The Responsibility of Responsible Leadership

Savvy political and business leaders know there is a lot more to leadership than merely wielding power. You must use your power judiciously.

Leadership brings with it both opportunity and responsibility. No matter what the level of leadership or the type of organization, the opportunity of leadership is the power to make a difference. Only a leader has the license to focus vision, establish goals and implement actions that determine the future of the group.

The power of leadership, however, comes with a price. And that price is the responsibility to provide responsible leadership. You cannot be a true leader unless you respond to the opportunity and accept the responsibility to provide responsible leadership.

Unadulterated power does not make a leader; rather it spawns an environment ripe for despots and demagogues. Despots offer only the leadership of tyranny; demagogues exercise power by appealing to people’s emotions, instincts, and prejudices in a way that is manipulative and dangerous. Simply having the power to make a difference does not qualify one as a leader. It is power used responsibly that defines leadership. True power is the residue of responsible leadership.

When Power Corrupts

Unfortunately, we have recently been presented with far too many examples of purported leaders in business and politics who have embraced the intoxication of power while shunning the responsibility of leadership. One of the most potent powers of leadership is the ability to create an environment, set a tone, define the discussion and set the direction of the group. When this power is used responsibility, progress can be achieved, but when it is abused then only chaos and conflict follow.

The recent tragic shooting in Arizona may well be a learning lesson — especially in the political world — for those who seek the mantle of leadership. Clearly the horrendous attack in Tucson was the independent act of a deranged individual. He did not act at anyone’s specific direction. Still, one has to wonder if the atmosphere created by the vitriolic, hate-filled, “anyone-who-does-not-agree-with-me-is-evil” political discourse prevalent today did not create in his warped mind a perceived license for such an action. At the very least, this venomous political environment existing today causes the extremes on either side of an issue to be driven further and further apart, rather than toward the center where compromise and agreement can come together.

Some may be offended by the association, but Sarah Palin is a vivid example of the type of person who seeks the power of leadership, but does not understand or accept the responsibility for such. Governor Palin represents ideas and views that deserve to be discussed and debated, but in a responsible manner. One does not demonstrate an understanding of the responsibility of leadership when they tell their followers, “don’t retreat … reload.” When Sarah Palin was plucked from the pool of political obscurity to become John McCain’s running mate, she was given the opportunity of leadership (which she should be credited with taking full advantage of), but clearly her subsequent actions and words demonstrate that she did not understand the responsibility that came with the opportunity.

When Sara Palin speaks people listen. That is a good thing for those who believe as she does, but this power can be intoxicating and destructive for those – and their followers – who do not understand or accept the responsibility to use this power responsibly. It may be that Sara Palin will mature and come to understand the responsibility of leadership, but until that happens she is little more than a poster child for demagoguery. It may not seem fair to single out Sara Palin as an example of defective political leadership when there is a galaxy full of such examples, but it is her immense potential opportunity for leadership that elevates her above the crowd. Those who are blessed with the most opportunity for leadership have the greatest responsibility to act responsibly.

One discouraging sign for the development of Sarah Palin as a responsible leader was exhibited in her eight-minute video diatribe aired after the tragedy in Tucson. Rather than console the real victims – whom she didn’t even mention – and call for a more civil form of political discussion, she assumed the role of a wrongly wounded victim. Even if politicians and pundits in the media wrongly connected her actions and words to the motivations of the shooter, her decision to attack the attackers rather than rise above the fray, demonstrated an immaturity in the understanding of leadership. Unfortunately, she responded more like a wounded despot or an offended demagogue than an effective and understanding leader.

Of course, it is not just Sarah Palin and a passel of other politicians who have demonstrated a lack of understanding of real leadership. The business community is full of such pretenders who can also serve as a lesson for those who seek to lead.

For more than three decades Hank Greenberg led AIG. During that time AIG grew from an obscure insurance company to become one of the largest in the world. For this Greenberg deserves mountains of credit and received tons on money. But there was a fatal chink in the leadership armor of Greenberg: he was nothing more than a corporate despot. Greenberg understood and deftly used the power of leadership, but he abdicated the responsibility to be a responsible leader and this failure ultimately brought AIG (and nearly the entire American economy) to its knees.

Greenberg created an environment of “win at all costs” and “only more is enough.” Those who worked for Greenberg knew that their careers and compensation depended solely upon slavishly producing increased growth and earnings. The concept of “doing the right thing” was soon excluded from the equation. Greenberg will claim that he never instructed his underlings to “do the wrong thing” and he didn’t. However, the environment he fostered as a leader was to “do“anything,” so long as it improved AIG earnings. As the company grew larger and larger making it difficult to sustain the growth – and with Greenberg not backing down on his demands – the door was opened for taking increasingly irrational risks that ultimately brought the company down. Greenberg was a maestro at wielding the power of leadership, but an unmitigated failure as a responsible leader.

There is a plethora of (un)worthy candidates for the title of “ultimate irresponsible leader,” but for now Enron’s Ken Lay of Enron could claim the crown were he still alive. The environment created by Hank Greenberg at AIG was totally irresponsible, while the environment created during Ken Lay’s 17-year run as CEO of Enron was criminal. When Enron imploded under the weight of criminal actions and fraudulent accounting practices (which also brought down the venerable Arthur Anderson Company), Lay demonstrated his lack of understanding of true leadership by using as a defense that, “he did not know about and had not authorized the improper actions.” That may be true, but Lay clearly fostered an environment of irresponsibility that implicitly condoned such actions. If Lay had made it abundantly clear that he would not countenance inappropriate actions, they would not have happened – but he didn’t.

In much the same way that Greenberg and Lay sought to dodge responsibility for their flawed leadership, irresponsible political leaders may claim they do not encourage and don’t condone inappropriate actions, but the failure to use their power of leadership to influence their followers in a responsible way serves as subliminal approval of inflamed rhetoric and inappropriate actions. It is a leadership of “plausible denial” and that is not real leadership.

And the Moral of the Story …

Seeking a leadership role in any organization or group is a laudable objective. Using the power of leadership to define, seek and achieve a group objective can be both satisfying and rewarding. However, one must understand and never lose sight of the fact that the power of leadership always comes with the requirement to be a responsible leader. Power used for the sake of power is an abuse of leadership. In the end, the responsible use of power not only enhances power, it defines true leadership.

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