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Congressional Leaders Can’t Also be Managers

November 1st, 2021 by dk

Why can’t Congress articulate a vision for what they want to accomplish and then set out to achieve that vision? Business leaders have shown it’s possible to direct massive undertakings without muddying the message. Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook have each shown they can turn on a dime or seize the moment when necessary.

If Congress asked these businesses how they executed those hairpin turns over the years, those companies probably wouldn’t send Tim Cook, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, or Mark Zuckerberg to testify about their operational strategies. They’d send their hands-on managers to share specifics.

The names we associate with these successful companies long ago handed off the operational reins, focusing instead on their company’s long-term vision. They stopped being managers so they could become leaders. Leaders concern themselves with the “what” and the “why”, leaving how, who, when and where for managers to decide.

Congress can’t emulate this model because it’s missing one leg of the stool. Corporations reward their leaders with power, prestige, and profits. Members of Congress who rise through the ranks can earn more responsibilities and more speaking engagements, but we don’t allow them to earn (substantially) more money.

There are no profit-sharing or stock options in government. Maybe there should be.

Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer get corner offices and larger staffs, but they function as very prominent managers. Staff members can hammer out details, but every detail must be articulated by the so-called leadership, whether it’s to a media outlet or a recalcitrant lawmaker. They are stuck in the operational weeds, unable to rise above the daily grind. They can’t focus on the bigger picture.

Complex organizations need leadership. Without it, everyone stays busy but not in a coordinated way. Every list of accomplishments becomes exactly and only that — a list. The whole never coheres to become larger than its parts.

This dynamic poses a larger problem for Democrats. Republicans are happy to see government’s role reduced in our lives. Doing less is considered an accomplishment on the political right. It’s the progressives who campaign around new programs and expanded initiatives. The political playing field tilts to the right.

As Pelosi and Schumer work the phones to wrangle votes for this or that, other members step to the bank of media microphones to fill that leadership vacuum. They proclaim their vision for what should happen and why, without being bothered by how it can be accomplished.

Factions develop. Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez make the progressive case. Joe Manchin and Josh Gottheimer raise concerns for the more conservative members. All while Mitch McConnell smiles and Kyrsten Sinema makes a face that no one can quite decipher.

Successful presidents play this essential leadership role, but again, the Democrats hoe a tougher row. Building effective programs is difficult. Dismantling them is not. Most Democratic presidents get blamed for getting too enmeshed in the process or remaining too aloof from it.

This doesn’t bode well for the current Democratic initiatives, unless they quickly determine who will lead them and who will manage the process. No one can do both.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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