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John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online. His most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.
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Resistance is not futile

Question: As the Senate’s “Gang of Six” struggle to come to agreement on a bipartisan budget plan, they are under intense social pressure from their caucus colleagues to abandon the effort and stick with the party line. In a clubby place like the Senate, social ostracism can be a real concern. From your experience, what role does social pressure on leaders play in their decision-making and how should leaders deal with it?

Leaders prove their mettle when the headwinds are against them, not behind them.

Social pressure is one such headwind, and while it can focus a leader’s attention on what the group wants, it can also prevent the leader from doing what is necessary in favor of what is expedient.

When it comes to elected office, leaders tread a line between representing their constituency and standing up for what they believe is right. This was the dilemma facing Senator Edmund G. Ross of Kansas whose Republican Party wanted to oust Andrew Johnson from office in 1867. No fan of Johnson, Ross understood that the trial was about politics rather than crimes, and so he bucked his party and voted not to convict. The example shown by Ross, whose vote cost him reelection, 90 years later prompted John F. Kennedy to include him in Profiles in Courage.

Ross followed concepts put forth by 18th century statesman-philosopher Edmund Burke. It was Burke who made a case for politicians exercising individual conscience. As a member of Parliament, Burke supported the rights of the American colonies in opposition to George III.

Standing up for what you believe is right is not reserved for politics. How often do we see executives put corporate interests ahead of customer or shareholder interests? For example, medical-device companies have come under fire in recent years for promoting products that management knew jeopardized the health of patients. And last year Toyota was forced to recall millions of its vehicles over safety concerns.

Sometimes we have only ourselves to blame. We may fail to stick up for a colleague who gets into hot water because some senior executive wrongly singles him out for blame.  Keeping quiet may be politically expedient, but it does not say much for our character.

Yet we expect such righteousness in our leaders. While they are subject to human frailties, the good ones make more good calls than bad. When they make a mistake, they admit it and seek to make amends. Standing tall against the forces that push you down is not easy, but it is what leaders do.

Leaders create their own legacy. When defining that legacy, one question should arise: Did you leave the place in better shape than you found it?

How a leader answers that question says much about his or her ability to be responsible and accept consequences. One who takes ownership of the tough issues is much preferred to one who avoids them.

View all panel responses to the discussion Under pressure?

John Baldoni  | Apr 26, 2011 11:56 AM

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