As I write this the conservative media are pushing the meme “he leads from behind” as a negative characterization of President Obama. Our culture glorifies the archetype of the super-hero who takes a bold stand, often alone, defying all odds and plunging into the fray with adrenaline pumping and guns blazing. If that hero actually leads any followers, he does so by heroic example and they follow at great personal peril.
In the real world, the best leaders inspire followers as a group with a vision of possibilities that are larger than the leader himself. This sort of humble leadership was manifested by Gandhi, Christ, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa, to name a few who changed their world and whose influence has far outlived them.
It is symbolic of our cultural sickness that we want our leaders to be comic book heroes. Yet corporate boards seldom look for charismatic and recklessly bold Rambo-like CEO’s. The skills that are valued to win in business are vision, ability to attract and manage talented colleagues who are both autonomous self-starters and also creative team players.
People who look critically at the last six years are seeing that Obama has some major accomplishments despite the challenges. His team saved our floundering banks and auto industry from complete collapse, reduced the Federal deficit, restored employment, made health insurance affordable for 16 million uninsured Americans, and more. The US dollar is now so strong that it’s now a problem for our balance of trade. The conservative-governed European countries have not fared so well with their more austere policies.
In the first years of the Obama presidency many of us wished he would give up on his pledge to seek unity by negotiation and accommodation with his adversaries. It was and is hopeless to do so when those adversaries only want to destroy you so that come election time their party can have a better shot at defeating your party. (Did they fear political survival if he should become a latter-day FDR?)
You can’t lead from behind like Gandhi or charge ahead like a super-hero when those you wish to lead don’t share your vision or are too apathetic, cynical, and divided to get off the couch.
If our democracy under-achieves, we need only a well polished mirror to find the culprit.