Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Litmus Test for Leadership

       In many ways, leadership is complicated. And the larger the organization, the more public the role, the more complicated it becomes. Still, no matter what variables, it's multi-faceted. Psychology, sociology, vision, small details, policy--we could create a lengthy list of all the elements a leader must consider. That said, leadership can be distilled to one overarching objective: fostering and preserving the desired culture.The litmus test comes when something or someone threatens that delicate framework.
       Observing the US presidential campaign this year has provided some important lessons in leadership. Now, I suspect you may be thinking that I am about to join either the anti-Trump or anti-Clinton side. I'm not. Nor am I about to defend and/or support either one of them. I could, but I won't, even though I have my opinions. But I am going to focus on Trump's campaign in making my argument because it captures a larger question about leadership: when to take the strongest possible stance despite the possibility of personal loss.
       While many express surprise at his becoming the nominee, perhaps we shouldn't be. After all, in deciding to follow, people often become a cult of personality. (Anyone else remember the song by Living Colour?) Plus Trump has tapped into what seem increased levels of frustration, fear, and loss. Those are much easier to whip up than confidence and optimism, meaning they can overwhelm rationality. Ironically, in a very basic way--though coming at it from a very different angle--Trump is delivering the same message that Obama used to fuel his successful run in 2008--that politics as usual is broken and we need change.
       Of course, that very different angle is what has so many people upset about Trump. His comments and tweets on just about every topic have infuriated people. These include many prominent Republicans; they worry that they have lost their party and may never get it back. People like party leaders Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell state their "strong disagreement" with things that Trump says, but they go only so far in their denunciation. As leaders--as the educators of their followers--everything they do sends messages subtle and overt.
       I understand the political delicacy of their position. But I also know, no matter how hard it may be, what I would need to do with an employee who were to rip at my school's cultural threads. It's part of honoring all those who have built something and all those who strive to preserve its best qualities. If the leader doesn't do that, it slowly crumbles and then collapses.
       Meanwhile, many wonder if the latest Trump-ism will be the straw that breaks the back of his campaign.  I wonder at what point supposed leaders have flunked the litmus test.

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