Leading the United States: Three Perspectives

Well into the political hunting season for Presidential game, each of us can wonder, " What does it really take to lead the United States of America".

Can any human being actually lead something as big and complex as the United States?

The answer is: maybe.

Or better said, you and I get to see if the United States, or our planet, is able to be led at all, and if so, what perspectives might empower and enable its leaders. Consider 3 points.

One, let's examine and define a Complex Living System. The United States is what scientists call a 'Complex System'. Simple Systems are like one plus one equals two. Complicated Systems are like a Ferrari many, many parts and tiny, tiny details needing to fit together, and, the parts don't move nor do they morph. They stay in place.

Living Systems, by contrast, are Complex Adaptive Systems. Not only does one have many, many parts both huge and tiny and in between, but these parts themselves move and morph... more than once.

The Amazon Rain Forest is a Complex Living System. If you alter any part of it, the living adaptive organisms respond. They move and they morph. They reinvent themselves, or fail to, in response to the changes, the interventions introduced. The United States and the planet earth are Complex Living Systems.

So what? What does that have to do with leadership?

Two, let's define for a moment what we mean by a leader: Specifically an authentic leader. We say there are four characteristics.

  1. An authentic leader stands for, speaks for, and listens for a future that wasn't going to happen anyway, a future that fulfills the concerns and commitments of his or her constituents beyond what the past would predict.
  2. An authentic leader inspires and engages people in its fulfillment, and accounts for and learns from naysayers, appropriately and effectively.
  3. They count on and deal with breakdowns and setbacks, openly, creatively and collaboratively.
  4. They look for, and cause, turning points, shifts in momentum, that are consistent with their stand taking hold.

Authentic leaders produce results through what they speak for and listen for--- what they communicate. Being authentic leaders, they mean what they say. They speak, committed to knowing that what they say is quite literally who they are, and when they do not honor what they say, they clean it up, fast.

Examples of U.S leaders who have generated futures that were not going to happen anyway:

  • FDR re-defined the future and interrupted a catastrophic impact on the economy, especially the job markets.
  • Ronald Reagan interrupted and transformed U.S./Soviet relationships and our influence through the power of his stand, his communication and his direct personal relationships.
  • JFK turned a space deficit on its head by taking a bold stand for a new future... "Space is the new frontier", and made a bold promise: Man landing on the moon and returned safely to the earth within the decade.
  • George Washington turned battle strategy and circumstance on its head by crossing the Delaware River and delivering a momentum-shifting defeat to the British.
  • And Bill Clinton, a Democrat, stood for and caused a fiscally responsible government, giving us our last surplus.

In each instance, our leader stood for, spoke for and listened for the possibility of a future beyond prediction, beyond common sense, beyond the consensus, beyond the past. Their stand engaged key players, people, in its fulfillment. They dealt with resistance in a way that acknowledged it, learned from it, and was not stopped by it. They intentionally pulled for events that marked turning points, creating momentum.

Three: Consider that leading a Complex System does not require being a knowledge specialist, but rather, the ability to see the whole picture, the whole of something bigger than, distinct from, its parts. Leading a Living System isn't mechanical cause and effect: turn this, get that. It isn't just economics or management or law or ideology or politics. Authentic leaders don't lead from a recipe or a formula, like an ideology. In seeing the whole of something, leaders can see what future most wants to happen... beyond prediction, formula, history. While they are accountable for the politics (the parties/the interest groups/the give and take/the "Fight" of it), it is their vision for the whole of it that gives where they stand.

In this sense, leading a Complex Living System is more art than science. Leading is inventive, creative, at times, audacious; yet authentic leadership does take the past fully into account. It honors and is informed by the past yet moves clearly beyond it.

Who do you see in the United States that might now be leading authentically? Do any of the candidates strike you as an authentic leader, leading appropriate to a complex living system like the U.S... or not? Do you see this kind of authentic leadership anywhere: in government, in business, in sports, in the arts, in education, in the military and, if so, where and with whom?

Consider: Leading the United States is the art of leading the whole of it, the entirety of our Complex Living System, and leading it authentically.