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Leaders who DON’T: politicians

by Miki Saxon

Bob Turek at Project Management 411 has been hosting a discussion on what defines a leader and in a separate post Eric Eggerston added on the need for clarity of vision. So I thought it was only right that I add to the conversation in more than just the comments on the original post.

In general, I’m not a cynical person, In fact, I’ve always said that I’d rather be a chump than a cynic, but I also believe in two old adages,

Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.

The first time it’s a mistake, the second time it’s experience and the third time it’s stupidity.

I try very hard to avoid the third time.

But time and experience have taken their toll and my cynicism has increased over the years—especially in politics.

We have no leaders, let alone statesmen, just ideologues, elected by like-minded ideologues, who care only about getting reelected, bringing government money back to their constituency and making lucrative connections in the event they aren’t reelected or are caught by term limits.

In most elections I find myself going to the polls, holding my nose and voting for whomever I see as the least offensive candidate—the one I believe will do the least damage—and maybe even buy us a bit more time to find real solutions.

But I don’t hold my breath.

Solutions mean going against entrenched interests—the same interests that pony up the money needed to win the next election.

And so it goes.

albert_einstein.jpgAlbert Einstein said, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

Sad to say we’re at the same level that created them—if not lower.

How say you? Do you think we’re on the right path?

Your comments—priceless

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37 Responses to “Leaders who DON’T: politicians”
  1. Eric EggertsonNo Gravatar Says:

    Too true. It seems politicians have lost the knack for making the right decision, even if it’s not popular.

  2. Bob TurekNo Gravatar Says:

    This whole “drive to power” attitude has yielded politicians who are always using their current position as a stepping stone to the next. This seemingly “good” strategy embodied in ambition seems to completely distract from leading. Also, unfortunately, this seems to be overwhelmingly true in business. The use of position to overwhelm others while competing for the next position leaves little room for doing the right things. Do we have any leaders in politics who don’t suffer from this?

  3. Miki SaxonNo Gravatar Says:

    Eric, IMHO politicians (and a lot of others) make their decisions first for the sake of themselves, second for the sake of their constituency, and third for the sake of the country and I doubt that will change any time soon. And ‘right’ is a function of whatever ideology they spouted to get into office or which funder needs the strokes.

  4. Miki SaxonNo Gravatar Says:

    Bob, In response to your question, objectively speaking, my answer regarding politicians is no—even when I agree with their actions. A few right things happen, but only because they are aligned with the vested interests involved. I find right things intentionally happening far more often and in all size companies, but they’re far overshadowed by the ones doing wrong.

  5. Bob TurekNo Gravatar Says:

    Miki- it really is a sad state of affairs. In business, the productivity loss and wasted effort due to poor, disfunctional leadership is tremendous, but there are good things happening. Politics seems to be a lost cause because of wrong motives and we, the people, seem to let it go on as long as we are entertained.

  6. Miki SaxonNo Gravatar Says:

    In politics that’s business as usual; for companies it’s a much more mixed bag.

  7. Ron@TheWisdomJournalNo Gravatar Says:

    I heard one time that politicians think only about the next election, but statesmen think about the next generation.

    I’m pretty sure all the statesmen are gone.

    Where this leaves the US is vulnerable to the next person who only LOOKS like a statesman, but is really a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

  8. Miki SaxonNo Gravatar Says:

    Yup, Ron, they’re gone. In fact, I haven’t even seen one that even LOOKS like a statesman, but I do love the definition.

    Politicians look to the next election, business looks to the next quarter, and individuals look to the next payment.

    The US can’t even SPELL long-term, let alone generation.

  9. Think about the future Says:

    […] his comment earlier, Ron Haynes from over at The Wisdom Journal said, “politicians think only about the […]

  10. Ivan RiosNo Gravatar Says:

    We are way below the level of thinking that created the problem. And the problem, in my opinion, is worldwide. But there are a lot of great leaders outside the world of politics (who don’t enter politics precisely because it would tarnish their missions). So I would say that this ‘outside’ leadership is the one that must take the initiative and push for change. Throughout history, the greatest changes have been made by ‘outside groups’, or whatever you want to call them.

