The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine


I don’t normally write about leadership.  Somehow it’s become a niche subject: either the subject of some banal business book, or discussed by the military.  It seems remote from politics or even economics because we live in an elite consensus society, where leadership is rare because the price of stepping out of the consensus can be ostracism from the elite.

Let’s start with a story.  Once upon a time a friend and I were working for the same multinational, dealing with the same people.  One day she complained to me.  “Ian,” she said.  “Fred is so persnickitty, such a fop.  Thelma is so lazy.   Our boss is so disorganized.”  On and on she went, capping with “I can never get help!”

I was floored.  Slowly I replied.  “You know, I don’t see any of those people that way.  I think that Fred is really precise and does very good detailed work.  I think Thelma is friendly and kind.  I think our boss is one of the best bosses I’ve ever had, who always listens to my concerns, lets me run and takes care of his employees.  And,” I continued, “when I ask for help from any of them, I always get it.”

I thought about that some more over the years to come, and I came to a conclusion about it.

One very simple method of leadership is to find something, some things, to admire about people.  Most people live in a sea of negativity.  Their spouse is on their case, their kids think they’re foggies, their co-workers always want more, their bosses never speak to them except to complain.

If you admire someone, if you think they’re great, that’s something they may not get from anyone else in their life.  And they will do almost anything to keep that.

I think back to the teachers I did the best work for.  They weren’t the ones who thought I was lazy waste of space. They were the ones who thought I was smart and insightful and had a great future (hah!)  Mr. Frazer, Mr. Newell, Mr Skinner, a couple others.  I didn’t turn in bad work to them.  I didn’t quit a race without trying hard for my coach.  Why?  Because I treasured the fact that they thought highly of me.  I didn’t want to lose that.

This isn’t all there is to leadership, of course, there’s a lot more.  You have to draw people into a dream, give them space, make any victories their victories, while taking the responsibility for the losses.  You have to hold them to a high standard, which is an implicit compliment since it indicates you think they can meet that standard.  You have to praise them, you have to protect them, you have to take blows for them and you have to treat them well.  The hardships they endure, you must endure (one of my rules was that if I asked someone else to stay late at work, I stayed late as well, for example.)

When FDR was president he spoke to Americans on the radio regularly.  And he didn’t condescend.  He acted as if they were adults who could be trusted to understand complicated subjects and who could be trusted to do the right thing.  Because he included them, because he gave them the compliment of assuming they would do the right thing, by and large they did.

Most people live up, or down, to your expectations of them.  Live with them, for them, include them in the dream, give them credit, see the best in them, not the worst, and they will march into the gates of hell, not for you, but with you.


Off to Vegas tomorrow


Obama isn’t about compromise


  1. jo6pac

    Live with them, for them, include them in the dream, give them credit, see the best in them, not the worst, and they will march into the gates of hell, no for you, but with you.

    Will this pretty much covers it, we’ll have to find a true progressive to run against o in 12.

    You right about how you treat people. I was at the bottom of the food chain in corp. but because I worked so well with my enemies in corp. even my VP noticed this and every year until my little group was let go I always got a great bonus. I even received one 2 months after my last day because of the work I had done. I sure don’t miss the bicking.

  2. Albatross

    An essential component of leadership is having a vision to share. This vision has to be compelling to the (potential) leader, it has to engage them emotionally. An abstraction like “a great America” is probably insufficiently concrete. Even “unemployment at 5%” is too vague.

    “A chicken in every pot, and a car in every garage” is a prosaic but clear vision, implying as it does the establishment of food production and distribution and manufacturing sufficient to produce the result. “A man on the moon in this decade” is likewise clear and challenging.

    What we lack (among other things) is leadership with vision – a real vision for America, not merely a selfish individual or partisan vision. Not merely a vision of negativity or inhibition – to “roll back Obamacare,” or “prevent gays from serving in the military.” A real leader shares and helps others embrace an actual vision for the future.

    Obama’s campaign tried to offer something like this during the campaign, and they were successful to the extent that they managed to make themselves the target of the projections of millions of American progressives. But this was the vision of the campaign, formulated by committee to appeal to the broadest spectrum of voters.

    Once in office, Obama needed to share his own vision for the future. There was only one problem – he didn’t seem to have one.

