The Leadership/Followership Paradox
For all the American focus on leadership, could it be that what’s missing is followership?
- The problem is not that government is bad, but that the American system of government is highly inefficient.
- In the contemporary American political idiom, government is too often cast as something imposed on the people against their will.
- Such an interpretation of government in the very nation that led the world out of feudalism surely represents a strange turn of events.
- The U.S. political landscape stands out for the level of political vitriol. Much speaks for the explanation that this is a function of exaggerated expectations.
“Ok, I get it. There are plenty of things wrong with this country. But it’s easy to fix them. All that is required is some real leadership? When we have leaders who clearly explain what’s wrong — and what needs fixing and how, by whom and by when, the people will follow.”
When I hear people talk like that, I cringe. American society is in a profound crisis, with many problems left to fester. And, time and again, the proposed answer is … leadership?
Why do I cringe? Because leadership is not in short supply. An emphasis on leadership is deeply ingrained in the American character, beginning in kindergarten. Assessments of the “future leadership potential” of five-year-olds are made in all earnestness.
This intense search for leadership continues through high school — and providing hands-on examples of manifested leadership are a key component of any successful college application in the United States.
By the time you look to Congress, you have 535 independent leaders elected on almost entirely the strength of their own personalities and personal campaigns.
In other words, leadership can hardly be the missing ingredient in U.S. politics to get more done.
“Yes,” the answer goes, “but we used to have presidents who were stronger leaders, people who managed to convince the public to rally around a cause.”
Should we really blame things on Messrs. Obama (if you’re a Republican) or Bush (if you’re a Democrat)? Trouble is, the root cause of the current crisis may well lie in the structural set-up of the U.S. political process.
Established as a representative democracy in the 18th century after a separatist war, without having had any sort of violent anti-monarchist Reign of Terror phase, the country has always secretly half-wished for its own regal traditions. Little wonder then that presidential campaigns culminate in an inauguration that bears marks of a near-coronation.
The problem is that the nation’s pent-up hopes for salvation — that is, getting rid of those pesky political issues needing resolution in the trenches of the political process — are all vested in the person of the president who is supposed to solve everything with a magic wand as soon as he steps into the Oval Office.
In other democracies — countries where democracy came about by overthrowing (or literally decapitating) the monarchy — ascribing any such powers to an individual would be considered naive and unrealistic at best.
The quasi-regal approach of holding onto the mythological conception of the presidency means that each president’s chances for success are essentially nixed from the outset. Nobody can live up to those expectations.
Now, political attitudes trend to the acerbic in many other countries, not just the United States. And yet, the U.S. political landscape stands out for the level of political vitriol.
Much speaks for the explanation that this is a function of exaggerated expectations.
But it must also be due to something else. For all the American focus on leadership, could it be that what’s amiss is the inverse — a shortage of constructive followership (read: civic mindedness)? In other words, could it be that Americans are rather unprepared to compromise by finding a workable consensus, something that is clearly required in any modern society?
What would explain such a dearth of followership? Interestingly, judging by other countries where this is not a problem, it is a consequence of the systematic belittling of the function of government.
In the contemporary American political idiom, government is too often cast as something imposed on the people against their will, by some ill-meaning “bureaucrats” seeking the upper hand.
Such an interpretation of government in the very nation that led the world out of feudalism surely represents a strange turn of events.
But does that, in turn, imply that the Europeans are all too gullible and prepared to eat up bureaucrats’ diktats? Not really. Europeans are often skeptical of government, but they properly understand that the function of government is to act in the best interest of the people — and that their government is democratically empowered to do so by elections.
The same basic acceptance cannot be found in the United States. There, hard though it may be to believe, a more anarchical process prevails.
The non-existence of a parliamentary political system makes it even more difficult to accomplish meaningful reforms. While thousands of bills are introduced each Congress, giving rise to all sorts of hopes, few become law.
As mundane as it sounds, much of it may come down to organizing the process of government effectively. In Europe, for example, laws are prepared by the government majority, primarily directly by the executive branch. They are then introduced by the majority in the legislature.
This has many advantages. First, any new bills are usually written as enhancements of existing legislation, part of a systemic whole. In addition, most other nations know their place in the world, and especially the finiteness of their financial resources. That, broadly speaking, is why their collective minds are very focused from the outset on making every euro of public funds invested pay off.
Things are quite different in the U.S. political system. Legislation is — at best — additive (and rarely systematically structured). As a result, government gets a bad name. But that is not because government per se is bad, but because the American system of government is highly inefficient.
Paradoxically, more trust in the powers of government — and the ability and good intentions of those serving in government on behalf of the people — is what would make a difference.
Of course, that suggestion sounds like pure heresy in the eyes of quite a few Americans. And yet, it is the law that most of the rest of the developed world lives by — and lives by rather successfully.
This essay was originally published on January 12, 2011. It was updated by the author on June 22, 2014.