Skip to main content
capitol_scaffolding_014
FixGov

To Fix Government, Stop Fixating!

The midterm elections were a reminder: that Americans are fixated on leaders. Nearly without exception the results of the election were interpreted in terms of individuals—a defeat for Barack Obama, a triumph for Mitch McConnell, and an occasion on which stars were born, such as Iowa’s Joni Ernst and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker. Once again the elections were races—horse races—in which our obsession was with the horses. Everything else—such as the track on which they ran, the conditions under which the races were held, even the tens of millions choosing to stay on the sidelines—was of scant interest.

I’m a cardholding member of the leadership industry. But even I am struck by how Americans are sent a single relentless message: leaders are all-important all of the time. The problem is that this message is wrong. It’s an example of what psychologists call the “fundamental attribution error,” which consists on the one hand of an inflated belief in the importance of individuals, and on the other of a failure to recognize the importance of the situation.

Leadership in America is not only about leaders. It is also about followers—about the American people. And it is about the context within which every American necessarily is situated.

So long as this rampant personalization of American politics persists, it will preclude us from considering cures for what ails us other than the most obvious one: replacing one set of leaders with another set of leaders. This is not to say that leaders are unimportant. Rather it is to say they are part of a system in which followers and context are equally important.

What are the practical, political implications of this more holistic approach? My comments here focus on only one: consciousness raising. By this I mean coming to appreciate the part played in American politics both by ordinary people and by America itself, by the context that constitutes this particular country at this particular time.

We know that voter turnout in the recent midterms was at its lowest point in nearly three quarters of a century. (Some 36% of eligible voters failed to exercise their franchise.) We know similarly that Americans are disappointed in and disillusioned by the leadership class. But this is not only about them—about leaders. It is also about us. We the American people are more critical and recalcitrant than we used to be, and we are far quicker to express our displeasure. Moreover the context has changed—specifically the technology—in ways that now make it far easier to cut our leaders down and to do so in ways that are unremittingly, even dangerously, denigrating.

If we know all this, what do we do about it? Clearly the answers lie not only in our leaders. In fact, there is no hard evidence to suggest that today’s political leaders are any worse than yesterday’s political leaders. Instead the answers lie, in part, with us, with the American people.

How then might we get Americans of every age and station to be better citizens, to be more involved and invested in the political process? The issue is an important one. Unless steps are taken—for example classes in civics beginning at an early age—to address the alienation of the American electorate we can anticipate an even larger gap between leaders and those who are led.

Context is similarly relegated. While explanations for our political problems center on who occupies a particular political office, the real issue is often the system—say a Senate saddled by a filibuster rule—within which that office is located. In my recent book, Hard Times: Leadership in America, I identified 24 different components of the contemporary American context, each of which constitutes a constraint on leaders’ capacity to lead. Among them are politics, economics, the law, media, money, technology, class, culture, divisions and interests. Some of these contextual constraints are not amenable to change, but others are. It has been said for instance that one of the main reasons why members of Congress do not collaborate as much in the present as they did in the past is that they scarcely know each other. They typically spend a few days midweek in Washington, and then fly home to raise money, be with their families, and meet with constituents, giving them little if any time to establish friendly relationships with Congressional peers. This is a contextual, or systemic, constraint. It is also one that could be ameliorated, at least somewhat, relatively easily.

Fixating on leaders to the exclusion of nearly everyone and everything else is easy. It’s especially easy to blame leaders, a few visible individuals, for what goes wrong. But it is not a way to fix what’s broken. Only by expanding our conception of how change is created can political dysfunction be reversed.

Author

B

Barbara Kellerman

Barbara Kellerman is James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is author and editor of many books on leadership, followership, and now context.

More

Get daily updates from Brookings