribly!!...

I wish for you the worst kind of criticism for everything you do, because that makes you fight to achieve beyond what you normally would...

I wish for you the experience of leadership."

If failure is the primary criteria for quitting, there would be little or no progress and a serious lack of courageous leadership. Great leaders "get things wrong." They make mistakes; they experience failure. What separates them from others is their capacity to admit their mistakes, to learn from them and to continue to work toward revised goals. The driving vision/goal will still be seen as vitally important and walking away is not an option. History is replete with such leaders, and more current studies of leadership show that these kinds of leaders don't even have the word "failure" in their vocabulary; to them it's just another way to learn. This mentality doesn't provide them with immunity from future failure; but it is indicative of the tenacity, persistence, determination and emotional toughness of this kind of leader. When things go wrong they seem to gain more resilience and confidence, tempered with humility.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have these qualities. Both succeeded in passing major legislation; they failed in understanding the voters' angst and their priority issues. Both are smart and capable. Each acted in alignment with their core values and those of their Party. They demonstrate a mental toughness that has enabled them to endure adversity. Although successfully demonized by the opposition, this alone will not be enough to make either retreat from the crucible of criticism or the apex of change.

There are some key questions that should be considered by both, even though Senator Reid has retained his formal position and Speaker Pelosi's fate is now dependent on the votes of her peers. In the final analysis, both will have to be authorized by those they want to influence. Can they present and represent their positions and those of their Party in a manner that maintains personal and philosophical integrity, yet permits reasonable adaptation of their positions? Can they be trusted to be just and fair and respectful in listening to differences of opinion? Will they be able to convince the electorate that their chief desire for remaining in, and retaining prominent positions of, power is first and foremost a commitment to improving the lives of most Americans?

If Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid take these questions seriously and are genuinely collaborative in their styles of leadership, those who continue to demonize them will be viewed as more invested in destroying their credibility than in building their own. The "blame-the-leader game" does not have an indeterminate lifespan, even when the leader is clearly responsible for the mistakes and failures--witness the public's reaction to the chronic blaming of George W. Bush.

The Congress must now act on behalf of all Americans; not just those who voted for them; not just those who are in lockstep with their perspectives. This won't be an easy task given that the public is not of one accord on any issue, with the possible exceptions of improving the economy and increasing jobs. While there may be general consensus on these goals, there is widespread disagreement on specific strategies for achieving them. The work ahead requires great skill in negotiation and conflict resolution, both of which seem to be in short supply in Congress. Like the president, Congress must move from campaign mode into governance. The issues the country faces will require those who have had "the experience of leadership." Senator Reid and Speaker Pelosi's "getting it wrong" may be the first step toward achieving common ground, because this is the place where leaders are not strangers.

By Katherine Tyler Scott

 |  November 9, 2010; 2:49 PM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Congressional leadership , Failures , Government leadership , Leadership development , Leadership personalities , Leadership weaknesses , Political leadership , Politics , Succession , Women in Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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