Now is the time for authentic leadership.
The great irony of our current situation is that we are facing both a cliff and a standoff. Obama has won the election, through the system of the electoral college, despite the equally divided popular election. The states prevailed, ironically, over the candidate whose party argues for increased states rights. But we are all facing a looming “fiscal cliff,” with a president who must continue the struggle to bridge the Democrat-Republican face-off.
Authentic leadership is fundamentally about performing what is real to create real solutions. Obama has always been an authentic leader — which is partly why his solutions tend to be gradual. The economic recovery is slow but trackable. Significant social changes reflecting the majority of the American people are reflected on a federal level. For example, the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the administrative support for gay rights reflects the gradual ratification of gay marriage rights state by state.
Democratic leadership in the White House reflects what’s real in our country. Authentic leadership, as we usually talk about it, reflects the character of a leader, and that character inspires others to model similar positive values and policies. In some ways, that is true about Obama, despite the country’s polarization. But authentic leaders also authentically mirror the qualities of their followers. In this sense, Obama is doubly authentic, because he has stood firmly in the storm of debate for fundamental progressive values.
This is a time of duelling authenticities; intense social change creates polarization and identity crisis as well as struggles over policy.
Obama faces a difficult task in his second term, and it’s one that only an authentic leader can accomplish. In the US, where the measure of what is real is about who we are, the evolution of identity through social change is as much about the evolution of cultural authenticities as economic or political shifts.
No doubt, Romney’s business acumen has demonstrated political clout, and business solutions bring economic solutions to benefit the business of government. I hope Obama honors his commitment to talk with Romney and other businessmen and women who can offer those solutions and help strengthen our bridge into stronger recovery. But business acumen doesn’t offer enough leadership authenticity to create sustainable solutions in our current crisis.
Authentic business leadership is ultimately enslaved by numbers. Granted, employees tend to benefit more from an authentic business leader than accountant-style leaders or self-interested entrepreneurs. In government, authentic business leaders need to be respected consultants, not the ultimate decision makers, especially in times like these, where the bottom line is our identity as a nation, and our individual rights and responsibilities.
What should Obama do now?
Obama is holding a space for change, while he does his best to promote a healthy shift in fiscal and social policies. It is his authenticity as a leader that protects all of us from shutting down the possibility of change, so he must continue to hold that authentic space.
This charge is one of the most difficult possible for a president, because he is being pushed and pulled by opposing forces. Lincoln had to hold this same space during the Civil War. Roosevelt had to hold it during the Great Depression. Kennedy, then Johnson held it throughout the struggle for Civil Rights. The polarization, arguments, fear, debates, attacks, and painful confrontations took different forms in each example, but the fundamental task for authenticity remains the same: holding an authentic space to mirror the struggle in a real way, not in the imaginary, self-protective terms from the extremes of both sides.
From this space, Obama’s actions and policies will inevitably fall short in the eyes of citizens at either extreme position. We want comfort and/or we want transformation, and we want it now! It is a difficult time, and it remains to be seen what he can accomplish.
I expect the bridge between polarized positions will be a bit fragile, but more and more functional as both sides see the necessity of collaboration. The authentic space Obama holds will make that collaboration easier, and will likely produce centrist solutions.
Authenticity in itself is not necessarily a centrist space or identity in a leader. Authenticity can be radical, as in the case of Martin Luther King. It can also be conservative, as reflected in Billy Graham’s career. In fact, authentic leaders who lead from integrated political-social-personal identities tend to stand apart from mainstream culture. In the case of Obama and our conflicted, transforming identities, he seems to be called to hold the contested center, which may be the first and best step towards healthy change.