After a lunch meting last Wednesday, April 9, I was driving east on Sutter Street in San Francisco when all three lanes of one-way traffic unexpectedly came to a complete halt. As I looked three blocks ahead to Van Ness Street, I could see police cars and motorcycles, officers in uniform, and several large vehicles in the middle of the street, making it impossible for me— and the hundreds of others— to cross Van Ness. What was going on?
I knew it was the day of the Olympic Torch run along the streets of San Francisco, but I was a couple miles from the designated route. Why was Van Ness closed off? Had a protest moved to another part of town? Was there a riot? What was it? I turned on the car radio and tuned in to a local station carrying the live broadcast. The on-air reporters seemed to be confused at first. No one knew exactly what had happened. Was it a ruse to draw attention away from the real route? Had the torch already left town? Or, was this actually a new route for the torch run? The latter turned out to be the case, and for the rest of the day and night and the next day it was the talk of the town…maybe even the nation.
What fascinated me most about this day – more than seeing the torch itself or the protestors on the Embarcadero -- was the reaction to the decision made by Mayor Gavin Newsom and Police Chief Heather Fong to change the route. Here's how the Mayor saw it: "We felt it was in everyone's best interest that we augment the route. I believe people were afforded the right to protest and support the torch." Chief Fong was quoted as saying, "When you are standing there, trying to make a decision, when the knot in your stomach is, 'What are we going to do here? How are we going to resolve this?' it's not an easy decision. But you sit there and you sweat about it, and you make a decision, and that's what we did."
But their perspective seemed to be in the minority when you listened to the nightly news and read the papers the next day. The San Francisco Chronicle called it an "Olympic-size fake-out" and said, "Complaints about the bait-and-switch rang long and loud from many among the estimated 10,000 people milling along the original route all morning." The ACLU filed for release of documents on the decision, saying it violated the free speech rights of the protestors. Other human rights groups were mad as hell. Local citizens just out to see the festivities, and with no political agenda, were also very upset. As one said, "There were lots of people here with their kids. They had to wait for four or five hours, and it's very disappointing." Peter Ueberroth, head of the U.S. Olympic Committee, however, had a different opinion: "The city of San Francisco, from a global perspective, will be applauded," he commented. And those who were completely surprised to find themselves suddenly in the middle of a phalanx of police, blue and white clad runners and their body guards, news trucks, helicopters flying overhead, and hundreds dashing from nearby buildings to catch a glimpse were downright gleeful.
Many leaders, regardless of level, will recognize the dilemma in which the Mayor and Police Chief found themselves. You may feel it right now in your own organization. Caught between competing interests and competing values – each of which is legitimate – you have to make choices about which right is right. And when you make choices some – maybe even the majority -- are not going to like the choice you make. That is a price leaders pay for the role they play. As author Garry Wills put it in Certain Trumpets, "Leadership is always a struggle, often a feud."
All leaders are biased—biased about the future, biased about core values, and biased about the mission. We expect them to be that way. We want leaders, our data tells us, who are clear about their beliefs and who have a compelling vision about things to come. But—ironic as it might seem—because of the very expectations we have of them—to be clear about their enduring beliefs and to proclaim their view of the future—leaders will always become vulnerable to having their credibility questioned, especially by those who hold different beliefs. Once a leader takes strong stands on matters of principle, he or she is going to excite some and irritate others.
What does this mean for leaders? First, understand that even the most authentic, genuine, and credible leader is going to find himself or herself criticized and questioned. It just goes with the territory. You must learn how to manage the tension between your own desire to be true to yourself and your constituents' desire to do the same. Leaders have to learn to listen respectfully to their own callings and to the voices of the people. Leaders have to learn to thrive in an arena where there will always be conflicts and disagreements over matters of principle.
Second, because leaders are so often choosing between right and right, they must be ever diligent in guarding their credibility. Their ability to take strong stands—to challenge the status quo, to point us in new directions—depends upon their being perceived as highly credible. And because all leaders are going to have to take controversial positions every now and then, it's essential that their constituents believe in them. We call it The First Law of Leadership: "If you don't believe in the messenger, you won't believe the message." Even those who disagree with a particular decision, should at least be able to say they believe in the honesty and competence of the person making it.
Third, leaders should never be dismissive of those who disagree. Others have legitimate views, and people want to know that their views are respected, even if they don’t prevail. Not listening to others, and not acknowledging their deeply held beliefs on matters of principle, is a sure way to permanently lose their support.
This is not to suggest that leadership is simply a popularity contest in which leaders feign a desire to please everyone so they can win people over to their side. It is totally unrealistic for any leader to expect that one hundred percent of potential constituents will voluntarily enlist in a cause. No matter how skilled, powerful, or attractive someone may be, there has never been a leader in history who has ever garnered that level of support. And, we should all be thankful for that!
But never, ever forget this. Followership is a choice, and that choice is made daily. Leaders at all levels are only able to get extraordinary things done when they have the enthusiastic support of their constituents. So maybe, just maybe, leadership is a popularity contest after all.