  11. Miki SaxonNo Gravatar Says:

    Hi Ivan, Welcome back and HNY! Brilliant comment, you are so right. I, too, believe that the solutions will come from business and other outside groups, but we can only hope that the politicians will get out of their way.

  12. Bob TurekNo Gravatar Says:

    Ivan- very interesting comment. Who are our “outside” leaders today and how can we support their missions? I’m very frustrated with the political “entertainment” today- although it is entertaining.

  13. Ivan RiosNo Gravatar Says:

    It really is entertaining, and I frequently fall into the trap of following it like it was a ‘horse race’. What I refer to in terms of ‘outside’ leadership can be social interest groups, businesses, and other sectors. I guess I don’t have a hard, specific answer. I’m really talking about what can be done when ordinary citizens, outside of politics, take the initiative and address their concerns by taking matters into their own hands. The civil rights movement in the 60’s can be seen as an example.

  14. Bob TurekNo Gravatar Says:

    Ivan- it occurred to me that “outside” organizations can have a lot of influence- i.e., put strategies and tactics together regarding an issue which then can be used by people who agree to form a power base to influence politicians. This sounds like it could degenerate into the worst type of lobbying, but I think a good example is the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer’s Association in California- fairly clear and understandable strategies and tactics that people can support and be rallied to not only vote for a person who supports their “platform” but influence votes in the legislature. They do not go over the line as a typical lobbyist would- people would then have to carefully select the “outside” organization related to issues and hold the politicians feet to the fire.

  15. Miki SaxonNo Gravatar Says:

    Pardon me for interrupting, but the US already has the worst type of lobbying groups and Gann appeals to only one part of the political spectrum, there are millions who detest everything he stands for.

  16. Ivan RiosNo Gravatar Says:

    Well there you go! I hadn’t thought of lobbyists when I mentioned “outside” groups. I was thinking more along the lines of inspirational leaders who have the power to create change, perhaps more like Gandhi and King. Admittedly, these are a lot harder to come by, perhaps even almost impossible, so it could be somewhat naive to expect. But there are a lot of strategies, like the one you mention, that should pay off.

  17. Miki SaxonNo Gravatar Says:

    Personally, I think it will be a cold day in Hell before we see another Gandhi or King. Any organized group is going to work fight the good fight for those who THINK LIKE THEM. Gann represents one small slice of the political spectrum, as do most groups.

  18. We Need Alternatives to Politicians! | the art of leading Says:

    […] RSS feed. Thanks for visiting!There is an ongoing discussion over at Leadership Turn, in the post Leaders who DON’T: politicians, which I think is of interest to many readers of The Art of Leading. It states what many people […]

  19. Ivan RiosNo Gravatar Says:

    Yes Miki, I totally agree, but nothing is lost by hoping…hehe

  20. Bob TurekNo Gravatar Says:

    Miki and Ivan- we seem to be giving up here- no good leaders, no good organizations that spend time strategizing, no influence by the “little guy”. What do you propose?

  21. Ivan RiosNo Gravatar Says:

    I’m not giving up…I’m just saying that those types of leaders (King, etc.) are hard to come by (not impossible). I certainly agree with your proposal of outside organizations.

  22. Miki SaxonNo Gravatar Says:

    It’s not a case of giving up, it’s a case of facing reality. ‘Outside’ groups usually have a narrow focus on one side or the other of a specific question, will move heaven and earth to provide an answer that fits their view and then sell it to (or cram it down) enough people to claim a majority. Additionally, once outside groups amass enough power they become insiders and will fight for the status quo that they helped create. I certainly don’t have any answers, just a lot of questions and gut feelings.

    People love to talk about doing the right thing and fixing the problems—from trash in their neighborhood to global warming—but only walk that talk when it doesn’t inconvenience them. Those who do inconvenience themselves are considered oddballs and/or cranks.

    I guess if I had my druthers I’d like to see the elections go to moderates who understand that unbending ideology isn’t the answer; that good ideas can come from every side and no one view is always correct; that we need to clean up our own house before we rant about the conditions of others; that our flavor of democracy may not work everywhere else; that we aren’t RIGHT, nor do we KNOW IT ALL; and that we should quit acting like those we rail against.

    I did read a, to me, salient overview of our presidential race in (of all places) Quatar’s newspaper, the Gulf Times.

