Who Should Lead?

What should we look for when we choose a leader?

The very person in your small town who really wants to be the cop is probably the one individual you wouldn’t want in that position.

My first job, at age 12, was to let Volney Farr’s cows out to pasture before I left for school. It was well after their morning milking, which started at 4:30 a.m. After school, I’d open the pasture gate to let them in again. My only real responsibilities were to count them on their return, to ensure that all the gates were properly closed behind them, to count them again and secure them in their stanchions.

Mr. Farr explained to me that I was not their leader; “Irma” was. I should do only what I was told. Irma, a Jersey, would do the rest.

“How did Irma become the leader?” I once asked Mr. Farr.

“She just did. The other girls chose her I s’pect,” he answered, “They do that, don’cha know.”

Irma did indeed lead the “girls” out of the barn and to the pasture, where, under her watchful eye, they dispersed to browse and chew their cud. In the evening as I opened the gates, everyone followed Irma back into the barn and then went by themselves to their particular oak stanchion. Irma would nudge cows that dawdled or got distracted, and they would follow her. I carried Mr. Farr’s big oak cattleman’s stick to give myself the illusion of a role in this daily ritual.

This somewhat Orwellian bovine allegory got me thinking the other day as I sat in front of the Trinitron watching the accelerating blitz of mostly misfiring campaign ads for the upcoming primary. How do people get to be leaders? What is it in their character that makes them suitable to lead us? What made Irma the leader? She didn’t appear to seek out her head-honcho role.

Unlike cows, people do aspire to move to the head of the herd — and for many reasons, few of which derive, unfortunately, from any intrinsic leadership qualities. The very person in your small town who really wants to be the cop is probably the one individual you wouldn’t want in that position. A party press gang may commandeer a faithful lieutenant they deem electable, regardless of the person’s desire or ability to lead. Or worse, a crusader, convinced of his or her righteousness on a single cause, may rush hell-bent into the political arena seeking a key role in order to force the issue on the general electorate. Some candidates may just need a job to augment a poorly performing trust fund. Neither missionary zeal, narcissism nor financial need is justifiable motivation.

The leaders we want have passion, but not just for one issue. They are agile in their thinking, learn from experience, listen carefully and use their leadership authority with humility. They seek and tell the truth, and have an innate ethical sense but will not constrict a diverse society by the statutes of their own religious beliefs. That is to say they can differentiate between principle and practice. They respect the variety of philosophy and religion, the imperfection of intellect and spirit.

The leaders we don’t want have a pre-set agenda, know what they want, listen little or not at all to thoughtful advice and comment, exude authority and moral arrogance, focus on getting what they want by political chicanery, and are intellectually sloppy. Learning from others about an issue only muddles their thinking on the subject, so they avoid it. We have only to look at the current administration in Washington to see this failure of leadership style.

More than ever, we need leaders who eschew ideology, demagoguery and the easily packaged sound-bite that polarizes; who are not afraid to wade into the murky “middle way;” who see compromise as a virtue rather than a retreat; who are always listening and admit to the possibility of their own error; who say “we” rather than “they;” who embrace informed risk because they care more about those they serve than their own tenure, and thus are not paralyzed by the thought of political consequence.

Vermont has had a panoply of such leaders — think George Aiken, Dean Davis, Ralph Flanders, Madeleine Kunin, Dick Snelling and Howard Dean. And it still does today. As the dominant political parties wrestle with self-image problems and seem unable to rally around any uniform vision for society or a plan to achieve it, Vermonters luckily persist in electing people, not parties. Remember when Vermonters chose Reagan, Kunin and Sanders?

Irma didn’t have to run for office — let alone stand for election every two years, as is tradition in Vermont’s statewide offices. We adhere to a biennial election calendar that others have long since abandoned and that relentlessly compromises the people we elect. Races come around so fast in the Green Mountains that it presents a major stumbling block to good leadership.

We seem to enjoy being different, even when it is wasteful and impractical. The two-year election cycle leaves too little time for political courage and execution, and demands too much time for posturing and electioneering.

Would a good candidate for an executive position in a billion-dollar enterprise wrestling with constant societal and economic change agree to take the job with a two-year employment agreement? What leader can function knowing that he or she will have to spend the last quarter of his or her tenure lobbying for the next two-year employment agreement? And why wouldn’t a leader avoid any substantive and badly needed reform that would generate pain or controversy if they knew it might endanger their continued tenure?

Is an office-holder with a 24-month mandate really going to take on transformative change — forge a strategic tax policy that rewards citizen and corporate behaviors beneficial to Vermont, simplify the educational governance problem, develop a coherent energy policy, or understand and adapt to shifts in the agricultural landscape and marketplace if the consequence of such an initiative means they will be threatened by opponents before they have a chance to complete the task?

One bit of good news: Vermonters vote in greater numbers than their counterparts in other states. But simply showing up at the polls isn’t enough. We are very adept at criticizing and back-benching our leaders and their difficult choices. We’re less committed to choosing them carefully in the first place. We must invest the necessary time to think about issues and positions and the caliber of the individuals we’re electing, for both national and state leadership roles. Politics alone will get us nowhere, slowly.

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