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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.

Leading a moral imperative

Question: The conventional political wisdom is that the American public will reject politicians who propose or embrace a plan to bring the federal budget into balance through tax hikes and/or deep spending cuts. Is this a leadership challenge without a good solution? Can there be leadership without follow-ship?

Leadership requires followership, but it is up to leaders to set the agenda for others to follow. This is especially true about big, bold ideas that might prove initially unpopular.

Take for example Civil Rights. President Truman issued the order to integrate our military in 1948. This is not something generals asked for, and in fact a number of them opposed it. Nor was integration a popular topic in the civilian world. Yet Truman's decision had the moral imperative, particularly since so many African Americans had served honorably in World War II and in every war prior to it. Truman did not wait for public opinion; he decided and pushed it forward.

Leaders can exert moral authority over issues large and small when they seek to right a wrong or prevent one from happening. Reducing the size of the federal budget is necessary; and one can argue that if it is not reduced in a timely fashion then it will imperil the health, safety and security of our nation. So then reducing it, some may argue, becomes a moral imperative.

Labeling an issue this way can be an exercise in word play if it is not followed up by action. Members of the bipartisan commission on federal debt reduction have hit upon a unifying factor, one that works for everyone: shared sacrifice. Exact cuts in spending that affect all but the poorest, so that everyone learns to do without something. This means that everyone will need to give up a little for the good of the nation.

This is where leadership once again becomes imperative. Squabbling over what gets cut and who does the cutting may quickly degenerate into partisanship. To avoid excessive partisan rancor, it may be instructive to look how some companies reacted during the early days of the Great Recession. Many companies imposed a freeze on merit increases, including those for senior executives. True enough executives make more than rank and file, but a freeze is a freeze. On a broader scale, we saw examples of managers and employees cutting their pay to avoid lay offs. In both instances pain was shared.

Shared sacrifice reinforces the moral imperative of any leadership proposition. And we have a word for men and women who put themselves and their ideas forward for the good of the organization, even when it may mean they have to give up something. We call them leaders.

We measure their legacy by what they have achieved in tough times when it might have been easier to walk away. Such is the case with all great challenges. It falls to leaders to point us in the right direction and then lead us together until the challenge is met. And this is especially necessary when the going gets tough.

By John Baldoni

 |  November 30, 2010; 11:28 AM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Congressional leadership , Crisis leadership , Followership , Government leadership , Managing Crises , Political leadership , Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Americans are starved for fiscal truth | Next: The next Congress provides the best opportunity

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