To all appearances, the happiest man in America last week was John Boehner, who announced his resignation both as Speaker and as a member of Congress with evident relief – even glee.
With a zip in his step and a song on his lips – “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah, Zip-A-Dee-A” – Boehner gave every indication that he was more than “entirely comfortable” with stepping down. He was thrilled! Which raises the question of why. Why was Boehner that happy to be quitting a post that he had sought and then fought to keep, one to which he had aspired life-long?
John Boehner happens to be a poster-child for my claim that looking at leadership through the lens of the leader is misguided to the point of mistaken. If your intention is to look at leadership carefully and comprehensively a different approach is called for – a systemic approach. Do not, in other words, think leadership. Do think leadership system! The leadership system is not complex. It has only three parts – each of which is, though, of equal importance. The leader is no more critical a component than the other two: the followers (or others), and the contexts within which both leaders and followers are situated.
As will be seen in the following excerpt, I used John Boehner to illustrate the systemic approach in my most recent book, Hard Times: Leadership in America. The book was published in fall 2014. Of course I could not know then what I know now: that by fall 2015 Boehner would be fed up being a victim of the system.
“The so-called crisis of American leadership is much less about leaders themselves and much more about the complex context within which they are expected to operate. Let me give an example – John Boehner. Boehner, a Republican, became speaker of the House of Representatives in January 2011. Beginning on day one he found it difficult to do what he was elected and expected to do – to lead. He found it difficult if not impossible to collaborate with both the Senate and the President. More to the point, he found it difficult if not impossible to lead even House Republicans, his own putative followers in his own chamber.
Was this because Boehner was himself so woefully inept, so utterly clueless that he lacked the capacity to get his House in order? …. Or was there another reason? Was it due instead, or at least in addition, to the circumstance within which Boehner found himself? Was it due instead, or at least in addition, to Washington’s inordinately discordant political culture?
…Right around the time he was elected speaker the context changed. The emergence of the Tea Party, seemingly out of nowhere, altered the Republican Party in ways that Boehner was not prepared for or equipped to contend with….By 2010 Washington had changed and the House had changed right along with it.”