Defining Leadership

CIOs, city managers, legislators and one long-dead president struggle to answer the question: 'what makes an effective leader?'

by / November 15, 2004

Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris receives a lifetime achievement award from Center For Digital Government Executive Director Cathilea Robinett at Re:Public III in Tucson.

What makes an effective leader? A diverse group of government officials -- CIOs, city managers, legislators and one long-dead president -- struggled to answer that question at re:Public III in Tucson.

In a two-day conversation that ranged from pessimistic and frustrated to optimistic and inspiring, more than 100 participants worked to define successful governance in the Information Age at the Center for Digital Government's annual leadership retreat.

Author David Osborne advanced the idea that leadership increasingly will come from the "radical center." Voters are hungry for new solutions that aren't tied to traditional conservative or liberal agendas, he said.

Osborne pointed to H. Ross Perot -- who captured nearly 20 percent of the popular vote in 1992 as a third-party presidential candidate -- and President Bill Clinton as leaders who emerged from the radical center by staking out a new political paradigm that became known as the "Third Way."

Clinton embraced free trade, engaged in microeconomic policy and promoted welfare reform. He also promoted the reinvention of government by implementing procurement reform, performance measurement and other significant changes.

The radical center's rise was derailed by several twists of fate -- Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq -- but Osborne suggested that it will reemerge.

"Voters from the radical center want new solutions -- not the traditional left or right solutions," said Osborne. "The may be a majority of the electorate, but they aren't a majority in either of the major parties."

Other participants said future leaders will depend on the same basic traits as their predecessors, including the willingness to take risks and the capacity to overcome failures.

"The true measure of anyone is how much confidence and faith they have in what they're doing, said Kip Holden, who was elected mayor-president of Baton Rouge, La., on Nov. 2.

Holden, the city's first black mayor, made two previous runs for the office before succeeding. A Democrat, Holden persevered in spite of the city's Republican voting record and polls that indicated he had little chance of winning.

"If you're truly committed, give everything you possibly can," he said. "Even if you fail, people will know you were in the arena."

Even President Theodore Roosevelt -- in this case portrayed by humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson -- added his opinion. Not surprisingly, he favored a bold approach.

"I'll work with Congress -- but I won't allow myself to be hamstrung by such weak and parochial individuals," he said. "I believe we should work within the Constitution whenever possible, but if we allow the Constitution to become a straitjacket on American life, we'll never get anywhere."

History may offer its share of outsized personalities who succeeded on sheer force of will and determination. But often, successful leadership owes more to unifying ideas than individual leaders, some contended.

"People don't really follow leaders, they follow a focusing goal that's promoted by a leader," said Rick Wilson, cofounder of the Leaders of the New Century Project, which interviewed more than 200 leaders, ranging from Fortune 100 CEOs, to top-performing athletes, to Hollywood stars.

"When you have these focusing goals, your group aligns and partisanship melts away," he said, which tends to eliminate minor problems that can accumulate to ruin an organization. "Most organizations die a death of a thousand cuts."