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Marty Linsky
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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 .

Equal-opportunity pain delivery

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?

In 1957, John F. Kennedy won a Pulitzer Prize for writing Profiles in Courage, the story of eight U.S. senators who "did the right thing" and ended their political careers. I did not find the book inspiring. Noble failure doesn't move me anymore.

In 2010, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey has seen his poll numbers go up and down like a roller coaster as he actually does what he promised he would do in his campaign, spreading the pain that is necessary to help New Jersey avoid a financial Armageddon.

Christie understands that the only way he will have a chance to do today's version of the "right thing" and survive is to be an equal-opportunity pain deliverer and to do so early in his administration. That way no interest will feel singled out, he will have time to recover, and the benefits of the harsh steps will begin to be experienced before he has to go back to the voters.

Leadership is dangerous, particularly dangerous to elected officials. That's why politicians do not exercise leadership very much.

We really do not want our politicians to exercise leadership. We want them to take care of us and deliver any pain that is necessary to someone else. That's why we have two-year terms in the House, keeping their feet to the fire, giving them little time to breathe before running for re-election.

You can see that playing itself out on the Simpson/Bowles Commission where the House Members are having more trouble signing on than those in the Senate.

But, as Christie's rebounding poll numbers show, people do respect politicians who make hard decisions, and do so with a sense of fairness. The harsh reality is that the new US Congress has only about a nine-month window to exercise leadership, before the presidential election season gets underway.

What makes political leadership dangerous is that exercising leadership requires disappointing your own people at a rate that they can absorb. Three elements: (1) It is about disappointing the unrealistic expectations of your supporters that are generated in campaigns (i.e. repeal Obamacare); (2) it is about your own people, because it is easy to have the opposition angry at you, nothing courageous about that; and (3) it is about timing and pacing, and that's about maximizing the chance for survival.

Leadership is not about martyrdom, the message of Kennedy's book, although that's always a risk. It is about taking smart risks smartly, to increase the chances that you will succeed and minimize the chances that you will be taken out and pushed aside.

We'll know all we need to know about who has the courage and the smarts by Labor Day next year.

By Marty Linsky

 |  December 1, 2010; 10:08 AM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Congressional leadership , Crisis leadership , Economic crisis , Followership , Government leadership , Managing Crises , Political leadership , Presidential leadership , Self-Sacrifice Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Once congress members started thinking of politics as a career, and not as representing their constituents for a couple of terms, it became virtually impossible to get the most common sense legislation passed.

Now politicians have learned to tell people what they want to hear, and to not follow through with any tough choices -- it's much easier to finger point.

I guess that's why the Democrats are unable to eliminate tax cuts for the wealthy.

The truth is that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats want to extend the cuts for the wealthy.

Posted by: postfan1 | December 5, 2010 11:01 PM
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Spot on. It is not just Obama, but his supporters and opposers. Anyone who thinks this is a win-win will lose some of their following. The public needs a dose of reality, however as a collective body that will not happen.

Posted by: jbeeler | December 1, 2010 1:46 PM
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Spot on. It is not just Obama, but his supporters and opposers. Anyone who thinks this is a win-win will lose some of their following. The public needs a dose or reality, however as a collective body that will not happen.

Posted by: jbeeler | December 1, 2010 1:45 PM
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