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Do Good Leaders Sacrifice With Their Employees?

Did Obama and Hagel's offers to forfeit part of their salaries really mean anything?

In the Young Leaders Panel, Government Executive editors pose a question about an issue affecting the federal workforce to a group of emergent leaders outside the federal community. The following responses come from St. Louis Coro™ Fellows Program in Public Affairs class of 2013:

Question: As furloughs begin, several government leaders have announced they will take voluntary pay cuts. In early April, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he would forfeit part of his pay and President Obama announced he would give 5 percent of his salary (about $16,667 of his $400,000 annual salary) back to the Treasury Department in a show of solidarity with federal employees facing unpaid furloughs. Some say the voluntary cuts shows empathy and support for the oft-vilified federal worker while others say the voluntary cuts don’t amount to much and are merely symbolic—especially for the President, who has an expense account and pays little of his own day-to-day expenses.  When organizations are going through tough times, is it necessary for leaders to sacrifice along with those they lead? How can effective leaders demonstrate commitment to each and every member of a struggling organization without seeming inauthentic?

The following responses come from four fellows that make up the Coro St. Louis 2013 class.

Symbols have meaning

Sacrifices by leaders in times of difficulty are a way to build respect, loyalty and solidarity with those in the organization that are struggling.  The rank and file will weigh this connection with their leader alongside a myriad of other personal and professional motivations when deciding whether to stay with the organization and how hard to work in their role. In this context I would not characterize President Obama and Secretary Hagel’s pay cuts as necessary; federal workers are likely to be most concerned about the uncertainty around their employment and the impact furloughs will have on their financial future and well-being.  

In large and complex organizations, such as the federal government, it seems highly unlikely that gestures from the highest leaders could authentically demonstrate commitment to each member of their organization. Leaders cannot directly interact with everyone and thus their actions will be left to interpretation, praise and/or criticism regardless of their underlying commitment. In the case of President Obama, he may have bypassed some of the criticism expressed by taking a larger cut in pay.  A more substantive voluntary forfeiture would likely have appeared more authentically sympathetic to the hardships federal employees face due to mandatory furloughs.  

--Jake Barnett (Chicago, IL)

Challenges of scale

The struggles a leader faces to seem authentic to their team only grow as the team expands. The federal government, a very large team, has its fair share of seemingly inauthentic leaders. So the question of how a leader remains authentic rings particularly true there.

Leaders of the federal government agreeing to pay cuts in this time of uncertainty for the nation makes good sense to many. When the belt of an organization is tightened, it makes sense to tighten that belt all the way around. The leader does not deserve to keep reaping the rewards they saw in a robust economy. When workers look at those in leadership, they see recognition of their troubles in the leader that has returned some of their pay. It is an acknowledgement of the tough times and should be applauded as a valiant effort.

The quickest way to destroy this hopefully authentic gesture is to extend the hardship of pay cuts and furloughs unnecessarily. These pay cuts will be seen as genuine if they cause our leaders to find a solution. An authentic understanding of the problems facing workers who are furloughed is a renewed fervor to find a solution.

--Erica Muñoz-Fitch (Iowa City, IA)

Symbolizing leadership

Symbols are powerful things and can be effective in relaying a message to a wide audience. The symbol has to be backed by an underlying belief in order for it to be powerful and effective. In some cases it is necessary for a sacrifice to be made and that sacrifice has to be one that is significant enough for those being led to recognize and respect.

The symbolic sacrifice in this case is not what federal workers need in order to feel like the Defense Secretary and the President have their best interests at heart. An effective leader can best show solidarity with his or her followers by leading them out of the difficult times. That effective leader would become a symbol of the better times to come, and share his/her vision with others while setting and maintain a course out of the difficult times and into the prosperous times.  Providing some stability and job security along with letting workers know what their fate is will help quell some of the fears that go along with the unknown. Additionally sharing a plan for the future that will help those affected by furloughs and prevent this same thing from recurring is the most effective way to show that they have the best interests of the workers at heart.

--Mandela Byam (Tulsa, OK)

Leading from the heart

Imagine a different situation.  A visiting dignitary somehow learns that Obama routinely takes a significant pay cut, indexed to the economy.  (“Significant” would mean an amount that we all agree is significant--greater than 5%.)  Obama has kept the cut active since the beginning of his first term as a personal reminder of the gravity of his office.  The dignitary leaks the unknown fact to the press, and the story blows up.

If things happened that way, the facts would refute any serious accusations of extrinsic, “political” motivation.  We would all spontaneously perceive an integrity that is normally hidden from us by the spotlight of attention.  This is not what happened.

No, it is not “necessary” for leaders to sacrifice.  Authentic sacrifice cannot be expected or compelled.  If leaders’ hearts draw them to sacrifice they might learn something useful.  If the desire is weak it is best not to toy with such powerful tools while in the public eye.  No-one should expect to earn political capital for making the right decisions.  If you make the right decisions, your integrity will occasionally shine through, and you will give your spin doctors material they cannot screw up.  Leadership is distinct from ideas about what is “necessary.”

--Nathan Garrett (Chicago, IL)

Read the panel's previous responses:

The Coro™ Fellows Program in Public Affairs is an intensive, nine-month, full-time program that combines exposure to various industries with rigorous, hands-on training. The program uses experiential learning; interviews with private, public and nonprofit decision-makers; and training in critical thinking, communication and project management. These 16 Fellows are participating in the program in St. Louis, where it is operated by FOCUS St. Louis. The program is also offered in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Pittsburgh.