    Obama’s vision doesn’t seem to rise high enough to motivate the nation. It seems to be a vision of Beltway cooperation, of Congresspeople and Bankers working together to trickle down enough to the working class to reinvigorate the consumer economy, while still preserving the vast bonuses to which the vastly wealthy have become accustomed.

    The Republicans have a partisan vision – of a public so frustrated and miserable that they vote into office Republicans in 2012 simply to release the choking grip of Republicans upon the throat of government. And then? The shearing away of nonessential government services until all that is left is a vast pool of cash draining north into Wall Street and south into the military bases of the former Confederacy.

    And some people have very particular visions. There is a class that sees America itself as an obstacle, and envisions the collapse of the United States as the single biggest tax cut, the single biggest deregulation, and the single biggest opportunity that they can imagine for profit. Some like Rick Perry see themselves as the President of their own small sovereign nation, the biggest fish in their small ponds. And then there are those who would see the Stars and Stripes replaced with the Cross and Stripes.

    What we lack, however, is a leader with a unifying and empowering vision for the future. We lack a leader whose vision brings out the best in all of us, and challenges the best of us.

    Unfortunately, you can’t make such leaders up. Unfortunately they either emerge in response to the times, or they do not. When they don’t, the venal, blinkered, self-centered visions of a thousand would-be tyrants scrabble for the attention of the population, in a grand tacky version of Dancing with the Tsars, and Americal wobbles closer and closer to the brink of irreparable damage.

  3. jcapan

    I tend to agree with Albatross re: Obama’s campaign, though we now know it was a cipher’s bill of goods. The distinction is that FDR shared his listeners’ interests, he was fighting for them. Obama’s rhetoric is bereft–there’s simply no there there. Ceding any pretense of fighting for working Americans, he can offer only empty platitudes. IOW, it’s only leadership when your teacher or president or boss is leading you where you need to go to advance as an individual or a nation. Just cooing sweet nothings in your ear–yes, we can–ain’t enough.

    The right’s culture war language is at least impassioned, however hateful and destructive. What in god’s name does the center offer us? Neither the faux populism of the right nor the economic populism of dem party legends. Obama’s in a little cardboard box of his choosing, espousing phantom nothings and bemoaning the fact that they fail to resonate with his audience, the few who’ve not tuned him out altogether. In times of plenty his banalities might suffice but he is going to end up being reviled like Hoover if he continues to play the cipher.

  4. jcapan

    Apologies–browser kept freezing up on me. Please delete (at least) 2 of the above.

  5. votermom

    Great post. Timely too. Americans are sick to death of all the negativity all the time.

  6. i’m not sure i completely agree with the premise of this post. there is a difference between “being popular (with some, many or all)” and “being a leader.” i learned that in the Marine Corp; sometimes the best leaders are (not so secretly) *hated* by those who still choose to follow them. it’s true that leaders are often popular, and it’s true that when people want to be well-regarded by others they will try harder to please them. but i’m not sure that’s how i’d describe leadership in its fundamental definition.

    leaders fit the situation, if that’s not too much of a tautology. we have leaders today; they are mostly evil, unelected, very rich, hidden from public view, and interested in nothing other than power. i would bet that very people actually please the Koch brothers, for example, because they like and respect them. no, they do it because of fear, greed, and a desire to share in the power those men have, and perhaps because they agree with the ideology the Kochs espouse. if anything, i’d argue that we should probably break it down a bit more: instead of using leader to designate everyone who is followed by others, we should complicate the term and contextualize it.

    what ian is addressing is the question everyone who is not evil has been asking for over a decade now: where are the *good* leaders? populist or elite leaders both- what we lack are truly decent, compassionate human beings who are willing to make hard choices, be honest, demonstrate concern for those who are suffering, and who don’t lust for power for its own sake. we’ve got plenty of the other kind.

    there are many reasons why we don’t have the former in leadership positions, however. one is that they are killed or taken out of the pathway to real power by the evil kind. jailing an entire generation of black and brown men, saddling a middle class youth group with impossible amounts of debt for college, destroying union power and forcing the working class to work three jobs just to survive, co-opting upper class potential leaders in useless Village games until they become so warped by those values they’ve lost sight of their potential as leaders for good. etc. the evil powers in this country learned their lessons from the 60s and 70s. that’s why there is no draft, and most taxation we pay is in the form of giving over most of our money to corporations in the form of rents. it’s why TV and the internet are they way they are, and getting more evil all the time.

