I am obsessed with the show The West Wing. I don’t just watch it every once in a while…I own the whole series and play it in the background of my life. For those who don’t know, The West Wing is a fictitious show about the President of the United States. In thinking about our various definitions of leadership, it comes as no surprise that I would be able to write about this show in reference to leadership. However, while watching one episode a couple of weeks ago, I came across a quote that stood out in my mind.
In this episode, the President and the Speaker of the House could not come to an agreement about the budget. The speaker had promised them (the White House) one thing, but when it came time to make the deal, he “pulled a bait and switch.” In that moment, the President decided that there would be no deal and he refused to sign the budget by the deadline. The Federal Government was shut down as a result, but the President was confident in his convictions. While he took a step back, other members of the party and the president’s senior advisors were doing everything in their power to make a deal with the speaker and finalize the budget. At this moment in time, the President’s polls were at its lowest and the country did not have faith in its leader. The Vice President, in trying to fix the situation, met with the Chief of Staff. On his way out the door, the Vice President said, “You know what they call a leader with no followers? Just a guy taking a walk.”
This quote emphasizes the relationship between a leader and his or her followers that are highlighted in our readings. Geneen defines leadership as “the ability to inspire other people to work together as a team, following your lead, in order to attain a common objective…no one can do it all alone. Others must want to follow the leader.” (4) The President, without anyone following him, is not a leader. Their objective is not a common one, and the President is standing alone on a ledge. Though the President has legitimate power because of his position, Hughes, Ginnett, and Curphy state that “holding a position and being a leader are not synonymous.” (144) His position as President alone did not qualify him as being a leader at that point, only as being the head of the country.
When Rost describes the relationship between leaders and followers, he insists that leaders must interact with other people, or followers. “If all the people with whom leaders interacted were other leaders, leadership as a meaningful construct would not make sense.” (190) Leaders, by definition, have to be leading someone. The Vice Presidents thoughts were on par with Rost: if a leader is not leading anyone, then he is not a leader.
Some questions to think about:
Do you agree that a person needs followers to be considered a leader? Can a person of legitimate power, such as the president, ever be a leader without followers? Does the number of followers that a President has affect his role or position as a leader?