The power of a leader to implement change is based on doing what those who follow will accept and those who are opposed can’t resist.
There is an element of effective leadership that few recognize and even fewer understand. Yet it is an aspect of leadership that gives the leader the license to do great things. This component of leadership is an underlying, almost imperceptible, reservoir of power that some leaders are able to accumulate and bank for future use. At the appropriate time, the leader can draw down this power to invest in bringing about real change. This particular power is not bestowed on a leader by title. Rather, it is accumulated over time as the leader builds credibility by exhibiting consistent beliefs, actions and philosophy that followers understand and in which they can have faith.
Absent this crucial power, leaders are left to defend the status quo or, at best, implement incremental changes within an established, business-as-usual system. Only those leaders who earn, recognize and understand this power and – equally as important – are bold enough to use it, can bring about fundamental change. And this ability to bring about real change is what defines the success of a leader.
A Surprising Paradox about Leadership
There is a quirky irony present in this situation: In order to make effective use of the power to initiate real change, the leader is often required to take actions that are contradictory to the conduct that enables a leader to accumulate power. In other words, the leader seeking to bring about real change draws down all the good will and trust accumulated over time by acting in a certain way and then uses it as power to move in a new direction.
This may seem a bit confusing and paradoxical, but fortunately there are some real-life examples of how some leaders went about building an invisible reservoir of power that they were later able to draw upon to implement what they perceived as necessary change for the greater good.
Lessons from History
Thomas Jefferson was the patriarch of small government. For 30 years, from 1770 to 1800, Jefferson built a consistent, even passionate, record as one who opposed a strong central government. As one of the Founding Fathers he was at the forefront of the battle for individual freedom and liberty that had been suppressed by the government of Great Britain. Initially Jefferson even opposed the ratification of the constitution, because he felt that the government it created was too strong and that it could threaten individual freedom. He reluctantly agreed to ratification only after the Bill of Rights was added. As secretary of state in Washington’s cabinet, he was constantly at odds with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and other “Federalists” (sometimes including Washington) whom he felt were seeking to expand the scope and size of the federal government beyond what was reasonably needed to keep the country in union.
The election of John Adams as a Federalist to succeed Washington brought about an acrimonious end to a lifelong friendship between Jefferson and Adams. Jefferson opposed virtually every action of Adams to expand the power of the federal government and, in the process, became the head of the Republican faction in the country. There was no question in anyone’s mind as to Jefferson’s position on the size of government; he was against increasing its power. Jefferson played such a prominent role in resisting the growth of the federal government that in 1800 he was nominated and elected (barely) as the first “Republican” president. The only thing that Jefferson’s friends and adversaries agreed on was that as president he would roll back the actions of Adams, Hamilton and other Federalists who had sought to increase the scope and power of the federal government.
And yet, during Jefferson’s eight years as president, not only did he validate most of the actions the Federalists had taken, but expanded the influence of the federal government in a way that would set precedents we still live with today. One example of this was the Louisiana Purchase in 1803; an action that would significantly expand the scope and power of the federal government. Jefferson was acutely aware that neither he as president or even Congress had the constitutional power to enter into such a game-changing purchase. Even though this action went against the very core of Jefferson’s beliefs and the expectations of his “base,” he also recognized that the purchase of Louisiana would enhance the security of the young country by evicting France from North America, prevent Spain from gaining a foothold and it would launch America on the road to becoming a world power; so he just did it. (Jefferson was so concerned about the unconstitutionality of this action he considered the need for a Constitutional amendment to authorize the purchase, but rejected it because it would take too much time and the opportunity would be lost.) Only Jefferson had the power to take this action.
Certainly there were Republicans who were shocked by his apparent change of heart and severely criticized Jefferson, but because he had well-established credentials as one who opposed the expansion of government power, he had the power to take action that expanded the power of government that he felt was for the ultimate good of the country. Likewise, Federalists (who hated Jefferson) were boxed in and forced to support his actions, because it would be seen disingenuous to oppose it.
