What kind of leadership produces meaningful change?

Certainly, the complex mix of circumstance, timing, cultural norms, and the nature of the issue impacts how one answers this question.  That said, given my work at Teach For America and my role as interested observer in the health-care debate, I have been intensely pondering the concept of effective leadership for the past several months.

There seems to be a gamut with “firebrand” and “conciliator” forming the poles.

The case for and against firebrand

History is replete with heroes who buck popularity and forge a new path. If defined by a phrase, the firebrands, “Give em hell.”  This kind of leadership is powerful because it (1.) Marshals moral outrage against the status quo – think of the myriad reforms introduced across the country because of Upton Sinclair’s “Jungle” and (2.) Amplifies and exposes issues that have not been fully absorbed by the nation’s consciousness – think of the overly burdensome process administrators go through to remove ineffective or abusive teachers.

On the other hand, a firebrand is limited by what I might call the 25-50-25 rule – on most issues there is a committed 25% for and against with 50% on some spectrum in between.  Firebrands have passion and moral conviction but also the rather high potential to turn people off because of heated rhetoric and a combative style.

Michelle Rhee is a case in point.  In her tenure as Washington D.C. Schools Chancellor, she has fostered a culture of accountability, supported charter schools, and been a champion of pay-for-performance.  Furthermore, D.C. Public Schools have seen a significant increase in student achievement under her leadership.  Despite intense political pressure, Chancellor Rhee has proven to be a champion of meaningful reform and a highly effective leader.

Unfortunately, despite Chancellor Rhee’s success and extreme popularity among the 25% die-hard education reformers, she has been unsuccessful securing a new contract with the AFT (with whom she has been in negotiations with for close to two years.  Many would argue that Chancellor Rhee’s style and rhetoric have forced the AFT into a position where they cannot be perceived to back down, thereby lengthening negotiations and hardening positions.

The case for and against conciliator

History has also given us examples of people who build bridges and happily take half a loaf, realizing that the arc of history is long and that a partial victory today creates the condition for total victory over the long-haul.  If defined by a phrase, our conciliators, “give and take.”  This kind of leadership can be powerful because it (1.) Creates allies – think of Ted Kennedy and Orin Hatch coming together to create the State’s Children Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) and (2.) makes one seem like an honest broker – think of Mayor AC Wharton’s landslide victory in our recent mayoral election.  Many Memphians voted for Mayor Wharton because he comes off as practical and honest.


On the other hand, a conciliator is not immune to human nature; though perhaps more likely to win the 25-50-25, the conciliator may fall in love with popularity for its own sake.  Furthermore, when strong interests are engaged, a conciliator becomes an easy mark.

President Obama provides a case in point.  After eight contentious years under President Bush, many Americans were deeply moved by candidate Obama’s call for unity.  Voters sensed that Barack Obama’s equanimity on the campaign trail would translate into a more functional political process in our nation’s capital.  The result of Senator Obama’s message of bi-partisanship was a stunning and historic political victory in the 2008 presidential election.

Unfortunately, on health care reform, this hope has been a chimera.  Most political observers could have predicted that our President was unlikely to get many Republican votes on a health care package and yet he wasted time, effort, and political capital in attempting to do so.  Furthermore, his decision to allow Congress to take the lead crafting a package resulted in a bill of Frankenstein-like proportions that scared many of the middle 50% and has since been gutted of most meaningful cost-cutting measures.

Can anyone win?

Yes.  It is clear that on any number of issues different people play different roles.  Our firebrands and conciliators often complement one another in a delicate dance.  Secretary Clinton’s remark in the Democratic primary about the necessity of LBJ offended many and came off as diminishing the role of Dr. King.  The truth is neither could have passed civil rights legislation without the other.  Dr. King’s uncompromising moral voice shocked the conscience of Americans and stiffened the spine of President Johnson who rightly predicted the South’s turn away from the Democratic Party – and yet, Dr. King needed a President willing to sacrifice political expediency for the larger spiritual goal of equality.

In our debates over health and education reform, however, I am slowly becoming convinced that our firebrands are required.  Governor Bredesen recently accomplished in a week what education reformers have been fighting for for decades – simply because he shot for the moon.  On health care reform, the unconscionable practice of eliminating from the rolls people (including children) with pre-existing conditions or serious medical issues strikes me as indicative of a callousness that borders on the inhumane.

As Voltaire Cousteau could have told us, the nature of the opposition demands a certain kind of response.  In other words, when one swims with sharks, one must be bold.