Thursday, February 15, 2007

Neither leader nor follower

It's mid-February 2007, and right now it's difficult to tell if there are more candidates for the office of U.S. president or for the position of the father of Anna Nicole Smith's baby. The one offers fame and infamy, depending on one's perspective, while the other offers fame, infamy, and possibly large amounts of money. Maybe both do.

In the end, of course, there can be only president and one father. The one depends on events and the beliefs, opinions, and moods of voters, and the other on being in the right place at the right time. Perhaps it amounts to the same thing.

At a gathering for contender Rudy Guiliano, a young woman who liked what he said told a reporter, "We are all Republicans." As someone who is not a Republican, or a Democrat, I was disappointed by the narrowness of this view, which (in different forms) dominates politics. First and foremost, we are all Americans. No, first and foremost, we are all humans. That is something that we can't choose, we can't change, and we can't deny.

What is a leader of humans? Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin were absolute leaders, cult figures with ideology as religion. In business, there used to be the "boss," the executive or manager known to subordinates as "Mr. Carruthers," the honcho whose authority, at least in his sphere of influence, was absolute. Today, absolute authority has fallen out of favor, for the most part. Everybody is a member of a team. Even the president has a team, the Cabinet.

In any case, whether dictator by decree, democratically elected official, or promoted executive, leaders have to have qualities that gain and retain the confidence (or fear) of their followers and peers. The best way to accomplish that is to tell the people what they want to hear. Tell the populace that they deserve to overrun Europe; tell shareholders that costs will be cut and profits increased; tell employees that their satisfaction is important to the company's success—and then throw enough bones to all your constituents to keep them happy, or at least occupied. To be a leader, you must have a persona with presence and messages that resonate.

The truth rarely resonates. No one wants to be told that their new polka-dot dress is ugly or that either taxes need to be raised or services cut (or both). We want new roads but we don't want to pay for them. We expect our leaders to produce a new highway without our producing the funds.

Some aboriginal peoples chose their leaders because they were perceived to have extraordinary spiritual powers or because they performed exceptionally well in battle. Perhaps it was a remnant of this thinking that led to the election of the Father of Our Country, a tribute to George Washington's popularity as the military leader whose generalship helped to win the war. Today, though, I look at our leaders, business and political, with a jaded eye, knowing that few, if any, have the courage to risk career or political suicide by telling people the truth. To lead you must lie.

Under those circumstances, I can neither a leader nor a follower be.

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