The presidential commutation of Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s prison sentence raises some curious questions about leadership. Namely, is it politics or is it principle?
On the side of politics, we have a president who has built a career on loyalty to friends and in his mind Libby was a loyal, in particular in helping to make the case for the Iraq war pre and post invasion. Conservatives were pushing him hard for a full pardon; and with his approval ratings hovering around 30%, conservatives remain his base of support. On the side of principle, the President pushed aside the judicial decision against Libby (as Presidents have the constitutional authority to do with pardons and commutations). Bush tipped his cap to the jury’s decision but said he thought the punishment was too harsh. [The commutation is not a pardon; it leaves the stigma including fine, probation, and possible disbarment but removes the prison stretch.]
Others, especially those in the Democratic Party, view this commutation as another example in a long list of unilateral actions where the president acts without broad consultation and doing what he thinks is best. Some call this resoluteness. Others would call it stubbornness or arrogance.
Presidential leadership is often a process of “to-ing and fro-ing,” that is, politicking or standing on principle. Politics is not so neat. That is, sometimes you act above the fray; other times you get down and scrap with everyone else. Harry Truman stood against popular opinion when he recalled General Douglas MacArthur from Korea when it became clear that MacArthur was going to invade China, a clear violation of his mission.
On the other hand, Lyndon Johnson got himself right into the fray when he pushed through the civil rights legislation, first in the Senate and later as President. No one knew how to twist arms better than LBJ, even in the face of opposition from fellow Southern Democrats. Another president, John F. Kennedy, wrote an entire book on this theme. Profiles in Courage is a collection of stories of men who resisted politics for principle, sometimes destroying their careers in the process.
Politics play a role in the corporate sector, too. And yes, principles do matter, too. For example, how often do middle managers wrestle with the consequences of decisions about which they disagree? Every day! So do they fight for the cause or do they roll with the tide? It depends on the situation, especially with whom they must disagree. Sometimes to go against a boss is a career-ender. On the other hand, standing up to the boss may be a career builder. Circumstance and consequence will dictate the answer. That is, sometimes you can make your mark by arguing your case; other times you can pave your way to the exit door.
Ideally, managers can take a cue from our military; you owe your boss, straight talk. You must tell him how you feel about important decisions that affect the direction of the team and the organization. How you couch that disagreement can be political. That is, you soft-pedal it if you think you may lose your job; but you trumpet it if you think you can effect positive change.
The political firestorm over the Libby commutation will one day become yesterday’s news, but the questions it raises will remain with anyone who questions the nature of and the consequences of leadership decisions at any level.