Friday, December 14, 2018

Leading at the Top beyond Appearances: The case of John Boehner, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives

In the wake of President Obama's mission to execute Osama bin Laden, Speaker Boehner issued a statement complimenting his rival in the White House. In contrast, Sarah Palin gave George W. Bush all the credit. The Speaker, too, could have gone with political expediency. Therefore, for the Speaker to have publicly acknowledged Obama's victory as America's more generally involved political self-discipline. Speaker Boehner had sought to apply self-discipline, moreover, to his decentralized leadership style from the moment of his swearing in. Given the consolidating nature of power, such a leadership style in the U.S. House of Representatives faced considerable head winds.

On January 5, 2011, John Boehner was sworn in as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. He had promised to decentralize the power that had been so tightly held by the previous Speaker and others further back.  Indeed, it had been Gingrich's micromanaging of Boehner in 1995 that may well have prompted Boehner to want to give more power to lower-level party leaders and committee chairs. Boehner even promised to better provide for the minority party in that proceedings would be more open and fair.  Of course, obstructionism, favoritism, and in general the realities of governing all can be used to consolidate power. The exigencies of Boehner's position could have trumped any bad memories of having been one of the low men on the totem pole.  It is only human nature, after all, to identify with and prefer the present at the expense of the past. Hence, the concept of the net present value of money. Additionally, consolidating power into a few select hands may seem necessary to getting the trains to run on time.
Indeed, Boehner might have been tempted to add trains. Noting the inherent difficulty in having one legislature (albeit consisting of two separate chambers) governing an empire-scale union, the anti-federalist (and pro-commerce) Agrippa of Massachusetts wrote in 1787, "A diversity of produce, wants and interests, produces commerce, and commerce, where there is a common, equal and moderate authority to preside, produces friendship." (Agrippa, Letter 8, 4.6.30). Agrippa was bemoaning the consolidation that he feared would ensue from the powers granted by the U.S. Constitution to Congress (at the expense of the state governments). Agrippa was by in large right. The dual-sovereignty in American federalism has largely been eclipsed by decades of encroachments by the general government. It would have taken self-discipline for Congress not to have encroached when it could. Similarly, self-discipline is required for a Speaker of the House, which is a constitutional office, to preside, which is to say, to look to the overall interest of the whole rather than to engage in partisanship.    In spite of Boehner's intentions to return some power to the states and to decentralize his power in the House, he was from the start already likely to reverse himself in practice. The nature of power may well be paradoxical: those who love it most tend to find it most offensive to give even some of it up to others. It takes maturity for a leader who does not crave power to trust others in decentralizing it; I can scarcely imagine a person who climbs the difficult mountain to the head of a governmental body (or business corporation) to suddenly work on the newly won power. So I am led to wonder, what exactly was Boehner's motivation in publicly stating his vision of a more decentralized power structure in the U.S. House of Representatives? Perhaps he knew that people out across the lands would approve of him as a result. There is the appearance of power and there is real power. I'm not convinced that the citizens who vote in a republic are able to get behind the appearance, if efforts behind the scenes are intensely invested in keeping the public awash in appearances. 


Naftali Bendavid and Patrick O'Conner, "New Speaker Vows to Share Power--a Tricky Proposition,The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2011, pp. A1, A6.

Agrippa, in Herbert J. Storing, ed., The Anti-Federalist, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985, p. 243

See Skip Worden, Ethical Leadership, a booklet available at Amazon. See more generally, Essence of Leadership, a book available at Amazon.