    but struggling against great wealth and power has always been hard, and people like Gandhi shame lazy Westerners complaining about our lack of leaders. you are the leader, Ian. you are too, fellow readers, just as i am and is everyone else who ponders this question. as i like to soapbox: turn off your TV, forget about the bestselling book about an inspirational leader of the past. why? because they warp your sense of “how to be a successful leader in the fight against evil.” a 3 hr movie or 1000 page book distort the perception of just how fucking long it usually takes to achieve… anything meaningful. normally, evil is overcome by a long, difficult process filled with painful experiences and many losses and failures and usually even then only corrects the damage evil has caused partially and with disappointing shortcomings when compared to initial goals.

    real leadership recognizes first and foremost: in the cause of good, people who fight will lose, and lose, and lose again. and lose after that. and maybe luck out and fight to a draw, only to be forced to run away and lose again after that. the best part? you win, sometimes. and sometimes it’s that Moses thing- you can fight your whole life and never win, and die in doubt that your cause will ever be successful. if you’re lucky, though, your grandchildren’s children will be making movies and founding religions on your example.

    what is leadership? convincing people that such a progression is normal, expected, and unavoidable, but that they should keep on fighting anyway. does it help to be popular as well, in that role? of course. but it also helps to be pretty, or tall, or good with smack talk and sex jokes. or just really good at counting guns on both sides and knowing how many people on each know how to use them.

    shorter me: we, and most certainly include myself, need to stop wondering and lamenting the lack of good leaders, and be that. it’s hard, and the years it takes to effect change will be difficult and ugly. or, we could just all give up now, put on the collar, take another happy pill and turn on the palin spawn on that dancing show and wait until they come to take us away to a camp. your choice.

  7. my apologies, Ian. i should’ve made that a blog post and not hogged so much space here.

  8. b.

    “give them credit, see the best in them, not the worst, and they will march into the gates of hell, no for you, but with you.”

    And they’ll be dragging me every single step along the way. I am tired of “positive thinking” – maybe we could find agreement on a better destination first?

    Let’s see how the “We Touch Our Junk” day goes. There will be a lot of marching into the gates of scanning, a lot of togetherness – I am sure we will look back and say “this was the day everything changed”.

    Nothing’s as real as reality. There’s 30+ years of recent history of “past performance predicting future results” what The People are capable of – aside from being sick of negativity. Sometimes, it just happens to be Rome – or Easter Islands.

  9. b.

    There is no lack of leaders. This is not a Need Messiah situation. What is missing is A People that can bring themselves to pay attention, get some rage on, stop trying to game the house and pull their collective heads out of their collective arses.

    There is no conspiracy. It is still, corrupt or not, a republic, with a Bill of Rights that is not yet a bill of goods. You do democracy with The People you have, not The People you wish for – and you are represented by the leaders you choose. Don’t like the candidates? Do not vote for them. Always vote, never vote for an incumbent, never vote for lesser evils, and if there is no candidate you like, block the election. It is your duty as a citizen to express your will, not to obediently choose from the menu.

    A few weeks back there was a comment link to a discussion about girl scout values, and girl scout perception of what “leadership” has become. As a society, you self-select. If you insist on rewarding frauds and criminals, frauds and criminals will be all you get.

  10. Who knew? Leadership requires empathy:

    Live with them, for them, include them in the dream, give them credit, see the best in them, not the worst, and they will march into the gates of hell, no for you, but with you.

    “Vision” is a part of that and not, I would argue, even the largest part (since that way lies fuhrerprinzip, no?) Oddly, or not, empathy is not the first concern of our ruling elites….

  11. CMike

    Live with them, for them, include them in the dream, give them credit, see the best in them, not the worst, and they will march into the gates of hell, [not] for you, but with you.

  12. beowulf

    Great post Ian.

    You reminded me of something I read recently in a book about FDR’s funeral.

    Labor Secretary Frances Perkins would remember for years the young soldier who’d returned her knowing look with a sigh as he stood by the White House’s iron fence, staring through the bars in a protracted gaze. “I felt as if I knew him,” the soldier told her. “I felt as if he knew me — and I felt as if he liked me.”

    Who in this country (except for maybe Robert Rubin) would say the same about our current President?

