Something I have found to be a fascinating discussion in politics is the tension between representing the wishes of your constituents and taking moral stands to lead your constituents. A criticism I often heard about Bill Clinton was that he followed the polls too much, that he didn’t take a principled stand, but instead determined what people wanted and did that. Something we used to joke about when I was an executive was figuring out where everyone was headed, then getting out in front. There’s a case to be made for both approaches in government, and leadership in general.
What it boils down to is this: whom does the leader represent? Herself? Her supporters? An idea?
When I was in corporate, our annual goals were based 50% on shareholder contribution, 25% on employee (for leaders), and 25% on customers; for those who didn’t manage direct reports, the mix was 50/50. That mix reflects this tension between the interests of these various groups. If you have too much focus on one constituency, you lack the balance needed to be an effective leader, and you subordinate the needs of some to the interests of others. Here are some ways that lack of balance could play out in a business setting:
- Shareholder: The goal would be to maximize profit and make more money, but without any balance toward customers and employees, profit could be achieved through swindling customers and exploiting workers.
- Customer: Many like to say the customer is king, but without any shareholder or employee focus, you can end up turning your business into a charity, an unprofitable endeavor only designed to serve the increasing demands of customers without regard to profit or the personal sacrifices of employees. For example, we had a franchise owner in our small business who had previously been a barista. When customers were angry, he would give them a free coffee for their trouble. Due to the low cost of a coffee, he was pretty free with giving them out. When he used this same approach as someone owning a cleaning business, he was the one getting taken to the cleaners. He was giving out free cleans like free coffees, to appease anyone who was ever upset about anything! Unfortunately, a free house cleaning was usually worth $150 or more, but a free coffee was only worth $5. To make up for all the free work he was doing, he started taking weekend work and working later and later every day. Eventually, he and his partner were exhausted, and he eventually abandoned his business. It’s a cautionary tale.
- Employee: If a leader is too far focused on employees, they may skew towards tanking profits to meet employee needs or “firing” unpleasant yet profitable customers. An example of this approach is another franchise owner we worked with several years ago. She had hired her mother as her employee, and her mother demanded to be paid the same flat weekly rate, regardless of how much work they did, or she said she would quit and work somewhere else. Unfortunately, she also kept coming up with reasons they couldn’t take jobs, and ultimately, she was paying her mother more than her business was making. Another cautionary tale.
Striking a balance keeps everyone slightly dissatisfied, but also satisfied enough that the corporation can succeed over the long term in a sustainable tension. If your employees hate you, they will leave for a company they like better. If your customers hate you, there goes the money (I haven’t yet found a better source of money in running a business). If your shareholders aren’t happy, you’re probably running your business into the ground financially. None of these myopic approaches is sustainable.
Let’s switch to a religious example for a quick minute. In the book of Exodus, Moses heads to Mount Sinai to talk with a bush, leaving his brother Aaron in charge. Maybe if he had left Miriam in charge, outcomes would have been different. The Israelites are impatient and unruly, and Aaron is barely hanging on in his brother’s absence. As a leader, he shifts his focus to be all about what the people want. They think Moses has abandoned them, and they want a unifying god to worship. Moses has taken too long, and their faith in his vision for Israel has waned. They think back to all they had known before this prolonged camping trip, their time as slaves in Egypt, and they want the comfort of an idol to worship; they wanted what was familiar. Aaron responded to their demands by making a golden calf from their donated jewelry (there’s always a price tag!). Rather than staying on brand with the corporate message he had from Moses, Aaron caved to the demands of the “employees/customers” who are the Israelites. The mob is whipped up into a big rally, celebrating their new god (that they literally made). They don’t care that it’s something of their own invention. Aaron has given them what they said they wanted. He knows it’s all bullshit, but he also knows that they will rally around it which keeps them under control. But were they really under control, or was he under their control? Wouldn’t they have just as easily turned on him if he quit doing what they wanted?
At this point, Moses returned, and his focus was purely top down, having talked to God. He’s not interested in what the faithless Israelites want or think, and unlike Aaron, he’s not fomenting grass roots discontent. When he sees what they’ve got up to, he freaks out, breaking tablets, forcing the Israelites to drink the golden calf powder, which sounds ghastly. Basically, the party is over. If the Israelites don’t get with the program, his program, God’s program, they would lose God’s protection, he says. According to the Bible narrative, anything bad that happens to Israel at this point is their punishment for failing to do what they are told. God is the authoritarian leader of their community. Like a mob boss, he protects them from their enemies when they do what he says, and he destroys them when they don’t. But he also provides a vision for a future that is better than the servitude of Egypt, more special than worshiping a god they make with their jewelry. Moses may be a legendary Biblical leader, revered to this day, but he was also not entirely successful. The Israelites wandered a lot, kvetching all the while. One could argue that Moses didn’t do nearly as much listening as lecturing when it came to his leadership style.
