Seven Constructive Leadership Practices
Four innate sentiments dispose people to a universal moral sense. These are sympathy, fairness, self-control, and duty. —James Q. Wilson
American democracy is exhibiting ever-worsening stress cracks as a viable system of governance that enables continuing improvement in the mass welfare of our country’s citizens. At present, our nation’s infrastructure is deteriorating, financial stress is quickly worsening, civil unrest is rampant, the pandemic has taken an extraordinary toll, and our capacity to effectively manage these challenges is found wanting.
A profound lack of unity is the root cause of this dangerously destructive discord. As a people, we need to be unified in a desire to restore the efficacy of our system of governance. Too many of our leaders seem devoid of the sympathy, concern for fairness, self-control, and sense of selfless duty encapsulated in the James Q. Wilson quote above. Consequently, political gridlock and bitter animosity have replaced genuine public service, civility, effective communication, and a functional policy-making process.
In the context of this article,
PUBLIC is an acronym representing Promote Unity By Leading Informed Change.
Together, these components provide a model of conduct for public managers, political figures, and leaders at all levels to utilize in stimulating the forward momentum necessary to overcome systemic decline in American democratic institutions.
By virtue of their elected and appointed positions, public leaders are positioned to engage others and facilitate discussion with them on issues of common interest. Assuming these are an honest attempt to engage in productive dialogue, mutual understanding may be possible. Promoting unity when there is a desire to find solutions through collaborative effort often involves compromise. If the communication is purely adversarial and devoid of any desire to listen with a sympathetic ear, constructive solutions will be elusive, and problems will continue to grow.
It is unrealistic to expect that leaders from different political parties, cultures, faiths, or jurisdictions will share an unvarying set of opinions. However, unanimity of opinion is unnecessary for effective policy making in a healthy democracy. Many of society’s problems are recognized as harmful by all sides. If serving the public good is the overarching objective there should be a universal desire to solve the problem as opposed to continually deferring action. Therefore, the unity we seek is a common desire to craft operable solutions to serious problems and this requires negotiating in good faith. Leaders and followers alike must overcome the tendency to hear only that which is consistent with their own predispositions and recognize that in our diverse society, institutions are in place for the benefit of all.
In the PUBLIC acronym, By stands for “By the People.” This means all the people, not merely one’s loyal supporters. Both political parties and interest groups play important roles in a representative democracy. Unfortunately, the kind of unquestioning allegiance to a particular brand at the exclusion of all other perspectives has helped to promote the polarization we see today, and this weakens or halts the process of crafting actionable policy agendas. In a representative democracy, control is exerted in an upward fashion that demands accountability of leaders as well as standards of conduct and adherence to rule of law. Although complete equality may never be truly achieved, democratic leaders should strive for fairness and a degree of equilibrium in the system that allows for the representation of all interests.
Many people in public office today could produce a much more enduring legacy by modeling a servant leadership approach as originally detailed by Robert Greenleaf.
Elements of servant leadership such as listening, encouragement, humility, trust building, learning, and continual personal growth have proven to be successful and are embraced by the top management writers of our era.
Despite this acceptance by the well informed, these practices seemed to be largely ignored by many of our leading democratic institutions in favor of galvanized responses and a “my way or the highway” attitude. The form of leadership needed involves promoting the common good as opposed to partisan chicanery.
All too often in contemporary America, unfounded opinions and untested assumptions are presented as facts. Those who dispute these “facts” or offer alternatives are ostracized or dismissed as radicals on one side of the political divide or the other. Leaders need to be willing to fully investigate possible courses of action and consider the viability of other options with their opponents to arrive at a consensus that can be embraced by all sides. Often this requires some degree of compromise, which is fundamental to the democratic process in a functional system. Developing and implementing good policy is hard work and may require sacrifices by all participants. This will be especially true given the lingering economic impact of Covid-19 since resources at the state and local levels will be seriously constrained.
American society has been undergoing dramatic changes in recent decades. Clearly, changing demographics have played a major role. The role of computers, use of the Internet, advances in healthcare and economic globalization, and other factors have also helped transform society. Since there are large segments of our population that have limited access to these society shaping trends, all of them may contribute to the persistence of intergenerational poverty in America. The tools that promote success in our contemporary world need to be more universally available. Although economic growth has been enormous, many have been left behind.
Leaders must be willing to assent to the reality of the situation and work collaboratively to produce informed change. There is far more than altruism involved. To establish sustainable social stability and long-term competitiveness for America, policy change and the subsequent implementation of far-reaching new programs are essential.
Perilous Times Ahead
Only the most tyrannical of leaders believes that things must always go in accordance with their own agendas, and yet factionalism and divisiveness are the dominant features of American political culture today. Effective bipartisan efforts are rare, especially at the national level but increasingly in state and local governments as well.
At present, we are confronted with monumental problems, including recovering from the economic, social, and health issues associated with the pandemic. Resolution of these problems will require concerted and unified effort over many years. Doing what we have been doing and expecting different results is insanity. Indeed, policy change is essential to avoid the collapse of various systems.
Seven Constructive Leadership Practices
- Avoid prejudging the words or motives of those you consider opponents and speak your truth to them with sensitivity. In addition, analyze your own motives and choose your words carefully.
- Seek to identify and illuminate the common good.
- Make personal advancement a secondary consideration.
- Look for successful approaches that can be scaled up to overcome major challenges.
- Do not allow emotions or rhetoric to overshadow your desire to reach out in unity.
- Take the initiative to reach out to the other side in goodwill and compassion.
- Give credit to everyone to demonstrate and sustain unified effort.
If broadly applied, these practices will catalyze positive change and improve the effectiveness of our system of governance. In fact, every leader that chooses to relate to others in this manner will make a difference within his or her sphere of influence. Perhaps the depth of the crisis we endured in 2020 will prove to be the impetus needed to increase unity and stimulate positive change.