In the midst of the continuous unraveling of the Edward Snowden story, strong arguments have been made from his proponents and critics, in an attempt to understand his actions and decipher if he is a fearless leader or a political dissident. As we review his actions from the trait approach perspective and power perspective of leadership, it is pertinent that we examine the context in which the U.S. government is contending with, and to understand why seemingly draconian measures are needed in defense of national security today.
Integrity is a key element of leadership traits that has been identified in leadership research, according to Kirkpatrick and Locke (1991, p59). Integrity extends beyond honesty and reliability; it encompasses a person’s principled decision to take responsibility for their actions (Northouse, 2013, p 25). From the trait approach perspective, proponents can argue that he is a patriot with undeniably strong ethics and integrity who chose to give up his own political freedom in order to defend the civil liberties of all Americans. Snowden was well aware that his decision to unravel the privileged information he was privy to would result in irrevocable consequences, yet he was willing to stand out and be counted as he believed that Americans have the right to protect their individual privacy in accordance with the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. On the other hand, it can also be argued that his decision to do so violated the trust that his employer has bestowed on him, and that his actions have demonstrated irresponsibility, fallibility, and lack of integrity with absolute disregard of the dire consequences his actions have caused.
Power is another concept that is synonymous with leadership; it refers to the capacity of the leader to affect others (House, 1984). From a power perspective, it is evident that Snowden did not have the legitimate power to reveal the information since he was clearly not given the authority to do so. However, what he did have was personal power that was ascribed to him by his followers who believed that he exemplified political courage and integrity. Civil liberty advocates are effectively conferring “referent” and “expert power” (Northouse, 2013, p10) on Snowden as they identified with his ideals of individual privacy and believed that his insider knowledge about the National Security Administration (NSA)’s programs were irrevocably true.
Regardless of the theory in which we choose to apply in order to understand Snowden’s actions, it is important to examine the situation from the context of the collective goals of Americans. As we live in the post-9/11 era, there is a general consensus that global security in this age of radical extremism requires sweeping reforms and measures. According to a Pew Research Center/USA Today poll conducted recently, most Americans recognize and agree that there is a need for the government to exercise extraordinary measures to combat this new era of security threats (Elliott, 2013). The collective goal of all Americans should be to protect ourselves against any further terrorist actions. As such, we should trust that agencies such as NSA possess the expert power to do what is best for this collective goal. Without national security, civil liberty does not exist.
It is therefore prudent for the leader (in this instance, the U.S. government) to maintain its integrity to exercise its legitimate and expert power, and to do what is deemed best for the country in the defense of national security.
Elliott, Rebecca (2013). Poll : Most Want Edward Snowden Charged. Politico. June 17, 2013.
House, R.J. (1984). