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Lemming Leadership: Destructive Administrative Practices

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

By Ygnacio “Nash” Flores, Tracy Rickman and Don Mason
February 13, 2019

The recent and longest standoff concerning the federal government shutdown requires that national leaders work together to resolve budget issues. Since 1980 there have been ten federal shutdowns that have resulted in furloughs. President Carter experienced one shutdown, President Reagan experienced three shutdowns, President George H.W. Bush experienced one shutdown, President Obama experienced one shut down, and President Trump experienced two shutdowns. Though the United States has a two-party system, and it requires action or inaction from members of both parties, the ultimate blame for the shutdown lies with the president of the nation.

The immediate consequences of a federal shutdown include the creation of vulnerabilities to our national security, distrust of the government, and disruption to public services. A shutdown disrupts not only individual paychecks for federal workers but also affects many of the public services we are accustomed to in our daily lives. TSA agents, air traffic controllers and other essential services that the public at large depends upon each day suffered work interruptions.

Currently, as in the past, the media plays the political parties against each other and the president becomes demonized. Along with the demonization comes questions of leadership. For President Trump, current criticism focuses on his leadership and its destructive consequences on many levels. Some people may wonder why public administrators are so destructive in how they govern in the name of the people who elected them. We need to ask the question of why an administrative body can lead the nation to undesirable outcomes.

Though the image of lemmings jumping off a cliff is a myth created by Disney’s 1958 film, “White Wilderness,” the parallel of a nation following a leader over the cliff is not lost in popular debate. The tendency of leading to failure is what we call lemming leadership. This is the tendency of planning to fail.

A lemming leader has unique characteristics that most have seen in personal relationships, business and public administration. Lemming leaders create a personality cult which is driven by the love-fear they create in those that follow them. Following a lemming leader can be voluntary or it can be a situation where the follower has no other options available to them. Thus, the lemming leader manages with little care for others. Even if the lemming leader were to change position, the group of followers would willingly side with any decisions made by the flawed leader.

In organizations or systems where this culture exists, a recipe for failure is created and the consequences are substantial if not challenged. In the field of first responders, where lemming leaders exist, inaction can create a loss of public confidence. This results in false promises of increased response times, an increase of resources, and false promises to subordinate personnel and the community at large without any intent or means to make good on these fallacies.

Lemming leaders surround themselves with people who validate their identity in the world and shun any who might question the validity of their position, power, and intelligence. The quintessential “Yes sir”, or, “Yes ma’am” person thrives in this environment. A lemming leader surrounds themselves with people that validate their hubris.

A subordinate who is aware of these dynamics can easily manipulate a lemming leader into actions that further drive an organization towards ruin. The subordinate, in their own way, practices lemming leadership by ignoring the eventual outcome of their actions. Their actions usually are based on jealousy, revenge or self-aggrandizement.

The level of narcissism practiced by a lemming leader is driven by feelings of self-preservation. Unfortunately, excessive emphasis on self-preservation can ignore important factors that lead to preservation of oneself above that of an organization—or in the case of this article, a nation. They care little for how their actions affect the lives of others. Obedience is a form of action they consider as reciprocal love.

The world of a lemming leader is disorganized, and it is difficult for this person to distinguish between the personal environment and the political environment as these two environments clash.

Lemming leaders cannot view multiple problems at one time. A lemming leader usually concentrates on the one issue that challenges them as an individual and underestimates the importance of other problems they face. They cannot keep these two worlds separate as they focus on their image to the exclusion of other more important issues.

As public administrators, we study the dichotomy of politics and administration. In situations tied to a federal shutdown, the cliff looms close. This type of leadership cannot be sustained for long.

The lemming leader has existed throughout time; the characteristics of the lemming leader exist in every sector of society. However, world leaders, who have influence over an entire nation that subscribes to lemming leadership, will affect a nation for years to come. We cannot be a society of lemmings aimlessly following the leader over the cliff. If we submit and allow lemming leaders the opportunity to govern, life will imitate life and democracy will become extinct, one lemming leader at a time.


Authors: 
Ygnacio “Nash” Flores
Tracy Rickman
Don Mason


All service as faculty in Rio Hondo College’s Public Safety Department.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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