Saturday, March 12, 2011

On Leadership

Over these first few months of 2011, those who have been paying attention have gotten a pretty good lesson on what GOP leadership looks like from many of the recently elected Governors. Certainly Gov. Walker from WI has gotten the most attention lately. But somewhat under the radar, we've seen other examples. The two that stand out to me are Gov. Rick Scott of Florida and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.

In Florida, Gov. Scott has gone so far that he is even alienating Republicans in the state legislature.

When Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) inexplicably rejected federal transportation funding for his state, apparently because he doesn't like the president, some of the loudest criticism came from Florida Republicans, whose constituents will suffer as a result of the governor's recklessness.

The heart of the problem was that Scott was deliberately turning down thousands of jobs in a state with high unemployment, and turning his back on millions of dollars of economic development. But part of the political problem is that the governor acted unilaterally -- he hadn't told other GOP officials what he planned to do, didn't seek their input, and didn't care what anyone else at any level of government thought.

Scott says he's just acting like a CEO. Florida Republicans know this, and want him to stop.

This week, the NYT ran a story on Gov. Christie making the case that his "straight talk" isn't always so straight (in other words, he often doesn't tell the truth). I was just as interested in some of the descriptions of his style.

But inaccuracies also crop up when he is challenged, and his instinct seems to be to turn it into an attack on someone else instead of giving an answer...

“Everything is an assault, which makes it hard for adversaries to catch their breath and question the substance of what he’s saying before he moves on to the next thing,” said Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the state Democratic chairman.

“A lot of politicians would react cautiously, but not this governor,” said Professor Harrison, of Montclair State University. “He always wants to stay on the offensive, and he’s not going to say, ‘Let me look into that.’ ”

Do you see a pattern developing? Marshall Ganz identifies it in an article he wrote about leadership.

Another important distinction is that between leadership and domination. Effective leaders facilitate the interdependence or collaboration that can create more "power to" -- based on the interests of all parties. Domination is the exercise of "power over" --a relationship that meets interests of the "power wielder" at the expense of everyone else. Leadership can turn into domination if we fail to hold it accountable.

Riane Eisler also talks about this:

Underneath all the complex and seemingly random currents and crosscurrents, is the struggle between two very different ways of relating, of viewing our world and living in it. It is the struggle between two underlying possibilities for relations: the partnership model and the domination model.

This difference between dominance (power over) and partnership (power with) is demonstrated well by this graph:

In our culture, most people think about power in the domains of power over/against (competition and dominance). But there are sparks of partnership power that rise up every now and then to remind us that for those of us without the benefits of money and position, it is where our power generally lies. The people of WI are going to find out in the next few weeks whether or not partnership power is possible and if so, what they can do with it.

I've often talked about the fact that in his days as a community organizer, President Obama studied and taught about power relations. Its clear to me that he has an understanding of the power of partnership and is constantly calling on us to join him in exercising that power.

Practicing leadership from a position of "power with" requires that you have an independently strong ego and don't need to dominate in order to prop it up or feed it. And it also requires trust in the people you set out to lead. These are some of the characteristics I most admire about President Obama and ones that are often most misunderstood by his critics on the left and the right.

Its only natural that when people are so used to the power of dominance that they would dismiss the reality of the power of partnership. Its why we so often hear Obama criticized as weak and naive.

But history tells us that all of the battles won by the left in this country have been based on a partnership model of power...enough people finally spoke up in ways that couldn't be ignored. We see that in the battle for civil rights, unions, women's suffrage, anti-war, etc.

I think its time the left in this country began to recognize that feeding in to the power of dominance is not conducive to our concerns and is an abdication of democracy at its roots. In other words, its time we took Obama up on his offer to lead by partnership with us. As he said so often in the campaign..."we are the one's we've been waiting for."

UPDATE: There's a wonderful statement about dominance and partnership power in this NYT editorial. (h/t to BWD.)

More broadly, the overreach by Mr. Walker and Republicans elsewhere has finally revealed their true agenda to blue-collar voters who either voted for them last year or who stayed home. These voters are not going to benefit from a crippled union movement; they live next door to the teachers and nurses and D.M.V. clerks who are about to lose what little clout they had in the state capital. Many have suffered during the recession and have watched in pain as private-sector unions have been battered to the point of ineffectiveness.

They understand the power play that took place this week. The place to exercise some power of their own is at the voting booth.


  1. Brilliant, as per usual.


  2. Thanks for this brilliant post. I've been reading your blog for awhile now but just had to comment on this exceptional piece. I'm also a Minnesotan and I'd love to see this on the editorial page of the Star Tribune (and other places as well). I love your blog. Thanks.

  3. My humble thanks to a fellow Minnesotan.

  4. Man it's great to have someone 'ready, willing, AND ABLE' to dialogue in language I can understand. Thanks! :-)
    [In a way this post reminds me of your 'Conciliatory rhetoric ..' post.]
    'Its only natural that when people are so used to the power of dominance that they would dismiss the reality of the power of partnership'

    I must say that while I agree with your general argument, on this point I am more inclined to say that these guys are not dismissing a power partnership so much as they DO NOT understand the concept. IMO bullying/fighting is more synonymous with their concept of leadership, as it seems to be for many in the general public. Victory that doesn't come from an abvious knockout punch is not victory.

    By the way, you've planted a new thought in my head. You know how a few in the media have remarked in retrospect that the President's speech in Cairo had a ME 'dog whistle'? Reading your paragraph I suddenly thought "Could 'We are the ones we've been waiting for' be the North American dog whistle"? You are right: it's time this generation join in the collective fight to hang on to democracy for all it's worth. IMO it would be a shame to succumb to these bullies for want of resolution, especially when there is a willing and competent leader at hand.

  5. Hey VC!

    You're right - there is definitely a theme to what I'm writing about Obama. I think too many people seriously misunderstand him because he doesn't fit the mold of what we're used to. Given that our politics has deteriorated into the kind of bullying you talk about, you'd think folks would recognize that as a good thing. But its also new and unfamiliar, which can be confusing for folks.


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