Friday, August 30, 2013

Political Rhetoric in the Real World

"Does a politician create his or her leadership principles before or after they are elected?"

This was a question posed to me after a leadership development speech that I gave to a group of aspiring political leaders. I loved the question because it was so honest and telling of the obvious dilemma that every political leader faces.

Do I say what the people want to hear so I sound like the leader they want in order to be elected?


Do I tell them who I really am and what I will really do in each situation and risk taking a huge chance on not being elected?

I responded, "It depends on your priorities. You must determine whether your goal is to simply get elected or to be authentic and serve those you lead with transparency."

The debate on my comment was quite lively and confused many of the aspiring leaders. I wasn't invited back the next year because my questions threw the group into such a thinking swirl that it took weeks for the facilitators to get them back on track of how political leaders should act in real life. The facilitators needed the class to understand that rhetoric is what wins elections and you can't be a political leader unless you get elected. Political leadership is power and real politics is compromise.

This is a very real and very hard message for young leaders to understand. Principles guide the leader but the situation will ultimately determine your course of action no matter who you want to be. It's a lot like the old saying, “Change your position and change your prospective.”

President Obama finds himself in this position today.

As a candidate he had all the answers about United States roles as "citizen of the world" and was a vocal critic of unilateral military action. Now he faces the consequences of his own rhetoric. He has drawn the proverbial line in the sand with Syria over the use of chemical weapons though the conflict has killed over one hundred thousand people and forced the displacement of even more Syrians from both sides.

Who decides the rules of war? Who decides what is humane killing? If the Syrian civil war was important to the President and American interests then it should have been important before the use of chemical weapons. Obama’s "red line declaration" was pure political rhetoric and now his words have a leadership consequence.

The President is in a real pickle today. He had all the answers when he was a rising star and he still is a wonderful rhetorician. But leadership reality is not simply black or white despite American’s affinity for clear heroes and villains. Americans don't like gray areas or complicated relationships.

Geo-political leadership is ever changing and never what it appears to be. Allies all have their own agendas and priorities. This is a lesson that all Presidents learn once they figure out what kind of leader they will be upon their election into office. It will be interesting to see how President Obama acts now that he is faced with the leadership challenge he once accused President Bush of creating.

By Mike Nally

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