Are You a Leader or a Politician?

by Andy Wood on May 30, 2010

in Leadership, Life Currency

An interesting op-ed headline appeared in The Chicago Tribune a few days ago.  It read, “Govern like a leader, not a politician.”  The author, Mike Lawrence, proposed that the current financial mess in Illinois would only be solved by politicians who had the courage to do unpopular things (raise taxes, I presume) rather than trying to please people.

Oh… leadership.

Ooh… politics.

Can they ever really coexist?

Years ago, when I attended my first Baptist convention as a young pastor, I met another pastor there.  He was polished, handsome, educated, and gracious.  The very first thought I had of him was, “This man wants to be president (of the convention, not the United States).”

Would it surprise you to know that he became president?

Okay, so he presided.  But did he lead?

While I was reading Mike Lawrence’s column online, up popped a Google ad for BarackObama.com.  “Barack Obama Needs Your Help to Change Washington. Sign Up Today!” it trumpeted.

Alrighty then.

Judging from the hollering this week, most people would just prefer that he change the Gulf of Mexico.

We humans are an interesting bunch.  We elect people to office in order to provide “leadership,” which we define as serving our particular needs or adhering to our philosophy.  Once they fail to do so, the approval ratings drop, and it’s time for… you guessed it – change.  All the while, the office holders refer to their unpopular decisions as “leadership.”

Spin it to win it, friends.

Stephen Denning, in The Secret Language of Leadership, explains the dilemma:

Although it is often said that we look for leadership in our politicians, the actual practice of modern politics has little overlap with transformational leadership.  Modern politics is characterized by a sharp focus on the acquisition and retention of political office rather than on appealing to people’s higher moral values and inspiring people to undertake enduring change.

Translation:  once I get here (wherever “here” is), the number one job is to stay here.  Leadership is accidental.

This isn’t limited to government.  In every dimension of life where two or three are regularly gathered together, you’ll find the tension between politics and leadership… between power and influence.  It’s certainly true in Church World.  Corporate governance, too.

So what’s the difference between “successful” politics and successful leadership?

1.  Politicians fight to pursue power.  Leaders fight to champion a cause.

The truth is, you’re not electing representatives, senators, or even a president.  You’re first and foremost electing a party caucus member.  That’s how the game is played.  But the same game is played on corporate boards, church elder/deacon boards, and plenty of other places.  The number one game of politics is to live to see another day.

Leaders, on the other hand, become riveted to a vision, and through passion, effective communication, and the power of agreement, go first in taking people toward that vision.

2.  Politicians must be well armed (well funded) to succeed.  Leaders must be well-grounded to succeed.

In a free society, money is the currency of power.  That’s why it’s so hard to unseat an incumbent – they never stop raising money.

Leaders recognize the importance of funding as well.  But they don’t allow the pursuit of resources to cloud their vision or the principles on which they stand.

3.  Politicians play by their own rules.  Leaders submit to higher standards.

Politicians, Denning says, are willing to play hardball – to live as close to the edge of the law as possible without actually being convicted of illegality.  They also will attack their opponents, often using underlings so as to leave no trace of their own involvement.

Leaders hold themselves accountable, and are willing to be held accountable by others, for the principles they espouse.

4.  Politicians break promises in the name of flexibility or expediency.  Leaders stay the course as long as it is taking them to the desired direction.

Things change.  Situations change.  People change.  Priorities change.  And politicians change with the changes in public opinion and priorities (or they don’t get reelected).

Leaders aren’t inflexible or stubborn.  They just don’t take counsel of mercurial popularity polls.  They do, however, continue to make sure the course they are on is taking them where they want to go.  Leaders recognize that no plan is infallible, but are extremely reluctant to give up the vision they are pursuing – even if that vision has become inconvenient or unpopular.

5.  Politicians pursue a proper public image.  Leaders pursue an aligned private character.

Politicians succeed by maintaining an image of honesty, compassion, morality, and devotion.  And they will often lie(!) to maintain it.

Leaders are anything but perfect.  But the best leaders practice self-leadership first.  They spend a lifetime pursuing alignment – privately and publicly – with the principles they publicly espouse.

6.  Politicians find the parade and get in front of it.  Leaders start the parade.

To succeed in the public eye, politicians position themselves in front of issues on which there is already a consensus in the electorate.  That doesn’t require a lot of courage, just good marketing.

Leaders are real change agents.  They work – often behind the scenes – to influence change that is often razor-focused and relentless.  And get this – often they are not recognized as leaders until after the change has happened. If you have to have a position in order to lead, you are no leader.

7.  Politicians retain power by listening to constituents.  Leaders retain influence by communicating with constituents.

Tom Daschle once said, “If you want to get elected, learn to speak.  If you want to stay elected, learn to listen.”  That makes sense, and Mr. Daschle certainly learned that the hard way.

Leaders don’t make a distinction between the two.  Their relationship with constituents is built on effective communication, which is an ongoing dance of listening and sharing.  Of influencing and being influenced.  That’s one of the ways that Rudi Giuliani, himself no slouch at hardball politics, became known as “America’s Mayor” after the terrorist attacks on New York City.  He calmly, clearly communicated – even when the news was grave.

8.  Politicians are ambiguous about their commitment to change.  Leaders point to change as their standard of excellence, starting with changing themselves.

“Business as usual” is a dirty set of words in political life.  Unless, of course, business as usual is what people want.  Then it’s repackaged as “staying true to our core principles.”  Remember, the more things change… the more they fund elections.

Leaders are not interested in change for change’s sake.  Leadership is not about rearranging the furniture or redecorating the office.  The best leaders are part of a transformation process that, for them, begins within.  Out of that transformation, then, they see the world that is in terms of what it could be.

It all comes down to some wise advice I once received about leadership:  “We must not lead as those who are afraid to lose what we are leading.” The minute we let our desire for job security dictate our direction, we have dropped the mantle of leadership.

And we’ve settled for being just another politician.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ivy M. Gauvin May 31, 2010 at 5:05 pm

Ideally, they should be one and the same. Alas, we are as Luther put it “simultaneously saints and sinners.” We’re curved in on ourselves rather than others.
.-= Ivy M. Gauvin´s last blog ..Update on Abby =-.

Dave Rowser July 23, 2010 at 10:15 am

It is frightening to acknowledge, but Obama has followed many of the points stated above and led out nation according to his “higher standards” (progressive agenda) and followed a path that makes him extremely unpopular by “the mercurial” political polls.

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