Archive for January, 2016


Sanders, Clinton, and the need for leadership

January 25, 2016

Every four years we participate in the ridiculous fiction that the candidate who has the “right” positions on “the issues” will make the best president. If that were true, there are at least 100 people on my Facebook feed who would make better occupants of the White House than anyone currently running for the nomination in either party.

We see this fiction in debates and interviews in which journalists question candidates about their plans for the economy, taxes, health care, budget-balancing, as though the president has the power to magically enact those plans all by theirself (Note: I’m embracing universal gender-neutral and number-indifferent pronouns).

Being “right” on the issues is different for each of us, and it’s important to know what candidates think about immigration, corporate wealth, and climate change, but we should pay at least as much attention to the leadership qualities of the candidates, because it doesn’t really matter how “right” the president is if they do not have the qualities needed to advance those positions while simultaneously representing the entire diverse population of this country.

By “leadership” I don’t mean how tall the candidate is, how male, or how white—all of which have been correlated to notions of leadership. I don’t even mean how persuasive or influential or charismatic they are, or, as one definition of leadership maintains, how able they are to get people to do what they don’t want to do, which sounds a lot more like manipulation to me. I don’t even mean “character,” or how trustworthy, moral, or likeable the president is. I remember Jimmy Carter as someone whom I considered to be “right” on most of the issues, who was pleasant and likable, and had a clear moral compass. And I remember that Carter failed to get even people who agreed with him to want him as their leader for another four years

I’m not always crazy about notions of leadership that assume leadership is something a person “has,” the way they might have athletic ability or artistic talent. And when we talk about leadership as something someone “does,” I think it’s important to remember that it’s not something they can “do” all by themselves. Leadership, in other words, is not the president as “the decider.” That’s authority. And if the decider can enact the decision that’s been made, that’s power. We shouldn’t confuse the power and authority of the president with leadership, and we should be realistic about how much a president can do to move their ideas forward without the participation of Congress–and still survive a challenge to the Supreme Court.

I like the notion of leadership identified by Wilfred Drath in their book The Deep Blue Sea: Leaders are those who create the future. I like it because it doesn’t place responsibility on one person; we all create the future.

Creating the future is a slippery concept. It’s not the same as “vision,” a sense of where the leader wants to take you. Hitler had such a vision. He had the charisma to engage followers in going there. And, of course, it was a horrific vision that played on the fears of too many people and went unchecked far too long.

Creating the future, in a more generative way, involves an ability to see when something is unfolding that represents a more collective vision than one individual politician’s. It means recognizing when there is breach in the social fabric that will allow—or requires–something new to take hold, combined with the ability to engage (not direct) the forces necessary to capitalize on that moment so that what takes hold is good. It’s not about polling. It can’t be taught in an MBA program. It runs the risk of great failure and great success.

We needed a president in the 1960s who could create a future that didn’t include nuclear annihilation as an outcome of the Cold War. We needed a president who could recognize that the forces demanding civil rights were a cry for a different future.

We need a president now who not only cares about rectifying income inequality, eliminating injustice, and welcoming the displaced, but understands the complexity involved in creating that future. It will take more than passionate words. It will take more than an ability to make deals.

Though I agree with much of what Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton say on the issues, they are both stuck in old paradigms of politics and leadership, and those paradigms don’t interest me. It perhaps goes without saying that none of the Republican candidates offer either an understanding of the future nor any interest in moving us there—they (including the candidates who are not white or not male) are committed to old power structures as well as old paradigms.

My exploration of Sanders suggests he is comfortable in the role of Dissident—which I see as a valid and important form of leadership, but one that tends to break down once the Dissident is in power and has no Power to speak truth to. His website touts the votes he took in which only he saw the truth. I admire that kind of clarity and ability to take a stand. And I wonder, if he couldn’t use that role effectively in the Senate to get others to see the light, how does he expect to as president? For me, the question is not about Sanders’ electability as much as his effectiveness.

Hillary Clinton, like most women of her generation, has had to learn to function as a woman in a man’s world. She’s had to be twice as good to be considered half as qualified. I don’t agree with all her choices, but I understand that to be taken seriously as a presidential candidate she’s had to become twice as good at playing by the rules of a system set up to benefit white heterosexual males. So much so that she’s now seen as too much of a cold strategist, even a schemer.

Hillary has been caught her entire adult life in the double-bind that scholar Alice Eagly has documented about women in leadership—if she’s too feminine, she’s dismissed as unqualified, but if she’s too masculine, she’s viewed as inauthentic. “Inauthentic” is what her opponents keep hammering on. And maybe her tendency to be strategic rather than idealistic has made her more vulnerable to that charge, but as a woman, I want to cut her a little slack when it comes to the notion of authenticity, because women in the public arena rarely get to be authentic and still be successful.

Clinton is a Strategist. She “gets things done” by making deals. Where Sanders stands his ground perhaps too much, I wonder where Clinton would be willing to take a stand. Further, Clinton’s ability to make deals is going to be thwarted every bit as much as Obama’s has been by Republicans in Congress and the fears they represent. If Obama threatened the status quo by breaching the racial barrier, Clinton will further weaken it by breaching the gender barrier. It will be just as hostile, if not moreso, than we’ve seen with Obama. The prospect of not only eight years, but twelve or even sixteen years without a white heterosexual male in the White House cannot be underestimated for its ability to rally opposition to Clinton every step of the way. At the same time, if nothing substantive happens in the next 4-8 years because of Congressional gridlock, with Clinton at least we will have had 12-16 years in which the white male heterosexual establishment has had to share power. That’s no small thing when it comes to creating a future with new paradigms.


%d bloggers like this: