Leadership in a Political Crossfire

By Brigadier General (Retired) Fletcher M. Lamkin, Ph.D. , Sunday, January 01, 2017

Leaders who enter a political arena face complexities in their decision-making that test them to their very core. Faced with multifaceted situations, and in order to make good and consistent decisions, one must have a clear understanding of one’s values and a strong commitment to one’s personal integrity. Thrust into this environment, leaders must possess clear vision, a strong will, and a thick skin to make the “right” decision, and even then the results may be costly to the decision-maker.

To explain this more fully, we are going to examine the case of a university president… a position I held for more than 10 years. University presidents are often faced with difficult decisions… difficult not so much because of knowing the best course of action, but because of the varying agendas of the constituencies involved – both hidden and unhidden. What appears on the surface to be a clear-cut decision suddenly becomes far more complex because of competing interests, personal ties, and political and personal agendas.

The diagram to the left outlines the major constituencies affecting a typical university president. The Board of Trustees oversees the president and provides general guidance and direction along with support and encouragement. The Board also hires – and fires – the president. Beyond that, the president interacts with cabinet, faculty, staff, students, alumni, and the local community, as well as to some extent state and national higher education organizations, congressmen and senators, state and local government, and other university presidents (the “Other” block). As new situations arise, the impact and importance of each “block” changes, as does the nature of the communication. For example, when a decision involves a change to the curriculum, faculty and staff, cabinet, and students will play the most influential roles, while the other constituencies will have only limited involvement. With financial matters, the Board and cabinet will play the principal roles. With personnel matters, however, it might never be clear who is going to get involved and how their impact will be felt.

To illustrate this, consider a scenario with the following facts:

John is a long-serving individual who holds a key position on the university staff.In his years of employment at the university, John has developed strong ties to the community, to the alumni base, and to the faculty.John is married to a member of the institution’s senior staff and, because the community is small, some of John’s other relatives are members of the staff.Although well liked, John is performing unsatisfactorily and is having a negative impact on the university and students. Months of coaching from his manager and from the president have failed, as have other efforts to retain John.

While agonizing, for the president, it appears to be in the best interests of the university to replace John and allow the university to find an individual who can meet the expectations of the position. Obviously, no one enjoys this process, so it needs to be carried out in as respectful and graceful a manner as possible in order to:

Treat the individual with dignity;Maintain personal integrity;Protect the institution.

Meeting the careful balance necessary to achieve these three outcomes is extraordinarily difficult even in the best of times. Meeting all three when political challenges arise becomes orders of magnitude more difficult. Making matters worse, leaders – including university presidents – can’t simply announce to the world the details behind an employee’s termination. Unfortunately, that fact skews the public relations battle in favor of the person affected while the president simply needs to acknowledge the termination and forge ahead.

In some cases, John will become a martyr, particularly if he is well liked and people don’t know all of the real details behind his termination. The president may even face some undesirable outcomes as a result, such as:

The story may go out that John is the victim of the President’s desire to bring his own team on board and his personal dislike of him.Faculty and staff members may be outraged, and even fearful.John’s friends and relatives will be angry.Stories will be told throughout the community, building in intensity and venom. Members of the community, alumni, and even faculty and staff may contact Board members to express their displeasure, asking for retribution.

The swirl of communication between alumni, faculty and staff, community members, and Board members can build like a burgeoning tornado. (See Figure 2.) Attempts to fill John’s position may be thwarted by interference. And, even though Board members may have been informed in advance of the decision, they will find themselves caught between their desire to support the president and the contrary views of their friends, relatives, fellow alums, and clients.

Given all this, the president is now faced with a dilemma. Removing John, while appearing at first glance to be the “right” thing to do because of his poor performance, may actually backfire into a worse situation. His removal may adversely affect faculty support, Board backing, alumni giving, and student morale, creating a whole host of debilitating second- and third-order effects.

What is a president to do when faced with such a decision?

Usually, the worst course of action is to do nothing. Ultimately, action will have to be taken, and it will only become more difficult as time passes. The best advice I’ve received is to create a multi-pronged strategy before taking any action. This strategy includes:

Working with trusted advisors to ensure full awareness of all the connections and relationships in which the affected employee is involved.Being prepared to address concerns with carefully prepared strategies and statements.Making key board members aware of controversial decisions in advance. Usually, key leaders on the Board should get a full rundown of the reasons behind an action, and they will know enough to keep the information confidential, while still backing the president. This is a card that can't be played very often, however, as many Board members will be alums and/or members of the local community, and they will want to ultimately preserve their capital with fellow alums, community members, clients, and long-time friends.

While I’ve used an example of a university president and a personnel decision, the considerations involved are true of just about any situation where a leader is making a potentially unpopular decision while working in a complex political environment.

In his popular role as “Dirty Harry,” Clint Eastwood reminds us, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” I think these are wise words for leaders. When faced with a complex and controversial decision, the leader needs to understand the politics at play and realize that there are limits to his or her actions. Certainly, the situation must be dealt with; however, there may be solutions that achieve the desired result, but in a less dramatic fashion. The full gamut of options needs to be considered, before a decision is made. Then, once a course of action is decided upon, it must be executed with precision and delicacy. The end result of decisions handled in this manner is inevitably better in the long term for the institution; however it’s never easy and it’s seldom without serious consequences.

Finally, a leader needs to preserve his or her integrity at all cost. To back down from tough decisions is to not lead at all. When faced with a tough call, a leader needs to look into the mirror and ask, “Am I choosing this option to do the right thing, or am I just trying to preserve my job?” So, the guiding principles can be summed up as: Figure out what the “right thing” to do is, then choose a course of action that minimizes the political damage but still accomplishes the desired end result.

Brigadier General Fletcher Lamkin, Ph.D.

Dr. Lamkin received a B.S. from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, an M.S. in Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley, and a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. His military education includes completion of the Airborne and Rang er Schools, the Command and General Staff College,... Read More +

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