  23. Ren GarciaNo Gravatar Says:

    There is the Christian concept of a Servant-Leader. The name says it all: a person who appreciates the needs of the people he leads and follows them.

    We actually have a living Servant-Leader here in the Philippines (where the same comments about politicians made in this discussion apply).

    A parish priest saw that the needs of people of his province were not being met. He and his parishioners got together and captured the governorship against all the guns, goons and gold of the traditional politicians (tra-pos, in the local vernacular, a slang word for “dirty rags”).

    He is doing great things at the face of continuing threats from tra-pos’ guns, goons and gold.

    I don’t remember who said it: “There go my people. I am their leader. I must follow them.”

  24. Bob TurekNo Gravatar Says:

    Miki- I share your frustration. Related to Ren’s comment I heard a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. today, that I can’t seem to find, but it went something like this “Everyone has an opportunity to be great through service”. The servant leader concept is very logical because it positions a leader to care for people and doesn’t require acceptance of a specific religion. I think it does require a belief in a higher power for guidance; power and money corrupts weak human beings. I think we have to accept that but continue to demand servant-leader type qualities in leaders and in organizations that process information relevant to the issues we care about.

  25. Ren GarciaNo Gravatar Says:

    Relating to Ali’s post on what one person can do (http://www.greenerassets.com/what-one-person-can-do/, winner of the Challenge): One way of providing servant-leaders is to start with the young who still have untainted ideals.

    When my daughter got elected as high school student council president, I gave the elected officers a 1-day workshop on servant leadership –with the fervent hope that they carry what they learned into college and their professional & family lives.

  26. Join the discussion at Leadership Turn now Says:

    […] 8th I wrote a post called Leaders who DON’T: politicians. It must have struck a chord because it kicked off some great discussion. Here’s a […]

  27. Miki SaxonNo Gravatar Says:

    Most of our elected officials claim the mantle of servant-leadership. And they do serve—those who think as they think. I’ve seen them make no effort to be inclusive, rather their approach seems to be one of “We’re right, so you should change your ideas to match ours and then I can serve you , too.”

  28. Miki SaxonNo Gravatar Says:

    Ren, Your workshop is a wonderful idea and I agree that real hope lies with the world’s children, but by then the problems our poor planet faces may be unsolvable.

    The other thing to remember is that youth always fights for a higher ideal, then they get a bit older, have a family, a mortgage and a career. In short, they get comfortable and then fight to preserve the status quo—as has each previous generation.

    The Boomers set out to change the world and they did a lot, but now they’re considered the guardians of the status quo and the basis of all that’s evil. An obvious over-simplification, not to mention inaccurate, but a useful example.

  29. Matt WeeksNo Gravatar Says:

    Spent a few minutes following the thread. Strong emotions surface when talking about politics… justifiably so when so many people have been mostly disappointed with the actions of their politicians… and when so many of us do think we have to hold our noses at the polls.
    I have been thinking about this a lot this year, as my nearly-seven year-old is asking great questions about the primaries. I have simple answers for her today, but I have no “clean” and “neat” answers for her when she is older and “gets” the bigger picture.
    My niece ran for office in grade school and became Student Body President. We applauded her for her bravery in putting herself out there for a second time (she came in second the prior year). Our praise was for the initiative, the effort and the purity of her intention, not the outcome. Yet our world squarely and predictably rewards the outcome. I’m rooting for New England to qualify for, and win the Super Bowl. Win, not try.

    I often fall back to the words of Yoda…. “…Do or do not. There is no try.” This is our system.

    As a fiscal conservative and social progressive, I have very little in common with a party, yet I must choose one in order to participate most effectively… and presumably to enact change first within the flawed two-party system, and subsequently, or perhaps (in dream land) simultaneously, assist our government in doing the right things.

    A good friend of mine recently ran for public office, was defeated, and immediately ran again for a higher office and won. He is now in our State Capitol fighting what I, and most others would consider an epic fight, that few believe can be won in a single administration. How do I know that he will do the right thing? Because I know him as a man. I know that he is doing this because he has passion for doing the right thing, and that he has other choices, all of which are less stressful and less frustrating.
    I also know that since he is independently wealthy (the wealth he created with a tech company will outlive him by several generations if not more), he is “pure” and is motivated by his conscience, not an “agenda” of others. He took no campaign contributions from groups or organizations, and thus can tell anyone to go to hell (politely).
    So I believe that he is a good man who bravely volunteered to do some of the dirtiest, most frustrating, and discouraging work possible. A wealthy man volunteering to do public service for the greater good.
    Sounds like what our Founding Fathers volunteered to do. Aha. The gentleman politician. Interesting parallel.

