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Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Perils of Leadership

It was October, 1937, and President Roosevelt was trying to convince Americans to focus on the frightening events in Europe and Asia, to understand that the United States could not wall itself off from the world and to recognise that the march of totalitarianism abroad was a mounting threat at home.

The nation, however, was not ready to hear it. After Roosevelt made his case in a high-profile speech in Chicago, a hotbed of isolationism, the public reacted harshly. Americans were far more concerned about the economy’s return to recession, and most believed the nation’s top foreign policy goal should be to avoid war.

“It’s a terrible thing,” FDR reflected a few days later, “to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead and find no one there.”

Leadership, of course, does not operate in a vacuum. It is, as FDR and other presidents have learned, the flip side of what you might call “followership.” When it comes to unpopular causes, a president must not just pontificate but try to change minds, to convince a sceptical public to see things in a different light. Then, with or without the public behind him, a president must decide. It is what makes the job so lonely, yet so compelling.

Nor do Americans necessarily empathise with a president’s plight, for they seem to have a love-hate relationship with “leadership.” Conceptually, they seek the attribute in their elected officials.  But, when a president bucks public opinion, they often chastise him for obstinacy rather than praise him for courage.

President George W. Bush sought to build a case for victory in Iraq but, when support sank, he ignored public opinion and sent more troops to Baghdad. He left office highly unpopular for lots of good reasons, but history may treat him more kindly on Iraq (especially if that nation continues making progress).

Bush’s father never got to serve two terms, his re-election sunk by, among other things, his decision to break his promise and support tax increases for the greater good of federal deficit cutting. Nor did Jimmy Carter, who had lots of valuable insights to offer in his infamous “malaise” speech but lacked a public willing to hear them as well as the skills to change public opinion over time.

The lack of willingness on the part of British political leaders to be explicit about how they plan to reduce Britain's national debt is in sharp contrast to the posture which President Obama was prepared to adopt in pushing for healthcare reform in the USA.


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