Trent Lott: A Leader’s Misstep

Senator Trent Lott, majority leader of the United States Senate had a misstep with words that could—or should—cost him his job. He referred to Senator Strom Thurman’s candidacy for President of the United States in 1948 (one that supported segregationist policies) as being good for the country. At that time, segregation was part of the South’s culture; it took many years of hard work to change the culture and reduce the degrading practice of segregation. Was Thurman opportunistic like many politicians, adjusting positions as the political winds blew, or did he have a fundamental change in beliefs?

The same question can be asked of Senator Lott. Did he opportunistically modify his opinion to be more in sync with his constituencies? His lack of directness when responding to reporters’ questions and his voting record would suggest that he reacted to society’s change of opinion—he certainly did not lead the change. As a government leader, it is seems clear that Senator Lott was following the change in our society rather than leading the change. The open question is whether he fully believes in the fundamentals behind the change.

As a leader of the United States Senate, he has a special responsibility to develop trust with his followers. Leaders need to have this special trust between themselves and their constituents in order to have a smooth functioning organization. In this case, he has his Mississippi contingent, but more importantly, he has the republican majority of the United States Senate. This is a real leadership position and this position takes a special skill to be totally effective. When this confidence is undermined, as it was in the Archdiocese of Boston, a leadership change needs to occur. After all, we see it in corporations all the time. Why should publicly viewed organizations be any different?