    Of course we know all of the flaws in the idolization of our founding fathers, from their slave holdings to their positions as ‘landed gentry” in the Colonies, to their “enlightened self interest” in commerce.
    But it was a pretty decent model on paper. Do your time in politics for a spell, then “retire” to your home and business.

    Many small towns in American follow this model in city /town government. In my hometown, on the San Francisco Peninsula, our “mayor” was (and is today) more of a local figurehead, elected by the town council. The poor person who was “volunteered” for this job was historically paid practically nothing, had to hold down his or her “day job” at the same time, was more likely not to be independently wealthy, and got to be the lightning rod for all highly charged local issues. Who would volunteer for that?
    Yet it is the model for most towns all over our Great Nation.

    Why does it work? Because these local politicians have accountability, in a very direct way. If the Mayor of my town does something bad, he /she has to confront me and my neighbors every day, and has to bear the brunt of the consequences directly, even to the extent that we shun his/her professional services or businesses as punishment.
    Again, who would volunteer?

    Do State and National politics demand a return to the unassailable independence of the wealthy gentleman politician? Or is that just another way to perpetuate a suspected oligarchy of sorts, which is hard to dispute because the system is so full of wealthy and powerful people… some good and some not so good.
    The question is one of accountability. If we can derive the accountability of a leader, we can get a better glimpse of whether they are “for us” or not.

    It is a problem and a challenge we cannot solve here in this discussion.

    But back to leadership. And companies.

    I believe that company founders are more like the citizen leaders, as in my “city mayor” example. Executives who come into a pre-existing company are more like the professional politicians, but sometimes we get lucky and they are like my friend, the wealthy (“comfortable”) but pure and visionary.

    The founders are more likely to “do the right thing” if they have a clear mission about the company, and walk their talk about employees and customers. Some of them are “comfortable” but most are still striving to create wealth—which is a good thing if you are on their team. Just a little bit of background checking will inform the casual observer.

    And if you are interviewing at a new company, a quick discussion with former employees will quickly net this out, either way for you. On the negative side— the founder is also susceptible to fear of failure, and a fall from great intentions, into panic and irrational, bad behavior. Comes with the territory. Anyone in a free-fall (founder or not) is only human, and will grab onto anything to break their fall. So be wary of the founder leader, yet also look for the good ones with depth of character. They may be the people you seek.

    An interesting combination is the exec brought in to lead an existing company, who has founded and led his/her own in the past. VCs and public boards of directors love to do this. Bring in a “seasoned” or “experienced” leader to take the firm to the next step. Sounds right. On paper. Ask yourself: “where is the accountability for this new leader?” “What was their track record for doing the “right thing” by their people in the past?” Again, it should not take very much digging to find out.

    So is the serial CEO/Exec more like my wealthy friend— motivated by pure principal (driving the company to greatness), and not as susceptible to irrationality, or more like the itinerant carpet-bagger that we despise, and who negatively reinforces our vision of politicians? Hmm. Again, depends on the person.

    Also depends on the “deal” or “contract” they struck with the investors/board who brought them in. Harder to dig this up as an employee, but worth looking back at how they “walked their talk” at their last place of employment—regardless of how the business fared. That’s another issue. Key to learn is: “would you work with him/her again?” – when asking former colleagues.

    We are disappointed when people don’t do what they promise. Yet many of us refuse to do the homework to discover the complexities and subtleties of the biggest issues.

    Is it rash and short-sighted for some of them to “promise” to “fix” big problems? Sure. Would we rather have marshmallow leaders who promise to “address these issues as best I can, given the entrenched special interests, long history of intransigence of the principals, and suspect agendas of the “stake-holders?” No way. We’d charge that candidate with being too vague, too soft, and just chicken. Ok. How can we have this both ways?

    So don’t blame the serial CEO for having to make the same types of deals on their way in. Same as politicians.

