Why are Leaders Vulnerable?

The fortunes of our political leaders, as measured by public perception and standing within their own parties, seem to seesaw almost weekly. Most actions by political leaders are taken in the presence of their inner circles, who are not only supposed to serve them but also are supposed to protect them. Protect them from whom? From themselves, of course. Within every leader lies the germ of his or her own destruction, waiting for the right conditions to activate. But within every leader’s inner circle lies the antidote, if it is used in time and in sufficient doses, which it often is not.

Points of Vulnerability

There are three points at which a leader of any sort is vulnerable: (1) his strengths; (2) his weaknesses; and (3) the inherent pressures of the role.

  • Strengths: Success is heady stuff. A newly elected Member of Congress can’t help but think, “I must be doing something right to have gotten here. I’d better do a lot more of that.” If “that,” for example, was doing favors for people as a state legislator, then the Member may do favors on a larger, national scale. Only the rules have changed and excessive favors get him in big ethics trouble.
  • Weaknesses: While success is transmuting a leader’s strengths into liabilities, a parallel trend is occurring –any weaknesses the leader has are magnifying.
  • Pressures: Due to their internal makeup and the demands of their position, leaders often drive themselves physically and psychologically, staining their health, their family dynamics, and their friendships.

A lot of us in Washington get paid to help our leaders be successful in their roles. This in no way absolves leaders from accountability for their own actions but it does mean that we, too, are accountable. To really earn our money, we must be willing to risk our relationship with the political leader we serve when there are uncomfortable things the leader needs to hear, and hear again, and hear more firmly.

We may lose that relationship, but we will have done so honorably. If we’re not willing to risk the relationship, we betray it. And eventually, the leader stops going up and down on the seesaw and just falls off.

This article originally appeared on the Congressional Management Foundation website.

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