Civil Rights of the 1960s
Lyndon Johnson was a son of the South. Practicing politics in Texas when racism and segregation was a way of life, Johnson might have been considered one of the last politicians to lead the fight for civil rights. Johnson was added to the Kennedy ticket, because it was the only way an eastern liberal such as Kennedy could have won election. The presence of a tried and true Southerner Johnson on the ticket enabled Kennedy to carry Texas and without that win Kennedy would have lost the election. Although Johnson was not a blatant segregationist in the mold of Alabama Governor George Wallace (“…Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”), he had done nothing to raise the fear of Southerners that he was not “one of them.” All the more surprising, then, that as president he met frequently with civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King, Jr. and took the critical lead in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Certainly the assassination of President Kennedy created emotional momentum to pass the Civil Rights law, but even so, it certainly would not have passed if a bone-deep Southerner such as Johnson had not supported it. Johnson drew down the reserve of power he had built with Southerners over decades to bring about real change. Johnson was the only leader with the power to do that.
Richard Nixon would never be accused of being a “commie-pinko-sympathizer.” Nixon built his entire career as a dogmatic anti-Communist. We won’t go into his tactics here, but it is suffice to say that people knew where Nixon stood when it came to dealing with communists and communist nations. And yet it was the strident anti-communist Nixon who opened the door to China. Can you imagine the howls of protest, conspiracy and recrimination that would have befallen any other president who – almost as a supplicant – took the trip to China to shake the hand, kiss the cheek and toast Chairman Mao? Nixon had the bona-fide credentials of an anti-communist earned over two decades that gave him the power to bring about change that set in motion the ultimate end of the Cold War. Only Nixon had the power to do that.
The Bottom Line for Effective Leadership
The point being made here is that these leaders (and there are others) who understood that power used to achieve what has always been done is a waste of power . . . and that the ultimate value of power is to do what has not been done. Critical to using this power to instigate change is having the courage to stand up to what has been done, when what has been done needs to be changed.
Now we come to today. There is a clear understanding that the financial structure of current entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are fatally flawed. If allowed to continue as constructed today – even with minor tinkering and ticky-tack reforms around the edges – these programs have the potential to bankrupt the country. It is also clear – to friend and foe – that President Obama has built an impeachable record – and has been elected – as a traditional liberal who favors people over corporations and the expansion of government to help those in need; even at the cost of deficit spending and increased debt. This credibility with the average person was clearly on display when Obama won re-election, despite unlimited amounts of money from the wealthy, the travails of a stagnant economy and a government budget system is disarray.
The only leader who has the reserve of power necessary to call for the fundamental changes needed to save these programs and protect the economic well-being of the country is President Obama. There may be talk of a “Grand Bargain,” but that will never come about in today’s political stalemate. What is needed is a “Grand Plan.” President Obama has the opportunity to join the pantheon of those who have proven to be great leaders by using his reserve of power to bring about real change. But to do so he must step up and offer bold plans that will fundamentally change and preserve these entitlement programs. It is an abdication of leadership, when one who has the power to implement change holds back and simply castigates others for their lack of action.
The truth is that the other leaders in Washington do not have the credibility and reservoir of power with the people who will be most affected by reforming the entitlement programs to allow them to implement the needed changes, but President Obama does. If President Obama does not recognize this power or fails to exhibit the courage of Jefferson, Johnson and Nixon to use it, then both he and the country will lose.
And the Moral of the Story …
There is a good lesson to learn here for anyone who seeks to be an effective leader in government or business. As a leader it is critical to be consistent, clear and credible in establishing a deep-seated belief in the minds of your followers that you are committed to their ultimate welfare. When a leader is successful in this effort, they begin to build a unique force of power that can be drawn down at critical and opportune times to bring about real change.
Doing what has been done or expected to be done is not leading, it is herding. True leadership is about the ability to motivate followers to accept what they never thought they would accept and to do what they never thought they would do. This can only happen when the leader has – over time – built up a reservoir of trust from the followers that allows them to believe that no matter what action is taken, no matter how contradictory it may seem, it is being taken with their ultimate best interests in mind. This is the only way for a leader to accumulate the capital needed to implement real change.