The recent scandal in NJ around the closing of two out of three lanes accessing the George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee does not represent a failure of leadership; rather it demonstrates its success, or at least the success of harmful leadership.
If we consider at least two of the people involved in this scandal, they are people who we would see as being effective and I am sure many people looked to them for leadership. Bridget Kelly, Governor Christie’s Deputy Chief of Staff, sent an email stating, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” However, Kornacki explained on MSNBC that a NJ Democrat described her as “issue driven, eager and energetic. She struck me as a moderate Republican in it for all the right reasons.” She was perceived to be reasonable and concerned about others. Yet, she is allegedly the one who gave the order to start the traffic problems.
A second person of interest is David WIldstein, a Governor Christie appointee to the Port Authority. Kornacki knew him personally and said this about him, “Of all the people involved in this, I think he’s the sharpest. I think he is the savviest and I think he is by far the most strategic thinker.” Yet, this is the same man who, when confronted with the fact that school children were having a hard time getting to school, stated in an email, “They are the children of Buono voters.” Buono was the Democratic challenger to Governor Christie in the recent election.
Understanding these two particular individuals, and many others who lead, is to recognize that we live our lives in context and not in a vacuum. We are part of a culture, society, and situations that encourage and nurture specific values and actions. In the examples above, they could probably check off all of the leadership abilities provided in any number of leadership lists. They could be defined as effective and powerful. Some might perceive their actions as surprising or as not very leadership-like. However, it took a lot of leadership, communication skills, and strategic planning to shut down the lanes. This is not just some foolish mistake or incompetent action.
Looking at their abilities is not enough to understand them as leaders. To understand them as leaders is to recognize how their abilities intersect with their values of loyalty, power, personal ambition, cultural context, and followership. And this is true of all leaders. In this case, we can start to see that they are successful leaders but their leadership is harmful and destructive. They had a goal and purpose and they accomplished those things. They could truthfully write on a resume that they are goal-oriented, strategic thinkers. The one thing that will not appear on the resume that is just as important is their relationship to the values I mentioned such as power and ambition.
These two individuals are not unique nor are they rogue leaders varying greatly from the norms of our leaders. They did not fail as leaders though we may think they failed at having compassion and empathy. The truth is they exist in the context of our society and this means they are more a reflection of who we are than anything else. And for some of us that is a scary thought.
As I write this I also realize we need to discuss harmful followership. However that will be another blog.