Power to the people
Question: Egypt's unfolding political crisis raises a broader question: Can an entrenched, powerful leader, one who has resisted change, successfully lead a country or an organization in a different direction if circumstances suddenly demand it? Or is it necessary to bring in new leadership?
The following responses come from five of the fellows that make up the Coro St. Louis 2011 class.
Leaders must adapt
Perhaps a more appropriate question to be drawn from the current events in Egypt is, "What sudden change of circumstances would render a change in leadership necessary?" After all, the nature of the circumstances could make all the difference.
Theoretically, an entrenched, powerful leader who had resisted change in the past should be able to adapt to new circumstances and successfully lead a country or organization using a changed vision or new paradigm. Intentional change rooted in new ways of thinking is difficult, yet it happens all the time. Picture that stubborn boss who, after months of frustrating debate, finally agrees to give employees maternity or paternity leave after the birth of a child.
On the other hand, it's not hard to envision a situation in which there is no other solution than a change in leadership. For instance, if the sudden change in circumstances involved a situation in which the entire public demanded a new leader, then there is no way that the current leader could stay in power and still satisfy the shifting vision of the country. Therefore, new leadership would be necessary.
No easy task
I think one must be careful in assuming that changes in leadership will produce positive changes in the direction of an organization or country. It is reasonable to think of cases where leaving a leader in power is a poor option, and removing him would be worse. In these situations, the void left by a strong leader can turn into a vacuum where the future direction of an entity is left uncertain and ambiguous. Often, there are growing pains associated with new leadership--side effects that could negatively affect their pursuit for institutional or systemic change.
While the single act of removing an entrenched and ineffective leader may be enough to enable a country to pivot in difficult circumstances, remnants of the old leader may still remain. Processes, systems, culture and relationships are areas the new leader will have to repair or throw out completely. This of course, is no easy task.
Power: Give it away
Perhaps Kanye West can claim to be the voice of this generation. It seems the often-maligned rapper was peering into the future when he wrote, in his most recent album, that "no one man should have all that power"--a mantra taken up, at least in spirit, by the millions of Egyptians protesting nearly 30 years of rule under President Hosni Mubarak. For maladaptive leaders like Mubarak who are faced with demands for a new direction, they must ask themselves how they can implement change and still retain leadership.
It's simple. If no one man should have all that power, he should simply give it away.
This solution doesn't just apply to political dictators, it applies to organizations suffering from founder's syndrome too. When leaders gives away power, they enable others to act. They develop new leaders, allow for new ideas and create a culture of shared accountability characterized by broad-based buy-in. In ceding power and dispersing authority, leader repair trust, restore integrity to broken systems and allow others to check and balance their power.
In Washington D.C. there's a common image around town, one that even adorns the top of the Capitol Rotunda. It's the image of George Washington with sword in hand, offering his free hand to the people--symbolizing his rejection of monarchical dictatorship and his willingness to return power to the people. Entrenched and change-resistant leaders can lead under new circumstances if they successfully and genuinely give power away (not just fire and replace their entire cabinet...). They merely have to acknowledge that, at some point, to truly enable others to act, they must give power away completely.
Be the change
Leaders who were previously resistant to change can successfully lead a country or an organization in a different direction. The task requires a leader to be authentic--to lead by example and act with integrity. They must both mean and do what they say they will do--or, as Mahatma Gandhi put it, to "be the change [they] wish to see in the world."
Leaders who merely pay lip service to a request for change or a new direction in policy relinquish legitimacy and do damage to their integrity and ability to be trusted. Any lack of commitment and honesty on a leader's part can easily be detected and any intended change will fall short.
Agent of the people, agent of change
Questioning a recognized leader's ability to adjust to the demand of changing circumstances brings forth greater questions surrounding the responsibility of change. Is a leader in charge of administering change? Should a leader in today's world serve as a source of familiarity, both representing and protecting an established social order--or rather, is it the responsibility of a leader to change along with circumstances, perhaps even serving as an agent for change themselves?
It would be easy at this point to rattle off a list of individuals who have demonstrated leadership on either end of this scope, weigh the pros and cons and suggest that the best solution to the questions above would be a hybrid approach. Instead, I would like to bring the conversation back to the people--those driving the demand.
A leader's primary responsibility is to serve and protect the needs, rights and interests of the people. Without them, this conversation would be pointless. Leaders must be able to look beyond themselves to see the needs of the people they serve--whether this need calls for a continuation of an existing system, social reform or radical change--and act accordingly.
February 1, 2011; 7:46 AM ET
Category: Crisis leadership , Failures , Government leadership , Making mistakes , Managing Crises , Political leadership , Presidential leadership Save & Share:
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