What’s not to like? Millions of like-minded people promoting limited federal government, individual freedoms, personal responsibility, free markets, and a return of political power to the states and the people.
How could anyone argue that the Tea Party is a bad thing?
Oh wait! That can’t be right. The Tea Party is actually millions of small-minded people who engage in racist behaviors and want to take away the power of the federal government to set policy and help society by cutting the funding to every social program that they don’t like.
So which is it? The answer is, “It depends on your point of view.”
This would be an easy post to write if the subject was building a great brand. My friend Larry Winget says that it is hard to have rabid fans without having rabid enemies. In that case, the Tea Party has created one of the strongest brand images (both positive and negative) in the world today.
But this is about leadership – not positional leadership but the power to influence others. That is what the movement strives to do – influence others to adopt its position on the size and scope of government.
My purpose isn’t to convince you to support or reject the Tea Party. It is simply to examine the leadership lessons and implications from a group that is influencing the discourse across the country.
As always, I’ll do my best address this from all sides. And as always, I expect that there will be those on both sides who disagree with everything I say because they don’t like one of the things I said.
With all of the appropriate disclaimers in place, let’s examine the Tea Party as leader based on the following seven traits that influence every leader’s success:
• Clarity of vision and focus: Quick – what does the Republican Party stand for? What does the Democratic Party stand for? What does the Tea Party stand for? You may not agree with them, but the Tea Party is a model for clarity of vision and focus.
Your ability to influence others is enhanced when current and potential followers can quickly and accurately state your vision.
• Character: Supporters point to an honest, honorable desire to restore America to a position of greatness. They are convinced that they are acting with a strong concern for the current and future generations. The inappropriate actions of a few do not represent the values of the many.
Detractors view any failure to forcefully address the actions of a few as an indictment of the values of the many. The call for lower spending can be seen as “code word” for a desire to cut services and programs that are vital for the community’s well-being. Detractors, in many cases, simply don’t share the same view of how the country should operate.
Both supporters and opponents are guilty of the easiest form of attack on any leader – character dispersion. Addressing differences in values and approach while acknowledging that the person or group with whom we disagree has honorable intentions requires a level of work and maturity that few are willing to develop or engage in.
Leaders must actively place their actions in the context they intend rather than have their character defined by others. The Tea Party does a good job with followers. They will never convince the strident opposition. From a leadership perspective, there is work to be done in showing their true character to the undecided.
• Competence: In less than two years, the Tea Party movement has grown from local rallies to electing enough candidates to influence debate in the U.S. House of Representatives. They stage organized protests and events in venues large and small with a basically volunteer leadership structure. Yes, these folks are competent.
Or are they? Tea Party supporters in Congress have proven virtually ineffective at forging relationships, advancing agenda items, or reaching consensus across ideological lines. Navigating the legislative process and working with others will be critical for their future success. Orin Hatch and Ted Kennedy were often miles apart on issues, but their competence in working with others without sacrificing their principles made them supremely effective.
Success in one area is no guarantee for success in all areas. Developing your competence in new situations is required if you want to build a legacy of accomplishment.
• Communication: Communication is easy when you speak to those who share your views. You don’t have to choose your words or build common ground. Only minimal effort must be expended to actively listen. In that regard, the Tea Party is extremely effective in its communication.
The challenge for every leader comes in creating shared meaning and shared understanding with those who don’t share your point of view. Communicating with those who do not support or are undecided about your position requires a nuanced approach that is often lacking with the Tea Party representatives I see in the media. You could say that the time for less-than-blunt communication is over because the country is in crisis. And while that might be true, the leader’s responsibility is to increase the opportunity for others to hear and connect with their message.
• Consistency: Consistency in action and clarity of vision create a forceful combination that builds trust among followers. Leaders who say what they mean; mean what they say; and consistently act to align beliefs and priorities build tremendous credibility.
Tea Party supporters point to the rejection of the debt ceiling compromise as proof that they are consistent in their beliefs.
Opponents could point to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s observation that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
Every leader struggles with the desire to remain consistent and the necessity to change course when circumstances demand it. History shows that we value uncompromising consistency for the same reason we applaud situational flexibility – the correctness of the decision. The Tea Party’s consistency is sure to earn the trust and respect of its supporters. It is too early to tell the long-term impact of their choices.
• Courage: The Tea Party is courageous if you define courage as the willingness to face difficulty, danger, and ridicule to stand up for what you believe. The movement and individuals within it have faced regular attacks from their opponents. The Tea Party has stuck to its principles and purpose in the face of adversity and ridicule. You don’t have to agree with them to acknowledge that what they have done took courage.
And, you don’t have to disagree with them to recognize that it takes an equal level of courage to change one’s mind or vote against one’s immediate interest to achieve the greater good.
Leadership requires judgment. The courageous leader engages in critical thinking and introspection to stay the course in times of difficulty and adjust the strategy when necessary to achieve the goal.
• Concern for the greater good: In the movie Star Trek II, the character Spock places himself in a position to save the ship and its crew while costing him his life. Spock’s logic is simple: The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
I am convinced that the Tea Party supporters with whom I have spoken have a legitimate concern for the greater good. They believe that the only way to ensure that good is their course of action.
And, I am convinced that the Tea Party opponents with whom I have spoken have an equally legitimate concern for the greater good. They believe that the only way to ensure that good is not to enact the Tea Party platform.
Who is right? If we are talking about concern, the answer is both. If we are talking about engaging in a thoughtful debate about solving America’s problems, both sides are lacking.
From a leadership perspective, it is hard to argue with the Tea Party’s success to date. They are influencing the debate, and influencing is what leader’s do.
And yet, they are a young movement. They appear, at times, to be more interested in getting their own way rather than engaging in dialog to find the best way. Perhaps the willingness and ability to patiently build partnerships and consider compromise when it benefits the greater good will evolve. I hope so. Democracy is a messy process, and we need more voices – not fewer voices – in the debate.
Your Take Away’s
Here’s the leadership question: If you were a political movement that required you to earn your followers, how would you stack up to the Tea Party on these seven principles and traits?