Everyone these days is beginning to recognize the problem, save those that pay no attention or are in deliberate denial: we have a public leadership problem. But it’s not as simple as it seems. I would suggest that there are more reasons than we bother to consider. First, at the national level, why would anyone want the job at the top levels? or at the local top levels, for that matter? In this day of instant riches expectation, public service is not an obvious choice; but then, as I have written before, careers in public leadership were not envisaged by the founders. Back in those days it was considered an obligation of the successful elite. And how about respect? Forget that.
The answer to that question, however, has to be based on the reality that some do want the public high level leadership jobs. There are two broad catagories of leadership and many more of personality types that bear upon them; the leadership catagories, in a very general sense, are individual, let’s call it paternal; and cooperative, meaning working together with others to meet objectives. The line between the two, although not particularly distinct, is due to personality. A public servant, particularly a political leader, needs to be outgoing, expressive, confident and effective at communication. I remember something my father told me years ago, because I needed to be told, that politicians must have charisma because much of their job was selling, either themselves or the ideas or policies they attempt to get approved into law or regulation. It also helps if, at least at the top levels, they have a reasonable legal background, a salesman personality – and some experience that is applicable. Which is not to say that all lawyers or salesmen make successful public servants, but neither do all public servants make successful lawyers or salesmen; but the skill sets are similar.
Returning to the two broad catagories of leadership, the exteme differences are, well, extreme, and the extremes are the dictator who must dominate all major decisions and the groupie type who prefers working in a rigid consensus environment. We have seen both throughout history and have observed degrees of success and degrees of failure in both, depending on responsibilities, circumstances and the make up of the group that is being led; of course there is also much in between. It doesn’t take much exposure to leadership to realize that different objectives require different mixes of skills and personalities, and different circumstances can necessitate different methods; but personality always has a place.
But beyond that, times have changed: that which is being led is bigger and more complex, requiring a broader set of leaderhip skills and more knowledge of many different details, depending upon the objectives. One of the greatest challenges is to know when to direct or regulate, and when to give individual innovation a chance. There is a great tendency among public administrators, regardless, to rush to bolt the barn door after the horse has bolted – quickly, often leading to questionable ore even wrong decisons.
Almost any public leader will quickly find that there are aspects of his/her environment that must be taken into consideration – first on the list is influence and those who are in position to exercise it. That is particularly the case in democratically elected public leadership, where constituencies exist; not only citizen voters, but supporters, financial supporters – those who provide the funds to conduct campaigns that lead to election to the position of leadership, without which success is illusory. Those have led to significant changes in recent times, due to the size and scope of constituencies and the critical importance of funds to do the things that are necessary in these times to conduct a campaign: advertise and convince.
Those constituencies have changed and so has the funding environment. First they know more; although what they know may not be true. Take public schools where leadership takes the form of both politicians (local and national) and superintendants, who interact with, and are lobbied by other public interests and parents, both of which have access to a much greater amount of information, much of it conflicting and most of it biased, with which both types of leaders must deal.
But many other things have changed as well: entertainment influence, complexity and influence of media, electronic communications impact at all levels, and differences in families. The last is particularly challenging since family has come to mean something different than it used to be, and it’s stability can be much more questionable. Thus public leaders have much more complexity to deal with and it’s nature has changed along with the influences that make their demands upon them. Leaders that were once left alone to exercise their responsibilities seldom have that luxury any more, as now everyone seems to have different ideas as to how those responsibilities should be discharged, but more importantly, the means to attempt to impose them upon the leaders.
Something else that has caught my attention is what they call “name recognition.” Another is the popularity impact that derives from other than that which defines the position, specifically the attention given to persons who have established fame at some level, often having nothing to do with that which is being led. Professional entertainment and entertainers come into play; but so, or course, does the influence of money, the attention paid to people whose names are “known” but may not know of what they speak, and rapidly propagated opinions through various means; particularly television, computers and social media. There is lots to deal with.
On top of all that is the large number of people that don’t pay much attention, don’t take the time or interest to develop understanding of the issues, but are quick to complain, usually with arguments provided by someone to whom they have listened and have decided to agree, without much real knowledge of what it’s all about; except, perhaps, what effect it may have upon them personally, whether real or perceived.
And after putting all that together, one longs for someone who can just step in and DO IT. And we have those kind too. The problem is that usually they find it more difficult than they thought it would be, but are likely to discount that, and go ahead anyway. When that occurs at only one level we have a kind of dictatorship based on what that level thinks, whether it is right or not, and a resulting ossification based on limited ability to respond to changes. When that occurs at several levels we have conflict, confusion and ultimately chaos. So much for leadership; everyone eventually becomes disgusted and wants to throw them all out and start again, with fairly consistent negative results.
Then there is the push for diversity along with a number of related social objectives, but let’s not go there now; it adds too much complexity.
The end result is a problem with public leadership that looks like lack of qualification or downright ineptitude, and it might be. That is what it is made to look like, anyway, but how much of that is an increase in complexity? Or more to the point, how much is due to interference or different objectives? Perhaps those are two sides of the same coin as some of the complexity is due to differences in objectives, causing interference. The current closing down of government and concentration on the perils of growing debt and deficit on one hand or emphasis on full employment regardless of debt and deficit, on the other, are a case in point.
But is that not part of the challenge of public leadership? differences in objective? How can that be? Is the challenge of public leadership not driven by the need to provide effective and successful leadership for the ultimate good of that which is being led? Well, yes and no. Public leadership is not an end in itself; it’s end is the public that is being led, and there lies the problem: those in the leadership positions cannot agree on what that ultimate good entails. But then, maybe that’s a result and not the cause; why do they not agree? We have to go back to the democratic republic in which it all occurs, where ultimate good is determined through compromising the perceived needs of the components, of which the leaders themselves, incidentally, are one.
Confusing? Sure, that’s why it isn’t getting done to the satisfaction of those who are affected; the old saw of some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time. Such is the challenge of dealing with humanity; the larger the group the bigger the challenge. And no one likes compromise, particularly today, because we all feel entitled to have what we want – even if we really are not too sure what that is. And that’s yet another challenge to public leadership: ornery contention; but is that contention among the leaders who cannot come to agreement? or contention among the citizens they represent or lobbyists who propose to represent them?
Are our leaders poorer? or are the difficulties they face greater? Some of both. The difficulties are greater because of the above, but leaders are poorer (not all) because they are chosen carelessly without consideration of what we expect them to do. Well, maybe that’s not quite correct either, because too many of us have gotten to the point where we have changed what we expect them to TRY to do, to what we think we are entitled to get from them, period. That leads us to a dilemma. We have public leadership that works for some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but can never satisfy all of the people all of the time, and we can’t accept that. First we do not select our leaders for the right reasons, and many really are incapable of doing the job, but second, even when they try to honestly balance the needs of diverse constituents they are publicly castigated .
Confusing, yes? And that’s the result: confusion. So who is going to fix that? How about the PEOPLE, the citizens, the voters, who are supposed to be the ultimate authority for our government? Tough requirement, especially when they (we) really neither understand the problem not what it takes to solve it – which is usually far above our pay grade, and ability to appreciate the contentious complexities.