The Paradox of “Political Leadership”

by Carl W. Hunt and Walter E. Natemeyer [1]

In the American version of the English language, we often string together two words to make a more descriptive term. Some of these eventually become targets for jokes, such as “military intelligence” a term those of us who served in the military often lampooned as an oxymoron. Other examples include “sweet sorrow” and “deafening silence.” Some used to call the early versions of “Microsoft Works” an oxymoron.

The two-word term we’re going to talk about in this post shouldn’t be an oxymoron. However, in this current age of what passes for governance in the halls of our Congress and our Executive branch, the term “political leadership” is probably more of an oxymoron than we’d like to think…it’s certainly become a paradox.

Today, political leadership has become focused on using power to achieve the goals of one’s political party, not working to do what is best for our country overall. At the federal level, leadership is about getting congressional members to align with their party leaders’ demands and cast their votes accordingly – the needs of the American people have become an afterthought.

In fact, an observer might think that our elected leaders no longer have any interest in being the leaders of the American people. Sadly, it appears our political leaders forgot how to apply leadership skills to inspire and motivate the people of our nation to achieve new heights, although they like to claim they speak for the American people. Perhaps it’s time to remind our nation’s “leaders” about true leadership.

The responsibilities and functions of leaders in a purer sense of the practice of leadership are numerous. It’s worthwhile, however, to highlight two very important characteristics of leadership. If our national, state and local leaders would just practice these concepts even a little more, the citizens of our nation could become more cohesive and once again start Reconnecting to the American Promise.

We want to focus on two leadership characteristics in this post: Creating a Shared Vision; and Creating the Environment for Achieving Common Agreement. These leadership principles are fundamental responsibilities for leaders of any type, whether in government, industry or academia. This is particularly true for the leaders of our nation today as we face increasing competition and threats from other nations and adversaries which would see the United States weaken or fall.

Our founding fathers recognized that open, honest debate and a willingness to cooperate were essential ingredients for democracy. Yet today we seem mired in political win-lose battles where our citizens are the big losers. Since when was American governance built upon “winner-take-all?” What can we do to break out of this destructive game? [2]

Let’s start with the idea of Creating a Shared Vision in America.

The first thing leaders can do to create shared vision is to break away from the traditional win-lose philosophy in politics today and start focusing on creating win-win scenarios based on collaboration, cooperation and yes, compromise. Beginning to think about win-win situations works great when leaders can create a sense of shared vision built on freedom and opportunity, backed by a framework for security and prosperity. The Framers turned out to be quite good at this as they created a foundational document of US Constitutionsuch a shared vision. This shared vision launched what became our United States of America.

It surely wasn’t easy, and it required a number of years before the Constitution was ratified by all the states. The Framers’ efforts eventually delivered a vision that was transparent and forward-looking, shared among almost everyone in the nation (even today). It also sought win-win situations for the most part that did not exist anywhere else in the world at the time. [3]

Next, Let’s Create an Environment for Achieving Common Agreement Across America.

The Constitution and the Convention in which it was developed also Created an Environment for Achieving Common Agreement. The Framers did this by moving from Win-Lose to Win-Win, applying the essence of an outline Walt has developed over his 40+ years of teaching leadership and management at all levels of government and business.

Walt’s list of steps for “Moving from Win-Lose to Win-Win” provides a framework for immediate application in all levels of our government as we seek to move towards Reconnecting to the American Promise. His steps include the following, and could (and should) be initiated by either political party towards the other:

  • Take initiative to start progress toward cooperation
  • Increase/improve communication
  • Listen/strive to understand one another’s point of view
  • Build trust by keeping trust
  • Admit your mistakes
  • Identify “common” goals and work together toward them
  • Collaborate on behalf of the nation
  • Be willing to compromise/take reasonable risks together
  • Stay rational/avoid being emotional
  • Never throw the first stone and resist the urge to retaliate
  • Reiterate advantages of cooperation and dangers of excess competition
  • Recognize/reward cooperative effort
  • Remember: two winners are better than one

Leadership’s greatest challenge is in achieving success through marshaling the human resources they have on their teams. America elects its own leadership team to marshal those resources and to demonstrate effective leadership on behalf of the electorate. Congress and the Administration seem to have forgotten that one simple but important concept; and so leadership on behalf of our people has suffered.

“Political leadership” may have become an oxymoron but the representatives we elect to lead America can break out of that mold starting today and begin to be real leaders once again. We think it will be amazing what they can accomplish once they stop trying to be an American Paradox.

Originally posted on 12/11/2014.


[1]  Dr. Walter E. Natemeyer is the CEO of North American Training and Development, Inc., Houston, TX. He taught at the university graduate level for over ten years before devoting full-time effort to teaching basic and advanced leadership skills in business and government sectors, including teaching at the Johnson Space Center in Houston for over 40 years. Dr. Natemeyer is a leading authority on “Situational Leadership,” employee motivation, strategic planning and team building. He has authored numerous books, articles, and training instruments on these and other management topics.

[2]  We articulated several more of these important leadership qualities and potential outcomes of good leadership in The Principles of RAP, which have accompanied this website since its foundation in February, 2014.

[3]  As we’ve mentioned elsewhere, the Constitution did not resolve every issue of freedom in the late 18th Century, but we must hope that America is making progress on that front as our history unfolds. Additionally, we have chosen not to address the recent US Senate report on US intelligence activities (released on 12/9/2014) as it is still too early to discuss its relationship to Reconnecting to the American Promise.

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