LEAD

Senator Ted Cruz and the Pitfalls of Zealot Leadership

Senator Cruz got plenty of attention for his marathon speech decrying the Affordable Care Act. But is he actually leading?
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If pragmatic leadership connotes a capacity to move agendas ahead by appreciating the subtleties of winning people over, then zealot leadership--the type of leadership recently displayed by Senator Ted Cruz--is the exact opposite.

Zealot leadership is not simply ideologically committed leadership. It is not simply a strong adherence to a particular goal or idea, but rather a personally uncompromising sense of calling, based on an entrenched pursuit of an idea that you believe is indisputable.

Adherence to a particular goal or outcome is a wonderful leadership trait, but in the hands of a zealot leader this virtue becomes a handicap. Zealot leaders forget that the key to leadership is essentially getting results by moving agendas ahead.

As a zealot leader, Senator Cruz has forgotten that leaders need to:

1. Get beyond their base to move agendas ahead Zealots often spend time talking to their fellow believers and reaffirming their ideological base as if this reaffirmation will energize their agenda.

Pragmatic leaders, on the other hand, appreciate that if the base is the only focus, then the base can quickly become a cult. Pragmatic leaders, no matter how committed they are to their core believes, understand that they must get beyond their base and avoid alienating those with whom they may not totally agree with, but have much in common with.

2. Never present commitment as self-righteousness Pragmatic leaders understand that conveying a strong sense of commitment and a deep sense of appreciation is a way of empowering others. The more they share their passion and belief in their agenda, the more they’re likely to spark an interest in others.

In the hands of zealot, commitment and passion often sound like self-righteousness. When commitment and passion become self-righteousness, even your closest allies may become a bit weary, fearing a level of inflexibility that in the long run may not be appropriate given the complexity of any situation. When self-righteousness replaces passion there is a sense that the subtlety of truth is often forgotten.

In such an instance even those that are closest are likely to be cautious of your leadership.

3. Realize that repetition is not persuasion All pragmatic leaders know they have to sell their ideas, but to succeed they have to do it subtly. They have to do it consistently and tactically. They cannot hope to bully the message across by the sheer force of repetition. Exhausting your opponent is not winning your opponent over.

Taking the microphone, grandstanding, and repeating the message over and over will always be seen as an attempt to celebrate yourself rather than an earnest attempt to convince others through the art of dialogue and conversation.

No matter how accurate your message, repetition makes the messenger the issue, thereby delegitimizing the message and engendering frustration from even the most sympathetic of listeners.

Zealot leaders can be left, right, or center; they can be complete revolutionaries or staunch traditionalists. It doesn’t matter.  In its drama, zealot leadership will always have its share of short-term benefits. It gives people pause so that they can reflect, it brings a tension to an agenda, and it creates a sense of urgency.

You can give credit to Senator Cruz for doing all that. But when zealot leaders go over the top, when they forget that leadership is the art of winning people over, when they forget the need for coalitions, when they engage in self-righteousness as truth, and use repetition as tactical tool--then they forget that leadership, in the end, is about getting results.

IMAGE: Gage Skidmore/Flickr
Last updated: Sep 26, 2013

SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Director, Cornell's Institute of Workplace Studies

Samuel B. Bacharach is the co-founder of Bacharach Leadership Group (BLG), specializing in leadership development programs with an emphasis on micro-skills: change, execution, negotiation and coaching. He is the McKelvey-Grant professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School. His books include Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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