BLG Leadership Insights

When Backing Off is a Sign of Leadership

Leaders, when trying to fulfill their sense of mandate, obviously need to have their people in places throughout an organization. They need to have a sense that individuals in positions of power, who are accountable to them, will see the world in the exact image that they see the world.  For presidential administrations, this seems to be a primary litmus test.  Consistently, they demand, be it the position of Attorney General, judgeships, or the UN, that appointees represent not only the ideology but also the interests of the administration.

Often, corporate leaders in America do the same thing.  Consistently, CEOs put in place individuals who will execute policies and stay in tune directly with the CEO.  In making such appointments, often leaders go a step too far and in the process of trying to push their candidate, they lose political capital.

First, that while it is essential for them to have their people in administrative control, they have to keep in mind that if they go too far they will bring under suspicion the very process of appointment that gives their nominee legitimacy.  In pushing for their appointees, leaders often forget that in a collective setting, whether corporations or governments, while they have the authority to make the appointment, the process is informally one of advise and consent.  By seeking the consent of others, leaders can hope to enhance the legitimacy of their appointee, and as such, enhance their own base of power.  The process of appointment in the hands of wise leaders becomes a process by which they expand their coalition of governance.

The inevitable question that must be raised is when should a leader back down from an appointment?  First, only strong leaders are the ones most likely to back down from the appointment.  Indeed, the message of stepping back is one of strength, not of weakness. Leaders should keep in mind that backing down from an appointment; they re-affirm the appointment process and enhance their coalition base.  What they gain is not a weakened position, but a collection of IOUs and public recognition for their sense that governance can only occur from consent of those governed.  They get people on their side and they expand their political capital rather than expend it.

It seems that leaders have less problem backing off before the nomination than before the nomination.  Afterwards, they get into a pit bull mentality, leading more with their ego than with their sense of strategy.