Thursday, May 3, 2012

The language of leadership

As an outside observer of the US Presidential elections, I am amazed that anyone in their right mind would want to try out for president. It can get quite nasty.

It raises the question: what should we expect from our leaders? Do we want people who put others down to boost themselves up, or leaders who acknowledge the contributions of their opponents? Do we want leaders who push a narrow agenda or those who seek to embrace their opponents interests in some way? And do we want leaders who blame others for their mistakes, or those who are prepared to take responsibility for their actions, and when they make mistakes, admit to them and vow to act differently?

In the USA, you need the hide of an elephant or rhinoceros, a Teflon coated ego, the morals of a saint, about a billion dollars, and a past business or public life that is in some way heroic. You also need to be really likable and have offended as few people as possible.

It also seems you have to be born in the USA (which means Arnie can never be president, even though he was allowed to be the Governor of California).

But it is the process of selecting this super-human which seems so daunting, no matter which side of politics you favor.

You begin the sorting process by expecting the candidates to fly incessantly (or, as in the case of Rick Santorum, drive) around the country giving speeches, attending fund raisers, shaking people's hands and kissing babies for about six to 12 months making promises you can never keep, to a punishing schedule, not for just one election season, but for at least two, until you give up altogether.

During this time you appear about ten or 12 times in a television game show with the other candidates in a "fight to the death" gladiatorial contest, where the main task is to trash the other candidates' reputations. Your fellow gladiators pick over everything you have ever said or done and challenge you to refute the inference. Fortunately there are some categories of accusations where you do have a defense. For example, if you are correctly accused of smoking marijuana at college, you can say you did not inhale. And you can also change your mind several times about key issues as long as you dont do it within one election cycle, otherwise you will be labelled a "flip-flopper".

Each of the candidates have friends with deep pockets (unions, business and wealthy individuals such as movie moguls, technology whizz-kids, Wall Street types and oil barons) contribute to a SuperPAC which has a licence to further trash your reputation, taking great care to only print or broadcast outrageous lies or distortions. Four Pinocchios in the Washington Post seems to be par for the course.

Along the way pundits from the extreme left and right also assail your reputation, sometimes also trawling through and exposing gossip about your spouse, kids, friends and associates that you would rather not be mentioned (for example, pastors whose services you attend whose rhetoric you have to disavow, or advisors whose personal views clash with your espoused position on critical issues e.g. the Romney adviser that quit this week).

You are mocked on Comedy Central or Saturday Night Live. The trogs on the Internet spout vicious, foul-mouthed bile about you. Some people even make threats against your life.

The last person standing is declared the winner (or the possible winner if you don't stack up enough delegates).

It's such a "baptism of fire", I can't imagine why anyone would bother.

Meanwhile back in Australia, my home country, our leaders are also in the business of trashing each other's reputations, or trashing their own. We have a Prime Minister whose disapproval rating is 60% and the alternative prime minister, the opposition leader, who has a disapproval rating of 56%.

Maybe it's time for a change in how we speak about and with each other. What do you think?

So here are some questions to explore the issue:

1. Who are some great leaders that come immediately to mind and what are they remembered for?

2. What qualities in leaders do you most admire?

3. What do some of our political leaders do that you believe are inappropriate, and if you were in their shoes, what would you do differently, with what result?

4. In these times accelerating change, growing complexity and greater uncertainty, what extra-special qualities or capacities do we need in leaders? e.g. to combine leadership with maths and science skills, to create and operate complex systems effectively.

5. Thinking about how people respond to leaders, how should leaders speak to each other, about each other and to everyone else?

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