Story by: Chapman Rackaway
yes, we’re seeing leadership
KLC Principles playing out in presidential campaigns
The race for U.S. president generates a national conversation on leadership every four years. Two Kansas political scientists examine where candidates are demonstrating the use of Kansas Leadership Center ideas in their efforts – and where they’re not.
Politics is a perfect test bed for principles of leadership, because in many ways the political world embodies the first of KLC’s first two principles: that leadership is an act and not a position, and that leadership can happen at any time.
Politics is about leading from any and every position, in fact. The whole concept of democracy is that any person is capable of leading in any capacity, at any time. Not only can any child grow up to be president as part of the promise of democracy, but the entire idea of democratic governance is based on the idea that governing is done as much from the individual as it is from the legislature or executive mansion. Campaign trail rhetoric is important because it cues us as to how a person, if elected, would govern. Effective leaders on the campaign trail can earn goodwill capital to spend in office as a leverage point for the passage of effective policy. What we see today from candidates is a good predictor of what we will see from their negotiations with Congress in a year.
An Actvity, Not a Position
Government is not just about our elected officials. In fact, the way a representative democracy is designed, the people we call “political leaders” are actually supposed to be followers. Elected representatives are intermediaries, there to keep the workload for a busy public down to a manageable level. But the main workload is supposed to stay in the hands of the voting public. American democracy implies an engaged, inquisitive and leading public. We, the voters, need to exercise leadership and guide our elected officials in their decision-making. In other words, the nexus of leadership is in the public: We need to exercise our leadership as an act rather than deferring to an elected class that is supposed to follow our lead.
Know the Stories Others Tell About Us
The KLC competencies can teach us a lot about our politics. For instance, today’s style of campaigning relates to the concept of knowing the stories others tell about us. We all need to understand that our reputation is capital that can be spent in the achievement of our goals, and political candidates have to be particularly well-attuned to the stories people tell about them. Lyndon Johnson famously won his first race for Congress when his campaign manager spread desultory rumors about his opponent.
When we are sensitive to the stories others tell about us, we become more skillful at using good stories to advance our aims and wary of how the bad ones might trip us up.
Candidates become very guarded and well-scripted over time as they learn how to not feed the negative stories told about them. In turn, the public has come to see those highly scripted candidates as duplicitous fakers out for nothing but a vote. Donald Trump’s campaign, realizing this, has gone the other way.
Opining that Trump’s bombastic, inappropriate and at times bigoted rantings equate to leadership approaches may be disturbing to some, and that is understandable. But it is undeniable he is acutely aware of the stories people tell about him. In fact, Trump uses those stories to his own advantage, and that knowledge makes him unique as a candidate. Trump knows that people view him as a blowhard, a reality TV star trapped in a candidate’s role. What Trump has done with that, though, is use it in the style of a judo fighter. The weight of other candidates trying to fit themselves into a particular rhetorical box has led to the public’s reacting negatively against them. Trump, despite the darker implications of his rhetoric, knows that his off-the-cuff candor is something the public has been looking for. In short, rather than hurting him, it helps him. Trump is a different kind of candidate.
Trump is engaging in an elaborate experiment. Can candidates actually succeed by giving people what they say they want? The concept might seem absurd, but the public has grown increasingly weary of the slick, polished political talk that has come to dominate presidential contests.
Trump took the bold step of deciding to talk extemporaneously. He has no problem contradicting himself, deviating from the script and making proclamations that conventional wisdom suggests would end a person’s candidacy. Candidates, parties and consultants have known for years that a bloc of voters exists that supports some of the harder-edged policies Trump proposes, like building a wall for border security. But most candidates thought that the support they would gain would be offset by the support they would lose. Trump seemingly decided to take the risk that no others would and embraced the rhetoric. While he remains highly divisive, it seems to have worked for him (at least so far). But Trump’s experiment has been a risky one. Nobody made it work before at the presidential level. Sometimes, acting experimentally yields spectacular results.
Bernie Sanders has done basically the same thing – acting experimentally. A campaign should not be successful that runs on a shoestring budget and occupies an ideological space well left of the mainstream. A candidate with no national campaign experience should not be able to run competitively against perhaps the most prepared individual to have ever run for president. And yet Sanders stayed close to Clinton throughout the primary campaign. While Sanders did not win the nomination for president, he came much closer to Clinton than any other hopeful should.
