David Brooks on Leadership in America

My most recent book, Hard Times: Leadership in America, makes the case that context matters. That leadership cannot be understood separate and apart from the context within which it is exercised.

The interesting thing is that every now and then someone comes along who makes the case at least as well as, or maybe better than, I do. One such is David Brooks, who in a recent column in the New York Times listed some of the contextual constraints on leadership in America – specifically on political leadership at the federal level.*

His point was that times have changed – that the political climate in Washington has changed so greatly in recent decades it’s barely recognizable. Here’s how he put it:

  • It used to be that senators did not go out campaigning against one another.
  • It used to be that senators did not filibuster except in rare circumstances.
  • It used to be that senators did not routinely block presidential nominations.
  • It used to be that senators did not write letters to hostile nations while their own president was negotiating with them.
  • It used to be that presidents did not push the limits of their executive authority.
  • It used to be that presidents did not go out negotiating arms control treaties in a way that did not require Senate ratification.

It used to be, in other words, that Washington was once a kinder, gentler place within which to do the nation’s business.

Notice the total absence in this analysis of any single individual. This is not about President Barack Obama, nor for that matter is it about Senator Ted Cruz. Rather it is about how all leaders in the nation’s capital are encased in a context that to an extent they shape, but that to an even greater extent shapes them.


*David Brooks, “Hillary Clinton’s Big Test,” New York Times, March 13, 2015.


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