In the days since the horrific shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., over and over again we have heard a call for one thing: leadership.
And almost universally, those asking for it want the president to answer that call. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg told Meet the Press that “it’s time for the president, I think, to stand up and lead and tell this country what we should do.” Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) has threatened to “embarrass” the president if the White House does not act on gun control following the shooting. Even Rupert Murdoch got in on the act, tweeting Sunday evening after the president’s remarks in Newtown: “Nice words from POTUS on shooting tragedy, but how about some bold leadership action?”
Yet what exactly does leadership look like in a moment this burdened by indescribable tragedy?
Is it immediately offering prescriptive legislation the next day? Is it “telling this country what we should do,” as Bloomberg describes, thrusting oneself into the middle of what is sure to be a contentious debate? Is it taking “bold leadership action” by announcing policy specifics at a memorial service for the deaths of 27 people, 20 of them young children?
It’s not as clear cut as it may seem. Yes, it’s true that the massacre in Newtown is a galvanizing moment, perhaps even a tipping point that will bring about more regulations on gun control in this nation, from banning assault weapons to more rigorous background checks for gun purchasers. I, like many, have been frustrated by the lack of progress on gun control during the president’s first term, and want more from the president than words of consolation. But demanding that specific policy ideas and a push for action must come from the president’s lips—and immediately—is also a little naïve.
For one, it implies that change on a topic this complex will come from a single all-powerful leader inside the political establishment. But this is not the world we live in anymore, whether in our organizations or our politics. Command-and-control, hierarchical leadership is quickly being replaced by a collaborative, distributed style of leadership that empowers the people to prompt change rather than the figure at the very top. Some of the most powerful political forces taking place today—witness the tea party, for instance—come from outside the system, rather than within it.
Secondly, if President Obama’s first term taught us anything (remember the debt ceiling debate?) it’s that partisanship is so out of control that even a whiff of support from Obama can slow progress. It’s sad, but true: Republicans have repeatedly criticized the president for not “leading” on an issue in order to force him into taking a stand. Then once he does, they do everything in their power to defeat it simply because his name is attached to it.
I don’t know what the right answer is. On the one hand, the president simply cannot sit back and give thoughtful speeches and call rhetorically for “meaningful action.” The overtures he made during Sunday night’s speech imply he will not—Obama said “no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction.” And yet, no matter what kind of political mandate he may have following the election or how little he may have to lose as a second-term president, he must also tread carefully and remain aware that his involvement has the potential to slow progress.
“Leadership” is not easily defined and, especially today, is not a lone pursuit. At moments as heartbreaking as these, what matters most is that changes are made, and that tragedies as unbearable as these do not happen again. The best leaders are focused on getting results, no matter who gets the credit or how they occur. That may indeed mean bold action from the front. But it can also mean carefully empowering and supporting other people who have the best chance at making change happen.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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