  13. I agree with Jcapan’s second post, but not his first or third–those are way off.

    On a serious note, though, here’s an update for the Primary Obama Movement:

  14. jcapan

    “I agree with Jcapan’s second post, but not his first or third–those are way off.”

    Yes, I struggle with message consistency, contradicting myself from one comment to the next. Probably wasn’t worth throwing up the first time, let alone the iterations.

    Thanks for the link BTW. I’m willing myself to know hope.

  15. Ian Welsh

    I should be explicit, these are the things which have worked for me when I have lead people. I’ve never lead large numbers of people, only teams, but a lot of this stuff does appear to scale up.

  16. Ian Welsh

    Thanks CMike.

  17. jcapan

    Ian, thanks for the deletion.

  18. I think Chicago Dyke has many good points. (I usually do.) But still, I think that even evil leaders invite their followers into a vision – and, they put their vision in positive terms. Think of dictators throughout history, even those who have presided over horrific slaughters like the Holocaust or the purges in Russia under Stalin. They succeeded in warping people to do their evil bidding because enough people had bought into their vision for a better country, a better life, a better self.

    I recently attended a presentation given by an entrepreneur who is worth billions of dollars. Among other things, he stated that 95% of the time, when a person leaves a job, it’s because of bad management (aka, leadership). A successful company, he said, is all about the team and the manager.

    I believe a successful country is the same way. Yes, we need to be the change, so to speak, but we also need a good leader to focus our energies in a shared vision.

  19. Ian Welsh

    You can be a bastard and lead: up to a point. The key is the high expectations. High expectations are a compliment, and people feel great when they meet them.

    My father was like that. His weakness as a leader, and he told me this explicitly, was that while he could make a man feel lower than a worm (you average sergeant had nothing on my father) as he himself admitted, he couldn’t lift them back up very well.

  20. Let’s see how the “We Touch Our Junk” day goes

    complete failure. at least, according to the NPR report i heard today.

    people are mostly sheeple. i’m sorry to use that formulation after years of refraining, but it’s true and right now i’m tired of pretending it’s not. i’m sorry to say this to you, b, because i like a lot of what you post. but you’re wrong. if the human race didn’t need and require leadership, we’d all be living like bonobos right now, in peaceful cooperative harmony with the environment. but we aren’t, are we? and the times when some of us do? that’s thanks to leaders. strong, effective, intelligent leaders willing to do the hard work of leadership.

    i am an atheist and so i don’t like the “messiah” formulation. still- sometimes, that’s exactly what is needed. like now, when it seems that we’re moving back towards global neofeudalism. i dunno, maybe that is inevitable. maybe the experiment with representative democracy is over and we won’t have such again for many generations. i’m enough of an historian to admit that’s a strong possibility. but i like to be hopeful, and to believe that there’s just enough civilization in the world to produce some people who are willing to fight for what is right, and do so right now.

    but i think you should rethink your study of mass psychology. most people? waiting, hoping, and even begging… to be led.

  21. I had a few excellent teachers during K-12. At least, I considered them excellent educators. Mr. Peper, Mrs. Adams and Mr. Fazio come to mind. They thought I would manage to be something too. Little did they – or I – know that I would become a disillusioned, bitter law school graduate.

    Once, I was bored and decided to Google several of the other highly intelligent kids I went to school with – from kindergarten to high school. Out of all those, the most successful one is now a single mother and toiletlawyer. A few became cops. (At least, they avoided large amounts of NON-DISCHARGEABLE student debt.)

    Lastly, in “Higher Education?,” the authors randomly pick out one graduating class from Princeton University – a self-proclaimed institution that produces “leaders.” For that particular year’s graduating class, there were no “world-beaters.” Many went on to have solid careers, but no one the authors could identify as a true leader in any field. We should keep in mind that this was Princeton.

  22. lisadawn82

    I’ve got 20 in the Navy and you hit all of the best points about leadership I think. There are many different leadership styles that work for many different types of people but the best ones have always been inclusion and good communication. You can intimidate people up to a point and putting people on report is an admin decision not leadership. It tells others up the chain of command that you can’t handle problems.

  23. S Brennan

    Here’s a dude who’s on top, but not afraid of falling off…imagine…a guy who believes enough in himself to call a shot…and make the ball drop:

    Whatever else leaders are, they are not the type of folks that drop their pants and bend over with lube in hand. Dems have been doing just that for decades and now the White House shelters the biggest bend-over boy we’ve ever seen.

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