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Collaboration in Policy Development: Evidence in History

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael Abels
March 31, 2023


Leadership theory has a long arc of development extending from Machiavellian and transactional theories to the transformational theories espoused by Warren Bennis, Ronald Heifetz and James McGregor Burns. This leadership arc has brought us to a current model, servant leadership, which emphasizes collaborative leadership. It is easy to believe that leadership evolution has naturally and irreversibly evolved from the authority centric, power over theory to today’s human centric, manager as servant leader model. However, if we look at one stream in our national political life, the idea that Machiavellian leadership is an effective leadership model is currently in vogue and on display by former President Trump as well as by prominent national leaders such as Ron DeSantis, Governor of Florida. So, a relevant question posed to public managers, which leadership style, Machiavellian or servant, is most effective for enacting policies which need the approval of multiple non-aligned groups? Is there historical evidence that would give credence to either the Machiavellian or the servant leadership approach as a leadership model that should be used to effectively implement policy for solving today’s complex public issues?

History abounds with lessons of the past that hold efficacy today. The question previously posed can be analyzed by looking at presidential decisions taken by Woodrow Wilson with the League of Nations, and Franklin Roosevelt with the lend-lease program.

Woodrow Wilson’s Machiavellian Failure with League of Nations

President Woodrow Wilson’s vision for America’s involvement in WW1 was to design the peace so that WW1 would be the war to end all wars. His vision was centered on concluding the war with a peace treaty that would bind Europe and the United States through an interlocking obligation, and by doing so, would deter future belligerent military actions that could lead to another world war. Because of his missteps, including his failure to collaborate with internationalist Republicans, such as former Republican President William Howard Taft in the design of the League of Nations, Wilson failed to gain Senate approval for the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations.  

While former President Taft endorsed an international collective security concept he labeled as the League to Enforce Peace, it varied in detail from Wilson’s League of Nations. Wilson refused to consider compromising his plan with Taft, or, with the ideas advocated by other Republicans who also supported internationalism.  Wilson took a Machiavellian power over approach to his relationship with the Senate, and this resulted in the Versailles Treaty with its League of Nations never being ratified by the United States Senate. Because of this failure, within two decades after WW1 the world was again consumed by a world war. A war that Wilson foresaw.

Franklin Roosevelt’s Collaborative Success with Lend-Lease

Franklin Roosevelt served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy during the Wilson administration. In this position he had a front row seat where he observed the failure of the Wilson administration to work collaboratively with his political opponents to secure Senate approval for the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations. The lessons Roosevelt took from this experience were catalysts which caused him to look for collaborative approaches to advance his policy agenda after he became president. One example is the lend-lease program which Congress approved in 194, which authorized Roosevelt to lend or sell military equipment to any country Roosevelt believed was essential to America’s national security. 

Before entering WW2 the United States and Congress were heavily focused on international isolationism. To counter the strong isolationist members of the US Congress, Roosevelt designed a collaborative approach for persuading Congress to approve lend-lease. His approach involved making the Republican who ran against him for President in 1940 a partner in his program to implement lend-lease. 

In 1940, Roosevelt’s Republican opponent was Wendell Willkie. After defeating Willkie in the presidential election in 1941, Roosevelt enlisted Willkie as an ally to help sell the merits of the lend-lease program to isolationist Republicans in Congress. Roosevelt sent Willkie as his personal envoy to meet with Winston Churchill and then enlisted Willkie to testify to Congress in support of lend-lease. The lend-lease bill was passed by comfortable margins in both the House and Senate and became a material supply lifeline to Britain and the Soviet Union. Aid provided through lend-lease was critically important to Britain and the Soviet Union and was a major contributor that allowed them to stay in the war against Nazi Germany.    


History points to collaboration as the most effective leadership tool for addressing policy issues that affect multiple interests. The League of Nations and Lend-Lease are two case examples which point to the efficacy of collaboration as the foundation for policy leadership. These two cases provide four lessons that can be applied by today’s leaders to any policy issue: 1) collaboratively agree with other policy stakeholders on the desired end goal as well as implementing strategies; 2) compromise with conflicting stakeholders on process; 3) collaborate with other stakeholders amid the implementation process; and 4) recognize that utilizing a Machiavellian, power-over approach will likely lead to policy failure.

Author: Michael Abels is a career city manager and retired Lecturer in Public Administration at the University of Central Florida. Published a text-workbook through Routledge Taylor & Francis Group titled Policy Making in the Public Interest: A Text and Workbook for Local Government.  Author contact email is [email protected]. Twitter @ abelsmike

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