In Government, There's a Big Difference Between Power and Leadership

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Anyone can learn to lead. Not everyone has the courage to do it.
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When I hear or read an invocation of the term “leadership” or, even worse, a call for “bold leadership,” I tend to roll my eyes. The words are often used in ways that are so vague as to be virtually meaningless, a kind of wishful, magical thinking. When someone writes that what is needed in a given situation is a list of attributes, the first item on the list is usually bold leadership. Right, that and world peace and an end to poverty.

Most of what is taught and written about leadership focuses on the private sector. I believe that leading in government is far more difficult. Government has to solve problems that industry cannot solve. No one makes a profit trying to fix the opioid crisis or homelessness. Getting things done in government involves managing powerful, often conflicting interests.

So where does government go to get some bold leadership? Many believe that it is some sort of inherent quality that people either do or do not have. I disagree. In my view, leadership is mostly learned. We can find the fundamentals within ourselves. Over time, we can strengthen our ability to lead, just as we can strengthen our muscles. Leadership isn’t mystical. At its core, leadership is enabling a group of people to achieve a goal that none of them could accomplish on their own.

The primary tool real leaders need is communication. I’m not talking simply about making speeches or giving direction, but about listening and speaking in ways that make others feel heard, understood and valued. It starts with learning. Martin Luther King Jr. spent an enormous amount of time studying philosophy and theology; he also listened closely to the sermons of the leading preachers of the day. King was an accomplished communicator by the time he was thrust into the leadership role of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955.

There is one inherent quality that is fundamental to leadership: courage. We value and even admire people who work hard and play by the rules, but leadership requires something different. Leaders take on the problems of others and are willing to risk ridicule, derision and the loss of position or reputation to overcome those problems. That generally means disrupting a system; some current winners may become losers. There will be pushback by people who benefit from the existing order and have the power to inflict pain. In guiding Rhode Island through two rounds of badly needed pension reform, first as treasurer and now as governor, Gina Raimondo endured plenty of pushback and pain, but she pressed on relentlessly.

It is this test of moral courage that separates real leaders from those who merely hold positions of authority. Somebody needs to be in charge of every organization, of course, but power and leadership are not the same things. My shorthand for all this is to talk about love, hope and mission. People have to know that you care about them. They have to have hope that if they stick together and stick with you, their circumstances will get better. And they have to believe in the mission -- not only that you are competent, but also that you have a plan and the plan is going to work.

The world is filled with serious challenges, most of which threaten in some way those we love. These challenges can be overcome only by effective collective action. You can’t have that without leadership, however you define it.