The Vermont senator has been experimental in his own way, pushing a rhetoric for wealth redistribution that most polls would suggest is political suicide. But Sanders is a true believer, and for fellow true believers he is an iconic leader in a vital area that gets neither adequate attention nor lip service from candidates. Understanding that there are people waiting around for somebody different with a new vision, both Sanders and Trump have flipped the script on our expectations.
Just as leadership is an act, leading is one part carefully scanning your environment and one part taking risks nobody else would. Without the risk takers, those who eschew following the path set out by the stories told about us, we would not know what is possible.
Take the Temperature
There is no candidate in the field, nor has there been a candidate, who more assiduously takes the temperature than Hillary Clinton. If Trump is a risk-acceptant envelope-stretcher, Clinton is his diametric opposite. Clinton trods a narrow path, constantly looking to the crowd for feedback, approval and applause lines. Notoriously afraid to offend at campaign engagements, Clinton is acutely aware of everything going on around her and has developed mechanisms to keep taking the temperature regularly.
Clinton knows that aggressive federal policy action requires a large amount of buy-in and goodwill capital. To accomplish her goals, she needs to collect for the common purpose, and that leads her to bury even her own preferences as she seeks to determine others’ first. While some, like Trump, would deride her for pandering, what she is doing is an elaborate taking of the public’s temperature to be sure she has the support she needs for significant change.
Story by: Michael Smith
no, because purpose matters in leadership
Leadership training, the 2016 election, and the Anakin Skywalker dilemma
I love leadership training. Before I discovered the KLC, I attended three leadership training sessions at the Gamaliel Foundation, a Chicago-headquartered, faith-based social justice group made famous because a young Barack Obama served there as community organizer and trainer.
For one intense week and two follow-up sessions, I was confronted to identify my values and act on them, know my strengths and weaknesses, make hard choices and agitate underperforming colleagues. I even had one of the same trainers as Obama: a hard-boiled Chicago organizer who had seen it all, Mike Kruglik. Later, I discovered the KLC. The KLC’s Case-in-Point approach is gentler than Gamaliel’s trademark model, which is an in-your-face confrontation called agitation. Yet just as I had experienced at Gamaliel, in downtown Wichita I saw problems get unblocked, issues get faced honestly, and colleagues break down into tears and embrace one another (and me, at one point).
That is why I find it so hard to acknowledge that leadership training, in and of itself, cannot solve our worst problems. Yet it needs to be said. Leadership training is a tool, and like any powerful tool, the skills and confidence it engenders can be used for good or ill.
If readers will forgive my glib pop culture reference, leadership skills are a bit like the famous Force in “Star Wars.” The Force is present to the good Jedi and the malevolent Sith alike. Only what is in one’s heart can determine the uses to which it is put. The powerful clarifications and tactics of training also contain temptations – like the Sith, new trainees will be tempted to put these powerful new tools to work gratifying ego, seizing power or even eliminating rivals (albeit through job restructuring instead of deadly light-saber battles). As my friend Chapman Rackaway points out, a number of key KLC competencies and principles seem to be at play in some of this year’s presidential campaigns, most notably “Leadership is an activity not a position,” “Know the stories others tell about you,” and “Act experimentally.” The question is: Are these principles and competencies being used for good or for ill?
After I attended the initial training at Gamaliel, I was gushing about the experience to a friend of mine who had also done faith-based, social justice work. He was not as enthusiastic as I, noting that he had worked with organizers who had attended similar training. Unfortunately, the organization in question bogged down into internecine fights, and combatants used the powerful tactics of their training to attack each other, cancelling out one another’s actions and ultimately ripping apart the organization. I was of course crestfallen – leadership training had become my alpha and omega, and I hit the ground hard on my fall back to Earth.
Now I have a new perspective. I still believe in Gamaliel, the KLC and leadership training in general. Such experiences can transform lives, remove blocks to leadership, clarify problems and create new friendships. Yet leadership training can only lead to good outcomes if the trainees are headed for a good place – your leadership purpose matters. Like Anakin Skywalker in “Star Wars,” we have some decisions to make before moving forward. The results of these decisions need not be announced; they will be embedded in our behavior.
After reading Rackaway’s account of leadership ideas in this year’s presidential campaigns, I am reminded of this with special urgency. Candidates can know the stories others tell about them and use these to great advantage. This is certainly a refreshing break from the over-scripted, no-surprises, consultant-led campaigns of the recent past, but to what end? Are these stories being used to lift up people, to give hope, to solve problems and launch a dialogue that may renew a bitterly divided party system? I have my doubts.