Aside from whatever religious message we can get from this contrast, it’s also a contrast of the two ways of governing: either strictly top-down idealistic leadership (without input from the populace) or grassroots representative leadership, agreeing with and giving in to the demands of the mob (without a specific moral compass or ideology). The most successful leaders find a balance between these two. The least successful cling to one or the other.
There was a talk by Lynn Robinson several years ago in which he said the leadership and the Church only faced one way, implying that all leadership in the Church was top-down, and that any good Church member would get in line and take instruction, never criticizing or questioning the orders they were given. There was no need to having their needs represented upward to leadership. This thought process feels consistent with the fact that letters sent to GAs or apostles are usually just returned to local leadership to address / get rid of / deal with / quieten. If Robinson’s talk was just rhetoric, designed to instill loyalty and selfless focus, I suppose that is, in and of itself, a form of ideology, a narrative that people can rally around. But as Americans, we know very well what happens when there is no representation along with our taxation.
In the wake of the recent US insurrection, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether some Republican legislators are leading or following their constituents. There have been some unprincipled leaders who openly refuse to counter misinformation when they know it’s false, but it’s what their base wants to believe. One of the most articulate voices arguing against this craven approach is Mormonism’s own favorite son, Mitt Romney. He minces no words.
“We gather today due to a selfish man’s injured pride and the outrage of his supporters whom he has deliberately misinformed for the past two months and stirred to action this very morning. What happened here today was an insurrection, incited by the President of the United States. Those who choose to continue to support his dangerous gambit by objecting to the results of a legitimate, democratic election will forever be seen as being complicit in an unprecedented attack against our democracy. They will be remembered for their role in this shameful episode in American history. That will be their legacy.Mitt Romney, addressing the Senate in the wake of the January 6th insurrection
“The objectors have claimed they are doing so on behalf of the voters. Have an audit, they say, to satisfy the many people who believe that the election was stolen. Please! No Congressional led audit will ever convince those voters, particularly when the President will continue to claim that the election was stolen. The best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth. That is the burden, and the duty, of leadership. The truth is that President-elect Biden won this election. President Trump lost. Scores of courts, the President’s own Attorney General, and state election officials both Republican and Democrat have reached this unequivocal decision.
“We must not be intimidated or prevented from fulfilling our constitutional duty. We must continue with the count of electoral college votes. In light of today’s sad circumstances, I ask my colleagues: Do we weigh our own political fortunes more heavily than we weigh the strength of our Republic, the strength of our democracy, and the cause of freedom? What is the weight of personal acclaim compared to the weight of conscience?
“Leader McConnell said that the vote today is the most important in his 40 plus years of public service. That is not because this vote reveals something about the election; it is because this vote reveals something about ourselves. I urge my colleagues to move forward with completing the electoral count, to refrain from further objections, and to unanimously affirm the legitimacy of the presidential election.”
This is the same Mitt Romney who endured chanted threats and insults on his flight to Washington D.C. the day before as angry passengers jeered at him, calling him a traitor and shrieking that he didn’t represent them. He calmly endured their diatribes, boarded his flight, and went to Congress to do his duty. Other Various Republican legislators admitted that they contested the results of the election due to the following reasons:
- Personal threats to themselves or their families
- Party loyalty
- Because their voters believed the election was fraudulent, even though they knew it was not
- Because they knew the action would not actually bear fruit, but they could be seen as loyal to their rabid Trumpist voting base
Sounds a lot like Aaron’s disingenuous calf-making rally. But Moses’ way isn’t exactly perfect either. Ultimately, you have to meet your constituents where they are, and lead them back to a greater understanding which takes time. Leaders have a vision for the people, and they have to sell that vision to the people. I was personally dismayed that so many of the newest elected Republicans didn’t in fact stand for truth, knowing that they would have two full years to use the powers of their own leadership to bring their constituents back to reason. Then again, maybe they see what happens when a principled leader runs. Mitt didn’t win.
- Are there some leaders (in Church, government or your personal life) you admire who get this balance just right?
- Are there some leaders who skew one way or the other too much? What results have you seen from their approach?
- Do you think the Church is too focused on its own vision for members and not enough on meeting members where they are, or do you think it tips the other way? What evidence do you see for this?
- Do you think Moses was a better leader than Aaron?