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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 .

The reputation riskers: Dick Durbin and Tom Coburn

Question:Considering all spheres of endeavor, who would you nominate as Leader of the Year in 2010? Why?

I'm not much interested in 'Leader' of the year. I'm much more interested in 'Acts of Leadership' of the year.

To me, leadership is an activity, not a person. It is something some people do some of the time; not something some people are or become. No one exercises leadership 24/7.

The opportunities to exercise leadership come to everyone, every day, regardless of position. They come at your family dinner table, in your professional life and in your civic life. They come whether you sit in a big job with lots of formal authority, or you are at the bottom of the food chain (or even outside of the organization or the group). The only issues are whether you recognize those opportunities when they arise and then whether you have the courage and skill to take advantage of them on behalf of something you care deeply about.

You and I do not exercise more leadership, because we know that leadership is difficult and risky. It is not surprising that so much leadership has come from people without big jobs--people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. They did not have as much to lose as a CEO or a United States senator.

Nevertheless, the world would be a better place if everyone, including you and me, exercised leadership more often than we do.

We are living in a moment when the challenges facing the United States and the globe are as daunting as they have ever been: terrorism, resource scarcity, climate change, and the erosion of this country's global dominance in culture, trade, education and international relations. So the need for leadership is more pressing than at any other period in our lifetimes.

For better or worse, the problems will not every be addressed until we get courageous leadership from our politicians, from those in elected office who are willing to take a longer and wider view of their role and are willing to risk their careers by disappointing their most fervent followers in order to make progress on some of the daunting challenges before us.

That is why my candidates for "Acts of Leadership for 2010" are US Senators Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a very left-leaning Democrat and a very right-leaning Republican, who voted in favor of the package of radical reforms recommended by the White House Fiscal Commission, chaired by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson. Both Durbin and Coburn incurred the wrath of their core constituencies. Both risked their reputations with their followers in order to help this country face the painful task of getting its fiscal house in order. Both challenged their relationships with their closest colleagues in the Senate. But their support lent legitimacy to the recommendations and helped to ensure that the great national debate on real fiscal reform has begun.

Predictably, only one of the six House Members on the Commission voted for the package. They have to run every two years, making it riskier for them to exercise leadership than for their Senate brethren. See, we really don't want our politicians to exercise leadership. We designed the system to make it as difficult as possible for them to do so. And then, in our worst moments, when they pander to us, tell us what we want to hear rather than what we need to hear, shield us from the pain of tough choices and never exercise leadership, we reward them.....by calling them "leaders".

Let's look for more Coburn/Durbin moments, more courageous and skillful acts of leadership. And let's thank those folks who put themselves at risk in order to help us face up to our most difficult choices.

By Marty Linsky

 |  December 20, 2010; 2:56 PM ET
Category:  Congressional leadership , Economic crisis , Government leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: The protectors: Salvatore Giunta and George W. Bush | Next: The education innovators: Michelle Rhee and Geoffrey Canada


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True leader of the year rightly belongs to Julian Assange of Wikileaks who has brought the truth of our worldwide failures to light of day. not to a bunch of self serving bureaucrats and corporate nitwits!

Posted by: nametyb | December 27, 2010 4:37 PM
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"Doctor" Coburn is the bloody poster putz who is the consummate Hypocrite joyfully whizzing on the Hippocratic Oath!

Least we forget, Coburn was also the ringleader of the C Street "Frat House for Jesus" cover-up of John Ensign's adultery and payoff shenanigan's. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/09/13/100913fa_fact_boyer

Since last January, Coburn has single-handedly blocked $1.15 billion dollars in relief funds to Haiti with his racist "secret hold" on the approved funds.

The death and suffering, and the cholera epidemic in particular, all lie at Dr. Coburn blood-soaked feet!

Finally, the Senator from Oklahoma where the Oklahoma City bombing occurred, and their first responders perform heroically, says, "Up your's" to the heroic NYC first responders.

So absolutely Coburn is indeed the leading murderer on Capitol Hill.

Posted by: Epistolarian | December 26, 2010 5:39 PM
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