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The partisan pressure cooker

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?

The following responses come from four fellows, from two different Coro 2011 Classes around the country. Emily and Ann are members of the Coro Pittsburgh class, and Amir and Matt are members of the Coro San Francisco Class. 

Grace under pressure

George Washington once said, “…be courteous to all, but intimate with few, and let [those] few be well tried before you give them your confidence”.  This quote is an important guide for how leaders should deal with social pressure in making decisions. The difficult fact is that social pressure is inevitable and leaders will face it at every turn, from the chamber of the Senate to the halls of a county jail.  What distinguishes leaders is their ability to navigate this pressure–to understand what power is being leveraged and by whom, who their allies and enemies are, who the stakeholders are, what the consequences are and, above all, where they stand on the issue at stake. True leaders are able to effectively consider and understand their environment and its players and make a decision true to their values.  They are able to stand firm against the social pressures they face and instead sway others to their position while maintaining important relationships.

I come to this opinion from two unique perspectives.  First, working on political campaigns and second working with incarcerated populations.  On political campaigns, social pressure and public opinion often have the power to drive the course of the campaign, however a strong candidate and campaign team always sorts through these various pressures, gauges their importance, understands their advocates and makes decisions that clearly represent their message and platform.  Working with incarcerated populations, I have watched individuals crumble under social pressure, often unable to make the obviously correct choice for fear of judgment or loss of authority.  These individuals often do not focus on the consequences and/or the risks of their decisions, nor do they map their environment or clearly gauge the issue at stake. Rather, they value authority, reputation and power, often forgetting to consult their few well-tried allies and their own values.  – Emily Blakemore

Great expectations

When asked what role social pressure on leaders plays in their decision making, my immediate reaction is that being a leader, especially a political leader, is almost all about managing and directing a multitude of social pressures. An elected official is chosen because enough people believe in this person’s ability to make decisions that are the best for his or her constituents. Rarely will a decision made by an elected official satisfy all social pressures. While serving, the elected official combines his or her own information with feedback received from constituents, colleagues and advisers, and then calls upon his or her ethics and ability to reason to make an inclusive, sustainable decision—a decision that will best serve the greater good rather than just a particular individual, a favored colleague or a personal incentive.

For an elected official to make a default decision along party lines contradicts the integrity and complexity of his role as a thinker—unfortunately, we have come to expect this typecasting from our polarized political parties, as indicated by “Gang of Six” member Saxby Chambliss’ statement that “for a Republican to put revenues on the table is significant. For a democrat to put entitlements on the table is significant.” Perhaps by threatening party norms, the “Gang of Six” will refocus the budget situation back toward objective decision-making and away from party labels, because as another “Gang of Six” member Mark Warner says, as with any public affairs decision, “everybody feels they’ve got some skin in the game.” -- Ann Wang

A cornerstone of our democracy

Although we normally characterize social pressure as a negative influence on decision-making, one may argue that it is the cornerstone of our democracy.  When an elected official’s constituents call his or her office and express their opposition against a certain issue, such as abortion, we might call that social pressure.  By voting against the collective wishes of one’s constituents, an elected official risks facing social ostracism, which consequently results in political risk.  If voted out of office, that elected official is unable to affect the type of change he or she hopes to see in the future.  Ultimately, social pressure is a natural characteristic of representation. 

However in many instances social pressure obstructs positive progress.  When it compels leaders to make decisions that produce significant negative consequences for the sake of avoiding social ostracism, we know that it is having a negative influence. 

The challenge for leaders is understanding how to pick one’s battles.  Continually making decisions to appease a certain social group will fail to produce good policy. Continually defying a certain social group’s concerns will rob a leader of support for future initiatives.  A leader must know when to abide by certain social expectations and when to defy them. When faced with a major decision like the budget that affects the lives of millions of people, social ostracism and potential political risk should be reasonable costs for producing a positive outcome. – Amir Badat

The guidebook

Social pressure helps ensure that political parties serve as an effective guide for how a politician will vote. It is often pressure from other elected officials, not constituents, that convinces a legislator to vote along party lines. The effectiveness of social pressure within political parties means that voters can be more confident a politician will vote in line with their general ideology, even when may not track a legislator’s every vote.

 Yet leaders must do more than acquiesce to group pressure. We ask that leaders have an understating of their own values, and a willingness to make decisions based on these values.  Deviating from the wishes of the group can carry a cost. It may diminish a leader’s standing within the group, and reduce her ability to shape how group pressure is applied in future decision-making. In order to be effective, leaders must decide how they want to balance influence in the group with an adherence to their own values. We expect politicians to clearly communicate the values that might lead them to disagree with their party so we can predict how they will represent us. – Matt Podolin

View all panel responses to the discussion Under pressure?

Coro Fellows  | Apr 29, 2011 4:13 PM

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