Let’s talk about Alberto Gonzales for a moment without the partisan political maelstrom swirling around his decision today to resign as United States Attorney General. The political debates are necessary, but I’m more interested in Gonzales’ decision as a pragmatic case study in failed leadership.
In top-tier leadership positions, there are inevitably crisis episodes and challenging chapters. The question is what should a leader do in response to those challenges. In the terms of a business publication like CIO.com, Gonzales failed to lead his organization in three ways:
1. Gonzales misread when it was time to go.
There comes at least one time in every leader’s career when a big test is knowing when it’s time to leave. It should not take an emotional intelligence quiz to pick up on warning signals that trouble is here, whether that means organizational changes, a particular leader’s waning influence, or an industry in flux.
In Gonzales’ case, the attorney general hit a trouble ticket jackpot: President Bush’s influence waned after the 2006 election case. And a hostile Congress looked to scrutinize the Administration’s moves–especially Gonzales’ role in the recent firing of nine United States attorneys. His handling of this crisis, which included testimony before Congress sometimes at odds with some of his former colleagues, damaged his relationship with some key players in his organization. As a result some
Senators called for Gonzales to step down.
It’s not uncommon for business leaders to find themselves in such vulnerable positions. All the same, when people who can help you succeed are calling for your resignation, it either can be a sign of strength to stick it out or it can be a missed opportunity to let another leader do a better job for the sake of the entire organization.
Which brings us to the second point.
2. Gonzales misunderstood a leader’s need to build alliances with people who could help him succeed.
Gonzales mistakenly believed that only one person–his boss, President Bush–mattered to his success. That’s not how it works in business, of course. But it’s also not how it works in our Constitutional form of government where the executive branch is supposed to share power with the
legislative branch. Even a supreme CEO has to work with a CFO and answer to the auditors who
certify Sarbanes-Oxley statements for signature.
Even though Congress switched over control to the Democrats after the 2006 elections, Gonzales
demonstrated little willingness to revise his approach for a new working climate. Had he done so, he
could have proved his mettle as a leader. It’s likely he also would have had to acknowledge some
errors in judgment along the way. Just like successful leaders everywhere find they have to do,
once in a while, even if it’s difficult.
3. Unlike Gonzales, great leaders work tirelessly to leave their organizations in good standing when they are gone.
Nothing lasts forever. Everyone has to leave a job at some point. Because life is unpredictable,
leaders plan for the best hand-picked successor to take over while also having plans in place if the
unexpected should happen. It’s a matter of both good
succession planning and business continuity.
There’s no doubt the Justice Department will carry on its business after Gonzales’ resignation
becomes official Sept. 17. But many media reports from Washington are describing the working
environment at Justice as awful. Veteran political reporter Dan Balz of The Washington Post reports:
“[Gonzales’] stubborn refusal to accept the reality that he had lost the confidence of nearly
everyone but the president further soured the already acidic relations between Congress and the
White House. His Justice Department, in the words of Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) became
The lessons here are clear enough: leadership demands not only steadfastness to a vision. Leadership
also demands the ability to see challenges clearly, to identify relationships (even difficult ones)
that can help the leader succeed. Leaders who succeed demonstrate both pragmatism and a dose of
humility when required.
Gonzales showed steadfastness in abundance. But he lacked those other qualities, leadership deficits
which taken together combined to cost him his job, hurt his boss and left his organization in