The Final Challenge

Leaders face numerous challenges. One challenge that seems to escape the glamour of recognition, however, is the challenge of giving up one’s own leadership. This is one of the toughest challenges any leader can face, and it is the final struggle. After he has battled all the external forces that prevent him from achieving his goal, this leader realizes that he himself is an obstacle to progress.

But why does mastering oneself, when one has presumably already mastered one’s environment, prove so difficult? Aren’t leaders in this late stage of their careers mature individuals? Giving up leadership, and therefore power, is so difficult because it requires three main things: 1) the mastering of ego, 2) the mastering of the need for material wealth and 3) trust. These three objectives, when one is used to a position of authority, can be awfully difficult to achieve.
As every leader can readily attest to, there is a great ego boost associated with being “in charge.” After all, aren’t those in this position allowed to give instructions and to discipline? Surely this would result in a feeling of great personal power. Giving up one’s leadership position means forfeiting this power. It, further, may mean subjecting oneself to the law all others have to live by. Presumably, presidents find abiding strictly by the law a significant change from their presidential immunity. This humbling experience is part of the reason many leaders may often find it difficult to step down and walk away. Is the ego then perhaps a reason so many heads of state seek extensions to their terms, even through tedious means such as constitutional reform?

Mastery of the need for material wealth is certainly a third world leadership issue. Most American politicians are already reasonably wealthy when they enter politics. Mitt Romney is the leading modern example of this, but President Obama and every Republican currently vying for the party’s Presidential nomination are all millionaires. Even further, it is not as prevalent culturally for American politicians to seek to material gains from their position. In contrast, most third world leaders grew up quite poor. A cursory glance at the list of dictators and forever-in-office rulers of the third world reveals many such examples. Robert Mugabe’s father was a carpenter. The wild contrast between his current living standards and those of his childhood certainly must certainly make him cringe at the thought of losing all the wealth associated with his leadership.

Finally, trust is required to give up one’s leadership. These leaders, we must not forget, have invested large amounts of time and energy in developing their countries. Surely they do not want all their hard work to go to waste the instant they step down. Trusting someone else when there is a lot at stake is hard. However, this is exactly what leaders must do when they step down. Not only that, but they have to put themselves under the authority of those they had recently lead. This kind of trust must be daunting for leaders and therefore make them hesitant, even fearful, of leaving office.

President Lyndon Johnson faced these dilemmas when he considered stepping down during the Vietnam War. Trust wasn’t so much of an issue, as the American governance system is not prone to punishing its past presidents, and as there were at least reasonably competent leaders present at the time. Material wealth was not a great obstacle either. The final test for President Johnson was therefore one of the ego. He needed to accept the label of being, at least in part, a failure — something no man could stomach easily. Many leaders believe that they just need more time, but it is giving up this time which is sometimes necessary for progress. As President Johnson said, there were strong divisive forces his running for reelection would have exacerbated. The path forward is most difficult when you realize that it is one that may leave you behind.

President Obama is bordering this fearful challenge now, but not yet confronted with it. Unlike President Johnson, he can still do much more good than harm in seeking reelection. President Obama retains the intelligence and talent to rejuvenate his presidency and democratic leadership, if only given the opportunity. These qualities persevere in him even through his failures. Opportunity is thus the lifeline to his presidency, which may turn things around leave us with the shining vision of our President that we began with.

Standing down from a position of leadership is thus a tough task, full of internal battles and questions of personal strength. It is the leader’s final great battle. President Obama is not yet fighting it because, perhaps, his time has not quite passed.