It is worth noting here that counselors who work with bullying and verbal abuse have discovered that bullies, particularly those who use words as their weapons, are highly intelligent. Many verbal abusers have especially well-honed vocabularies. Fine tools, these, but put to the wrong ends they can lead to disastrous results.
Rackaway also points out that the voters themselves are seizing the initiative by nominating (or in the case of Sanders, almost nominating) “anti-establishment” candidates who stand the conventional wisdom on its head. Quite so but voters, too, can always brush up on their leadership skills.
As Rackaway himself hints, the immense promises of these new-style candidates sometimes make political scientists like us wonder how well-informed voters are about the promises and limits of our constitutional system. To use just one obvious example, how many have considered that Congress, not the president, initiates laws and spending programs? Only the vilified “establishment” candidate, Clinton, has put much effort into congressional races so far this year.
If voters want to lead, they’ll need to know the rules of the road, such as how legislation gets passed under the U.S. Constitution. “Leadership is an activity not a position” is a call to lead responsibly, not some sort of secret sauce. Perhaps it’s time to break out those old copies of “Schoolhouse Rock” and sing along to “I’m Just a Bill” once again, in order to brush up on the three branches and separation of powers.
Finally, Rackaway notes that “Act experimentally” is clearly present in a number of these status-quo-breaking campaigns this year. Yet again, Rackaway, my friend and colleague, is correct. And yet again, the Anakin Skywalker dilemma presents itself. Tyrants and heroes alike take calculated risks. The question is not so much what is being risked, as for what is it being risked? This year’s candidates have shown us with great clarity that Americans have had it with a political system of gridlock, soundbites, scripted talking points and, of course, endless fundraising. No question, this system is not the best. Yet attacking a tired status quo is not enough. Candidates promising change must also show a compelling reason why their own vision is in fact better. Replacing a broken system with a well-honed machine working toward unhealthy ends is not an improvement, as all “Star Wars” fans know.
Shortly after 9/11, former President Bill Clinton – himself a flawed leader – insightfully commented that the American people are quicker to embrace a leader who is strong and wrong than one who is weak and right. Well said. The challenge of leadership training – and the 2016 elections – is to find that leader who is both strong and right.
In that spirit, I suggest adding one more point from the KLC’s leadership competencies. A strong leader, whether occupying the White House or organizing in the community, must speak to loss. This strange election year is transfused with anger, worries and doubts about where the country is today, and where we are headed. Blue-collar jobs disappeared in huge numbers during the recent Great Recession, and they are not coming back. Terrorist attacks rattle our sense of security. The division between haves and have nots is the worst in generations.
Year after year, the cost of raising a middle-class family outpaces wage growth. Our nation’s system – if it can be called that – of charging and paying medical bills would put Rube Goldberg to shame. Problems that once seemed amenable to that great American can-do spirit now seem intractable. True leaders cannot be too nostalgic for the greatness of the past. Economic, cultural and global shifts have made that impossible. Yet these changes also present opportunities. Our country deserves leaders who will make us great anew, not great again. To quote former President George W. Bush, “I think we all agree, the past is over.” Indeed.
Michael’s points are salient and appropriate: The very idea of leadership is to do things for the common good. Threads of this philosophy date back to Rousseau, even to Aristotle, but are still highly relevant today. Leaders with ill intent could use their leadership skills to subvert the public’s will to their own, becoming demagogues. Leadership is often an exercise in persuasion, but the ability to persuade does not in and of itself guarantee leadership toward the greater good.
And Michael is also right that the public may not be ready to lead. One need look no further than any typical poll conducted about Americans’ information levels, engagement and simply civic knowledge to know that the public can be an unguided missile. But where I deviate from Michael is a return to the concept of using the leadership toolkit we all have to help guide that potential weapon residing in the public. Leaders are not just those at the top of the ticket – they are us! And it is, to my way of thinking, incumbent upon every actively engaged citizen to find the disengaged and encourage, persuade, lead them to their role as an everyday leader from their own position. Were we to simply discount the public because they are underinformed, disengaged or both, we would embrace the very demagoguery we hope to avoid.
Therefore, let’s raise the heat. To do so, I ask you this question: What are you doing to lead the direction of our country from whatever position you are in?
Chapman Rackaway is a political science professor at Fort Hays State University. Michael Smith is an associate professor of political science at Emporia State University. Both are alumni of Kansas Leadership Center programs.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/amzsubscribe