Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Leadership in Actions and Words

Peggy Noonan is a author and writer for the Wall St. Journal.  She worked for President Reagan as a speechwriter, and in her writings reflects a very thoughtful analysis.  Even if you don't agree with her, you are forced to consider her points well.

She recently wrote a post on her blog that I found stunningly insightful concerning the failures of presidential leadership related to the Affordable Care Act.  The article is not about the politics or wisdom of the policy.  Instead, it is about how President Obama's handling of its debut is a study in the failure of a leader to lead rightly.  The whole article is well worth reading, not just to critique the President, but to consider how this situation exemplifies the contemporary notion that words equal leadership.

Here is a key part of her critique, originating from a supporter of the President:
 A fellow very friendly to the administration, a longtime supporter, cornered me at a holiday party recently to ask, with true perplexity: “How could any president put his entire reputation on the line with a program and not be on the phone every day pushing people and making sure it will work? Do you know of any president who wouldn’t do that?” I couldn’t think of one, and it’s the same question I’d been asking myself. The questioner had been the manager of a great institution, a high stakes 24/7 operation with a lot of moving parts. He knew Murphy’s law—if it can go wrong, it will. Managers—presidents—have to obsess, have to put the fear of God, as Mr. Obama says, into those below them in the line of authority. They don’t have to get down in the weeds every day but they have to know there are weeds, and that things get caught in them.
It’s a leader’s job to be skeptical of grand schemes. Sorry, that’s a conservative leader’s job. It is a liberal leader’s job to be skeptical that grand schemes will work as intended. You have to guide and goad and be careful.
And this president wasn’t. I think part of the reason he wasn’t careful is because he sort of lives in words. That’s been his whole professional life—books, speeches. Say something and it magically exists as something said, and if it’s been said and publicized it must be real. He never had to push a lever, see the machine not respond, puzzle it out and fix it. It’s all been pretty abstract for him, not concrete. He never had to stock a store, run a sale and see lots of people come but the expenses turn out to be larger than you’d expected and the profits smaller, and you have to figure out what went wrong and do better next time.

  As might be expected, she points to the example of President Reagan, who was, by most people's estimates, one of the most successful presidents of the last fifty years (some say much longer).  President Reagan is, in many ways, the most inspiring public leader of my lifetime, so I'm readily agreeable to Ms. Noonan's evaluation of him.  What I found particularly fascinating was her comparisons of Reagan's leadership to that of both President Obama and the first President Bush.

Mr. Obama shows every sign of thinking Reagan led only through words. But Reagan led through actions, as every leader must. The words explained, argued for and advanced those actions; they gave people a sense of who it was who was acting. But Obama’s generation of the left could never see or come to terms with the fact that it was, say, the decision to fire the air traffic controllers, or the decision to take the hit and bleed out inflation, that made Reagan’s presidency successful and meaningful. With an effective presidency, everything is in the doing. The words are part of the doing and at some points can be crucial to it; at some interesting points they even are the doing, such as looking at the Soviets and declaring that we knew what their system was and wouldn’t accept any but an honest interpretation of it, and yes, that constituted a change of attitude and approach. That took words. But it’s never all words, it can’t be. It’s making the right decision and carrying it through—executing it.
Mr. Obama learned only half of Reagan’s lesson.
And here’s something odd. The first President Bush, George H.W., learned half the lesson too, but the other half. Bush managed, executed and decided his way through the peaceful fall of the Soviet Empire and the reunification of Germany. But he couldn’t, for reasons characterological and having to do with his own highly refined sense of the demands of diplomacy, explain to people exactly what he was doing, why he was doing it and how. And so a feat of great historical weight and magnitude, deserving of a Nobel Prize for peace and utterly ignored by that silly committee, is half forgotten. Whereas Mr. Obama won that prize—for words.

Wow.  That's saying so much.  Leadership without action is only rhetoric.  Just because you say something doesn't make it real.  As a Christian and a teacher of truth, this becomes a garden of illustrations, if you will.  How often do we speak of spiritual life, vitality, priorities, but do nothing to pursue them, create them, or realize them?  

But, actions without clear explanation breed confusion and misunderstanding, or at least ignorance.  Those who think people will just "know" why we do things are not only mistaken, but set for disappointment (as the first President Bush surely found out).  Gospel centered actions, likewise, must come with some form of explanation to truly be gospel centered.

May God help those of us who are called to lead to match words and deeds.  And frankly, if one is to be lacking, it probably should be the words, don't you think?  Neither is dispensable, especially in Gospel proclamation.