A year for leadership in America

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Let’s face it: 2017 was truly frightening despite being a banner year for the economy. So as we approach the one-year anniversary of President Trump’s inaugural it is worth pausing to reflect. His first year in office has been a difficult one for those seeking leadership role models. It is not just Trump’s inappropriate tweets, the rollback of environmental regulations, and the foreign policy gaffes that have posed a problem.

As a professor of leadership and a news junkie, I have been disappointed in the performances of our most visible leaders throughout the woebegone 2017. Given a never-ending array of unsettling headlines, including sometimes terrifying stories about Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte, Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, we have been witness to corruption and toxic leadership that distorts truth and intimidates followers and critics alike.

{mosads}But let us focus on the United States, where leaders on both sides of the aisle have noted this dysfunction. Worse still the negativity cascades from the top throughout the government, business and society at large. Toxicity is catching.

The narcissistic tendencies and fear-mongering tactics of our leaders, plus a series of revelations of noted sexual misconduct in many fields, made the events of 2017 read like a leadership Greek tragedy. In the past year, our political and business leaders have been exposed as both out of touch, unable to act on major issues like global warming and drug addiction, and, too often, acting badly if not outright bizarrely in support of their own self interests.

Yet surprisingly, psychologists and political scientists alike have shown that in uncertain times we often gravitate toward these Trump-like authoritarian leaders who promise a better future. When the promise is not forthcoming, however, or the pain worse than we feared, we flip-flop between two states: paralysis and over-reactivity. In doing so, we become ineffective in solving problems where real solutions might be available.

For example, when the demand is for innovation, stress and threat can make us rigid and fearful of stepping up to the leadership challenge. When we need to be externally oriented and open to new ideas, we shrink into the corner and avoid engagement. When there is a need for risk taking, experimentation, and learning from mistakes, we fall into a set mode where we want to prove ourselves, move away from challenges, and see others as judges.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There is a path forward. But we have to take it now. Times of crisis require us to become more, not less, open to change and innovation, and more willing to step into a leadership role. This is a time for “distributed leadership.”

Addressing the complicated issues facing our government and our businesses will require cooperation, reliance on others and a willingness to engage internally and externally, up and down organizational hierarchies. It will involve working together with people who are different from us, sometimes leading and sometimes following. In short, we need to step up individually and collectively.

Distributed leadership, seeks a balance between top-down and bottom-up leadership, where information and influence flow freely, and employees act as entrepreneurs providing new solutions and citizens take power back into their own hands around issues they care about.

So at this moment in time we have to fight our instincts. We need to resist the desire for certainty and for a powerful leader with simple answers and great promises. This is a time for people to step up with one another to envision a different future and commit to making it happen. This is what Martin Luther King Jr. referred to as the urgency of now.

What can you do? On the political front, join a grassroots movement, support a candidate, or run for office on a platform that links to your core values, be it the environment, education, drugs, inequality or wherever you see a need that is not being met. Look around for where you can make the most difference, not just satisfy the need to do something. Step up now. To be silent is to acquiesce to the status quo.

On the business front, speak up when you see people taking advantage of others or using their power for ill, create teams of employees across the organization to tackle key problems and innovate, or start your own company that deals with the challenges of our time. Try to understand the perspective of those who may not agree with this new direction. Why might they be immune to change? Why might you be?

In a world of distributed leadership, we cannot be silent in 2018 if we want it to be different than 2017. Each and every one of us has to step up now to unleash the power of the many against the power of the one or two who threaten to pull down the values and institutions that have built this nation.

Deborah Ancona is founder of the MIT Leadership Center and the Seley distinguished professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Tags Business Donald Trump Leadership Politics United States White House

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