Perils of Bad Followership

It seems to me so apparent that Washington is suffering from a crisis of bad followership – as opposed to bad leadership – I wonder that no one sees it as I do. (Though I do know the reason – we’re leader-centric. We’re so fixated on leaders we scarcely notice followers.)

Once again the evidence is compelling. In just the last week both Speaker of the House John Boehner and President Barack Obama have again been diminished by followers refusing to follow. The inability of the Congress and the Executive to avert the threat of the fiscal cliff in a judicious and timely manner testifies less to the weaknesses of the speaker and the president, than to the recalcitrance of legislators who simply refuse to compromise, as if compromise was weakness. It’s all about the inability of the governing class to go along to get along – to follow someone else’s lead when to follow someone else’s lead is necessary to the greater good. Put differently, what’s happened this month in DC is not so much about individual leaders falling down on the job, as it is about a political cadre that dreads following and so insists on leading or, at least, tries to.

Not incidentally, the same syndrome surfaced as soon as the president started to name his new cabinet. Two of his trial balloons were shot down with a ferocity and alacrity that threw into question the administration’s ability to manage its own affairs. Both Susan Rice and Chuck Hagel were the president’s preferences, she for Secretary of State, he for Secretary of Defense. Instead of a deliberate approval process, we had, in both cases, a bit of a fiasco, in which Rice and Hagel were hit by brickbats thrown from every direction, demeaning not only them, but the man who wanted them as members of his team.

Whether or not Rice and Hagel would have made good appointments is not here the question. Nor is whether or not it was smart for the Obama administration to float their names in such a target-rich environment. Rather what I am pointing to is the free-for- all that now passes for business as usual in Washington. When everyone wants to play the part of leader, and no one is willing to play the part of follower, the unhappy result is an unholy mess.

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