News & Views from 465 California Street

Followship, not Leadership

Clint Reilly

Do leaders really lead in the political arena or do they follow?

I think our system elects followers and calls them leaders. This creates both a false perception and a false expectation.

The false perception is that politicians have answers to our problems. The false expectation is that politicians will pursue answers to our problems. The fact that neither is precisely true drives Americans’ disillusionment with their government when their expectations are unmet.

I know my analysis is cynical and not universally true. But let me explain how I arrive at my conclusion.

I can still remember a well-known client during my political consulting days saying to me, “Clint, tell me what I believe.”

Contrary to what we are taught in our civics classes, political discourse rarely starts with issue research or personal conviction. It usually begins when a politician commissions a detailed poll to ascertain where voters stand on critical issues and legislation.

Now that large news networks and newspapers conduct their own polls, voters are familiar with polling mechanics and formats. In addition to polls, focus groups pre-test messages and viewpoints to gauge the reaction of real voters in advance.

This “presearch” then shapes the positions of the politicians who commission it. As a political consultant, I wrote countless polls and attended easily a hundred focus groups.

Political communication between elected officials and voters is not an argument about the truth. Clarence Darrow argued facts and made his case to juries. But that’s not how campaign ads work.

Campaign commercials are designed to reinforce what voters already believe; they aren’t meant to educate or provide new information. When a TV commercial contradicts the established beliefs of the viewers, the voters not only reject the message but also the messenger.

Politicians follow public opinion and echo it through campaign commercials, speeches and even legislation once elected. This means that much of the actual discourse between elected officials and citizens originates from the citizens.

That doesn’t make political figures dishonest; it just means their role is different from that of a “leader.” Their contribution is to translate ideas into action. They are what historian James MacGregor Burns calls “transactional brokers” who see the best ideas from disparate factions and forge compromises that move society forward incrementally.

So, are politicians leaders by any true definition of leadership? No.

Politicians are forced to function within the parameters of public opinion. They can push out the edges. But go too far and they find themselves in a graveyard.

Ask presidential candidate Walter Mondale if he was hailed as a hero for telling Americans that taxes needed to be raised. Why, in the face of California’s $15 billion deficit, is Governor Schwarzenegger or any statewide politician so afraid to raise taxes or challenge the deadly fiscal limitations of Proposition 13?

This may be a relatively new historical phenomenon. Before the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, voters primarily read their information in newspapers. Unable to see events personally, voters relied on elected officials to be their surrogates, to make tough choices in their stead. Character weighed heavily on the scale when voters cast their ballots.

But in the era of constant TV news coverage, voters are overwhelmed with information. Armed with a false feeling of expertise, many voters mistakenly equate ideological agreement with character. In this political jungle, survival depends on mimicking citizens’ views rather than shaping them.

Who, if any, are the leaders of our era?

Our real leaders are in medicine saving life, in the arts celebrating life, and in philanthropy protecting life. Citizens within the environmental movement, computing, biotechnology and architecture fields have produced breakthroughs that are changing the world.

Politicians make the rules. But unlike real leaders, they are rarely allowed to break them.

Comments (1)

  • What a short, terrific piece that explains brilliantly how government at all levels operates. It puts the real electoral constraints elected officials confront on the table for everyone to see. The money quote, “tell me what my values are” says it all.

    Posted by: John Dunbar | June 24th, 2008 at 2:52 pm

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