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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.

Strong leaders know when it's time to change

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?

Change is never easy, especially for those in charge.

When you are on top, the view is pretty good; everyone else is looking up at you. For an autocrat, this is intoxicating. In time they believe in their power and entwine the future of the organization with their own capacity to lead. They surround themselves with those who will are willing to sublimate themselves to this power. Such people are incapable of change because their sense of self worth is linked to their autonomy. Change is akin to death.

Strong leaders, unlike autocrats, are capable of change because they have the wisdom to see that their leadership needs the support of other strong-minded people. They are open to alternate points of view and are willing to act on those points of view if they believe that change is necessary.

Hosni Mubarak is an autocrat and will not change without being forced. An indication of his inability to acknowledge his people's pain was the appointment of the former head of the security services as his new vice president. This man may be the most despised person in Egypt, if not for Mubarak himself. Such is the case with autocrats. They do what they want to do, not what needs to be done.

We have examples of many strong leaders who have changed over time. Franklin Roosevelt was a master of change. His management of the federal response to the Great Depression was to try multiple approaches to evolving problems. As the nation inched toward war, Roosevelt realized that he would need the support of industry, and to gain genuine commitment he knew that he would have to allow businesses to make a profit for the work they did. Thus the friend of the workingman also became the friend of the industrialist.

Leaders must do more than allow change; they must push for it. Otherwise it is cosmetic; that is, it only affects appearances not substances. Such is the case with Mubarak. His cabinet shuffling seems little more than window dressing. He remains in charge and that is the problem. The corrupt system he oversees is opposed to the aspirations of Egypt's citizenry, most especially the young and the educated.

If a leader is the problem, he must step aside. This is hard for an autocrat to do because his view of self is linked to the destiny of his organization. He persuades himself that to give up power is a form of surrender.

Strong leaders on the other hand know when it is time to step down. Reportedly George III remarked that if Washington gave up his command after beating the British at Yorktown he would be the most powerful man in the world. He was not, of course, but he set the example for future American leaders to consider. One who understood this concept implicitly was Abraham Lincoln, who said, "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."

Autocrats do not lack for power, but their exercise of it demonstrates a failure of character. Strong leaders know that character is the ultimate test of power: not to hoard it but to use it to affect positive change.

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By John Baldoni

 |  February 1, 2011; 10:12 AM ET
Category:  Crisis leadership , Failures , Government leadership , Managing Crises , Political leadership , Self-Sacrifice Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Power to the people | Next: Egypt needs a new leader


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What makes it so difficult to resist change once in a position of power? Even in recognizing the building discontent of the people, Mubarak's pride has led him to use corruption to prolong his presidency for three decades. In a recent interview. his pride in his position of power and authority as head of Egypt still remained, "I don't care what people say about me. Right now I care about my country, I care about Egypt." This is a statement reflective of his views on his country and its people, since traditional Western thought would assume that the people of a country and the country itself are inseparable concepts. His announcement that he will not be seeking reelection this year is not evidence of his willingness to change, but rather, a decision forced by the eruption of protests. Though protesters want him to step down immediately, Mubarak is going to stay in office until elections in September. Fearful of the country falling into chaos, Mubarak has about 6 months, if not less, to reassess how he will conduct the last months of his presidency. The next step for Mubarak is to do exactly what he has not done as an autocrat: listen to the people and exit as gracefully as possible.

Posted by: mirandawang19 | February 4, 2011 2:46 PM
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One of the characteristics of a strong leader is the image of trust and credibility. Having the faith of one's people is essential to a leader's ability to effectively run a nation. Trust in any relationship, including the leader-subject relationship, is built over time, and very fragile. Once you have abused and lost this faith, it is very difficult if not impossible to regain it.
Former President Bill Clinton, for example, outraged the American people by having sexual relations with a woman other than his wife, and more egregiously lying boldly about it to all of America. What in actuality could be a minor offense for a politician destroyed President Clinton's image, and lost him his presidency, despite the fact that he was actually a capable leader.
President Mubarak has clearly also lost the trust of his nation in his ability to rule. If possible, the Egyptian people would like nothing more than to throw him from power, as Clinton was ejected. Unlike Clinton, President Mubarak is not merely making personal transgressions. He is ruling in a manner that is entirely unacceptable to his people. After 30 years of such autocratic ruling, there is no way that he can change his image and convince his people that he has turned over a new leaf. The only way that the Egyptian people will have faith in their leader is if a new leader is installed.

Posted by: nupurjain | February 4, 2011 2:42 PM
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Posts on this topic are generally in agreement when discussing whether Mubarak should step down immediately. It needs to happen. Let's look at some logistics for how this might take place. To be a leader, one must have followers. Mubarak's only followers include existing government officials and the military. The opposing group is the constituency, who has taken action by riot/protesting in public and being a huge nuisance. The fact that chaos in the area is still going on tell us that the military either doesn't care and isn't feeling legitimately threatened, or has not controlled the situation because they don't believe they are up for the task. There is no leader-follower relationship between the people and the government; only an oppressor-oppressed relationship. What the people need is leadership that comes from within the resistance: a true leader that can be trusted and followed. They need a leader from and for the people to organize themselves into a force that graduates from molotov cocktails and rocks to something that can actually stand up to those who have been in charge for so long.