    What about simpler issues such as healthcare, abortion, taxes, and war?

    Ok, I get it. Lots of politicians are bad people. Snakes. Leeches. Bad Apples. So are people in general.
    Yet I see precious few “good” people willing to bear the burden of the nonsense that comprises today’s politics.
    And I also meet quite a few former CEOs who said they’d never to it again, that I’m ridiculous to keep on doing this, and that “boards are evil” or “VCs” or “banks” or “fill in the blank” make it impossible to “do the right thing.” Ok.

    So we’re left with the banal recognition that there are good people and there are not-so-good people.
    All of this whining about being disappointed with leaders not leading really comes down to that.

    In the company context, we have power as employees, by choosing to work elsewhere (most of the time).
    In the political context we have power as citizens by extracting fair promises and throwing out people who fail to live up to them.

    What makes many of us insane is when we witness people we believe to be good, and with pure intention, go out and violate our trust, and do the not-right thing.
    We lose faith in the system, and in our own judgment.

    My message in this post is to hold on to your confidence in both the system and your judgment, and come to peace with the reality that in companies, there may be no justice for bad acts of leaders. And in politics there may be no good choices on the ballot. At least not this time.

    Some of the crankiest people I have ever known and loved have been passionate optimists.

    Go ahead and be cranky about that. Cranky and impatient-not negative. Hold people accountable. Illustrate the impact their actions and success (or failures) have on the enterprise. Empower people to stand up and be counted, and to disagree with respect. Be accountable. Allow your employees to question everything (in the right context). Hide nothing. Act as though they elected you. In the current economic boomlet in silicon valley and elsewhere, your employees really are electing you. For if they lose faith in your leadership, they are able to walk across the street to your competitor in a heartbeat. And they won’t leave their friends (or customers) behind either.

    As for the politicians…we can only hope that the abundance of information and communication in the blogosphere and elsewhere will continue to accelerate the process of “outing” the bad actors, and of holding leaders more accountable for current, past and promised acts.

    One sad reality is that the American public has a memory that spans three news cycles. We keep closer track of the story arc Grey’s Anatomy and the New England Patriots, or when the next iPod will be released.

    And with no community and institutional memory, there may be no accountability.

    So in my humble opinion, that’s the biggest problem.

    Thanks Miki for the dialogue…


  30. Leaders Need To Walk The Talk | the art of leading Says:

    […] to my RSS feed. Thanks for visiting!I feel compelled to extend the conversation taking place in Leaders that DON’T:politicians, from Leadership Turn, regarding alternatives to politicians. First let me restate, as I said in We […]

  31. Ivan RiosNo Gravatar Says:

    Wow Matt, you provide a lot of things to think about. I think that a big part of the problem is that we are raised to believe that everything is wrong and that there isn’t any hope.

  32. Miki SaxonNo Gravatar Says:

    You’re welcome, Matt. And thank you for a superb, thought-provoking commentary.

    I agree with all you said, especially “And with no community and institutional memory, there may be no accountability,” but would add that the tremendous fractionalizing of the population combined with intense polarization further reduces the opportunity to do the right thing. Right for whom?

  33. A tax refund meme Says:

    […] How ’bout going against convention and political expediency and actually try to make it part of the way up to the level of statesman. […]

  34. Attack as a leadership tool Says:

    […] I’ve written in the past, I don’t see politicians as leaders, in fact, I find the two terms […]

  35. Shelly BorrellNo Gravatar Says:

    We need to make our Politicians do what is right. They must work together to do what’s best for ALL people, not just the highest paying groups for the wrong reasons. The (Us vs. Them) party mentality MUST STOP. United we stand, divided we fall. We’re falling.

    Attention Politicians: PLEASE straighten out this mess you’ve made.

    Shelly Borrell, www.ineedtext.com

  36. Miki SaxonNo Gravatar Says:

    Hi Shelly, thanks for joining the discussion. I’d love to believe that the millions of pleas similar to yours would make a difference, but I don’t. That said, I really hope that all of you are right and I’m wrong!

  37. Think about the future - Leakage from a Cluttered Mind Says:

    […] Saxon (Leadership Turn) wrote in Leaders who DON’T: politicians: “We have no leaders, let alone statesmen, just ideologues, elected by like-minded ideologues, […]

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