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Losing and Leading


All the news photos show two people with broad smiles hugging each other, the tall man with gray hair clamping his arm around the petite brunette. Both look like winners, and both are, in their own way. But the media mavens have declared the woman a loser, even though she just made history — unanimously elected as the first woman ever to hold the most powerful legislative office in the land. The man is declared as a big winner, even though he is #2 to the woman. What to make of this strange turn of events?

This morning, the House Democratic Caucus elected Nancy Pelosi (Trinity ’62) as the new Speaker of the House. The vote was unanimous. She made history, but apparently not so much progress in the minds of her party peers and media mavens. Her election was down in the story, after the lede that announced the victory of Steny Hoyer (D-MD) as Democratic Majority Leader, the #2 position after the Speaker.

Speaker-elect Pelosi backed John Murtha (D-PA) whose anti-war stance brought him to public attention this year. But Congressman Murtha was a controversial choice for Pelosi because of ethics issues, and the Democrats preferred Hoyer, who has been #2 to Pelosi for all of the years that she was Democratic Leader.

Confusing? Perhaps. But this blog is not about the politics of the Murtha v. Hoyer vote, or even about Pelosi’s motivations in backing Murtha. Frankly, I have no idea what really went on, though I have read all the published news items. IMHO I think there are things that go on behind closed doors in the political arena that we common citizens will never understand …. not because we’re stupid, but because the processes are not “transparent” in spite of decades of efforts to make them so.

Instead, for students of leadership and politics — and especially women’s leadership — my reflection here is about losing and leading, learning the art of compromise in order to make progress. Nancy Pelosi must lead from this point forward, regardless of the loss she sustained today. She also won — the most powerful legislative position in the country, no small change! — and now she must learn to wear that mantle well. Perhaps this loss will be a great lesson for her.

Truly effective leaders have to practice a form of RealPolitik — certainly with a moral point of view, but avoiding extremes of ideology or rhetoric. The realistic leader must make compromises, be inclusive of many different points of view. The realistic leader knows that progress is not made through grand posturing, but rather, through persuading the rest of the community in small and subtle ways to move forward together in ways that serve the common good.

Losing a big contest might be a good thing for a leader. Losing pushes the leader away from the ideological edge, forces the leader to a position of realism, the imperative of finding the center where most people can agree.

Can Nancy Pelosi recover from losing her bet on Jack Murtha? Of course. For heaven’s sakes, she’s a seasoned politician, a woman who just made history. But to make progress, she will definitely have to work not only with the Hoyer camp and the majority of Democratic Congresspeople who backed him, but also with the new minority of Republicans who are just itching to turn the tables again. She is challenged to practice realism in ways this nation has not seen recently among its top political leaders.

Losing gracefully, embracing the winner, moving ahead with the common agenda — these are the marks of true leadership. If Pelosi does that, today’s loss for her will be tomorrow’s gain for all American citizens regardless of party or ideology. Learning to lose well, to turn the loss into a gain, is one of the most important lessons of leadership in today’s conflictful political world.

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
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