Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

All About Ethics Blog

Boehner's Stepping Aside Showed Leadership

This article was originally published in the Mercury News on September 28, 2015.

John Boehner is having a leadership moment. In working both his personal bucket list by inviting Pope Francis to address Congress and showing his institutional leadership chops by stepping away from his post at Speaker of the house, he's reminding us what leadership is.

Boehner is showing us the value of playing one's position well and fully and demonstrating that the best leaders know this includes giving up a formal role when the time is right. I predict he'll have more influence in the future because of his choice to resign now.

By inviting Pope Francis, Boehner demonstrated that it's not what a leader says but what he does that makes the strongest impression, an approach the Pope also takes. Boehner was wise to share the podium with someone else who could remind Congress what it needs to lead--the Golden Rule.

The Pope presented views on moral leadership and Humanity 101 in elegant, careful language, peeling the politics from the morality on each subject. Boehner and Biden perched behind him completed a vignette of some common ground in real life-- in this case, their shared faith.

By advancing his resignation, Boehner put constituents' needs above his own. He reminded us in his press conference that the top priority of the Speaker of the House should be to protect the institution. Too many leaders of institutions of every ilk lose sight of this, sometimes putting self-interest first, or the narrower interests of influential supporters.

By resigning now, Boehner clarifies the current situation facing the House. He shuts down the distraction his leadership post has become rather than the government itself.

Perhaps Congress itself will benefit the most. Boehner cites the need to find common ground in an echo of the Pope's encouragement on this same point. If Congress is listening well, they can seize the opportunity to find common ground and return to the original purpose of their work in a government, to serve the common good.

There are enough dynamics in a capitalistic democracy to be sure that self-interests are met. We need strong leadership in Congress to insure that common good interests are also protected. And, maybe, government itself will get a boost it sorely needs.

Boehner isn't the only elected official who has played his position well this week. President Obama largely left the visit of the Pope to Congress and went about his own work hosting the president of China, a relationship critical for the US to nurture. Obama made gracious remarks about Boehner's role as Speaker upon news of his resignation, citing specific aspects of how he did his work that should still matter to citizens who want to trust their government.

Obama said that Boehner is a man who kept his word and conducted himself with "courtesy and civility," attributes necessary for the genuine dialogue Congress needs to have. He pointed to the strength of Boehner's character, his commitment to his institution, Congress, and the people Congress serves, America's citizens. By demonstrating civility and courtesy himself, Obama sends a strong signal that he knows how to live by the Golden Rule the Pope spoke of and understands how necessary it is to lead well.

On Boehner's part, by giving up power, he might gain more influence than he's had in his long career. When people arrive at the season of their leadership life where they understand this paradox and can act upon it, they've arrived in a place few people ever get to.

In doing so, Boehner has the opportunity to make a significant difference and provide genuine moral leadership.

Ann Skeet is director of leadership ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.


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