Posted by: RobertZider | February 4, 2011 2:36 PM
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There is much truth in John Baldoni's words that "Strong leaders know when it's time to change," for leaders must be able to resonate with the ever-fickle needs of their followers and adapt to the times of the day. As Baldoni shows with his examples of former Presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, self-restraint is one of the most critical factors of great leadership.
Yet the Presidents that Baldoni mentions were not, as the question asks, originally resistant to change. Washington fought for a break from the old monarchy, for the novel idea of a true democracy. In essence, Washington fought for change. Lincoln constantly agonized over how his decisions would affect his changing country. He knew that he needed to preserve the Union, but his path in pursuing this goal depended on his response to change. As the Civil War progressed and emancipation grew more and more feasible, Lincoln responded in a timely manner; he did not allow the course of his own agenda to stay fixed while the state of his Union marched deeper and deeper into conflict. Finally, Roosevelt thoroughly revolutionized the role of the government in the business sector, and his New Deal program was without precedent. Thus, the leaders that Baldoni references already knew how to amend their plans and policies to fit the circumstances; therefore, they are poor examples for the response of this question.
However, the Washington Post asks about an entrenched, powerful leader who has already proven himself to be change-resistant. In such a case, the leader has not responded to the changing needs of his followers and has thus lost their trust and their confidence, two very key factors of legitimate leadership. Even if he were to suddenly resonate with his followers, the changes would seem to be a cloyingly deceptive way of winning future votes.
Furthermore, the leader in question, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, recently released a statement that says that, after 62 years in the public service sector, he is simply "fed up" and "wants to go." However, he fears that his resignation would bring chaos to Egypt and that the consequences of leaving his post are too dire.
Mubarak has therefore expressed the desire for change of leadership. He has admitted that it is time for him to step down. Knowing when to step down, according to Baldoni, is the mark of a strong leader. Is Mubarak now a strong leader simply because he finally realizes that his country has spiraled out of his grasp? For Mubarak, his nod to change is too little, and much too late. A leader must be not only flexible, but also timely.

Posted by: catherineyuh | February 4, 2011 1:36 PM
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There is much truth in Baldoni's words that "Strong leaders know when it's time to change," for undoubtedly leaders must be flexible and respond to the needs of their followers and the times of the day. Self-restraint is a key characteristic of the greatest leaders

Posted by: catherineyuh | February 4, 2011 12:29 PM
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Without followers, a leader is nothing. Thus, this relationship between the leader and follower is one that is built upon a precariously delicate balance of trust, power, and often times a shared vision. What has occurred in Egypt is the loss of a shared vision. President Mubarak's pursuit of personal power and absolute control has left a nation yearning for change. The repressive regime that President Mubarak has led with militant-excellence has allowed for his followers to no longer share the same vision. What has occurred is a break of trust – trust which is all too critical to the very foundation of leadership.

The exchange of trust within leader-follower is executed in both formal and informal acts of leadership and authority. So, while President Mubarak presently holds formal authority, it is the informal authority that has been tainted. Though he established himself in a position of power in an autocratic nature, the lack of a transcendent goal and vision with a primary focus on the people of his nation, has left the doors wide open for a progressive even aggressive form of action by way of changing what has been the status-quo for the past thirty years.

Posted by: sherrylin | February 4, 2011 12:35 AM
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Mr. Baldoni is entirely right that one must distinguish between strong leaders and autocrats. Strong leaders can change; autocrats cannot. So when discussing Hosni Mubarak, an autocrat, it is evident that his ability to successfully lead Egypt in a different direction is virtually non-existent.

Turning to the question at hand, though, which seeks to shine light on leadership more generally, Mr. Baldoni's point that strong leaders "know when it is time to step down" needs to be expanded upon, even if such a statement cannot be entirely untangled in a short post such as this.

When one loses the confidence of his or her followers, there are often calls for that leader to step down. However, we must take into account the institutional structure in place that will seek to fill a possible power vacuum. Sometimes, if a large power vacuum exists, it may be more beneficial for a current leader to either remain in power until a new leader emerges or, as President Mubarak has suggested for himself, to help in the transition.

In President Mubarak's case, the people will not accept this role. But in other cases, a leader, even one who has resisted change, may be in a position to help lead in a different direction.

Posted by: mattwasserman | February 3, 2011 4:32 PM
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I am in full agreement. There must be an awareness of the people's desires in a leader, one that drunken power turns a blind eye to. Interestingly enough, strong leaders, even in a democratic sense, do not easily relinquish their positions. Incumbent congressmen sometimes have such an advantage in the polls that reelection to term is almost given. And when asked to step down, barring scandal, I estimate many are unwilling to do so. The wisdom to change, the decision to step down, must be extremely difficult. The resiliency in the face of extreme criticism also becomes a hard shell that may block out wise decisions. True, strong leaders need to accept change. But practically speaking, how do you know when that time comes? FDR's decision to change was brilliant, yes, but also inevitable, on the brink of war. Mubarak's situation is perhaps of a completely different sort. FDR did not face an angry populace, cede his office, nor was he a susceptible corrupt leader. Mubarak's intentions are obviously geared towards maintaining his position of power. He in fact, in another definition of strong leader, doing so by changing the status quo. He is adapting to the circumstance with the ultimate goal of keeping in power. Is that leadership? Or power-hungry in a leadership role? That's for another post.

Posted by: alexyoung | February 2, 2011 11:40 PM
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Precisely. The autocratic leader is self-serving. The great leaders are serving others - servant leaders. Thanks for sharing John.

Posted by: BLichtenwalner | February 1, 2011 3:40 PM
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