The Democratic Party achieved a significant victory last Sunday by voting to pass the healthcare bill in the House of Representatives. This achievement was the culmination of a more than yearlong struggle to move the legislation through Congress. The Center for Creative Leadership does not take sides on this issue but the leadership problems involved are important for our nation.

In a recent television interview Diane Sawyer told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that The Economist had called her “the most powerful woman in 100 years.” Given her tenacity and ability to keep wavering members of her party in line to achieve a narrow victory on such a divisive issue is truly remarkable. Two hundred nineteen Democrats voted to approve the Senate version of the healthcare bill, three more than needed. However, in a portent of trouble to come in the midterm elections, not a single Republican in the House or Senate voted for this bill.

Nancy Pelosi is not only a leader of her party but also a national leader, third in succession to the President. Is the leadership power she exerted to create alignment within her own party sufficient for leadership of a broader coalition of American citizens of various political persuasions? What does it take to be an effective leader at the national level?

At CCL we define effective leadership as setting direction, creating alignment, and gaining commitment. The direction our nation’s leaders have set is quite clear. And the party in power, the Democratic Party, mustered sufficient alignment and commitment (or at least compliance) amongst its members to assure passage of the bill. But how can the Democratic Party gain the commitment, not just of party members, but of the larger American electorate?

We are reminded of the insightful book on executive derailment, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, by Marshall Goldsmith, a professor at the Dartmouth Tuck School of Business. The premise of the book is that the behaviors that have served us well in the past often undermine our future success as leaders by destroying alignment and/or commitment from our followers.

Goldsmith identifies twenty habitual flaws that prevent ambitious executives from being effective leaders, ultimately leading to derailment if left unchecked. According to Goldsmith, Habit #1 is the need to win at all costs.

Last weekend’s House vote exemplified this behavior by the Speaker of the House. Ms. Pelosi told her followers that they had to pass the bill in order to save the President’s administration. Win they did but at what cost to their standing with a broader constituency than the party faithful? Speaker Pelosi’s current favorability rating is 11%. It would appear that the strong-arm tactics Ms. Pelosi employed to gain passage of the bill do not resonate with the American public.

Receiving honest, unfiltered feedback is essential in order to be an effective leader. Too many leaders suffer from what Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee (the co-authors of Emotional Intelligence and Primal Leadership) call “CEO disease” They describe it as “the information vacuum around a leader created when people withhold important (and usually unpleasant) information.”

In a valiant attempt to inoculate their party leadership from CEO disease, Democratic pollsters Doug Schoen and Pat Caddell wrote an op-ed column for the Washington Post in which they warned party leaders, “If Democrats ignore health-care polls, midterms will be costly.” Schoen and Caddell called the Democrats’ push a “march of folly” which may result in an “unmitigated disaster in November.”

However, instead of their message being heard, Schoen and Caddell were pilloried in the media and by members of their own party. Goldsmith identifies this tendency to punish the messenger (Habit #18) as another fatal flaw that derails leaders.

Like Icarus, the Democratic Party has fallen far from its lofty heights of public approval following the inauguration. Can Ms. Pelosi and her party regain the trust of the American people before it is too late? We will only know for sure after Election Day in November. However, the rancorous divide on both sides of this issue may be too wide to overcome, hence alignment and commitment impossible to achieve, in the current political climate.

What lessons can take from this situation worthy of a Greek tragedy? We have witnessed the fallout from the need to win at all costs. The aftermath is a poisoned political environment in which neither side is willing to recognize how their actions affect others (Habit #15) nor listens to the other (Habit #16). Perhaps the lesson here is, as Goldsmith suggests, to learn to suppress our innate desire to win no matter the costs and appreciate the heavy interpersonal toll this flaw may take. As Steven Covey might suggest, our nation’s leaders would be wise to consider how to create win-win, not win-lose, situations.

We can learn to receive unpleasant news and do our best to understand the message we are being given, however unpleasant it may be. We must appreciate the courage it takes to tell truth to power. If the feedback we receive contradicts our personal worldview, we are faced with a choice: do we shoot the messenger or do we attempt to reconcile this contradictory information and reconsider our mental models?

Additionally, we should be willing to consider an opposing viewpoint and listen, really listen, in order to better understand the other person’s position. It is the mental flexibility to listen and consider alternative viewpoints that results in increased emotional intelligence and makes us more effective leaders.

Ms. Pelosi successfully gained the alignment and commitment of the Democrats in the House of Representatives. Her party’s much greater challenge will be to now create alignment and gain the commitment of the American public. We will witness this effort played out in the public arena in the months to come.

We sincerely hope that our elected leaders take time to reflect and consider their roles in furthering or resolving this crisis in leadership and work toward mending the national rift to which their actions have contributed. May I recommend they read What Got You Here Won’t Get You There and try something new!

(Photo by Bill Adams)

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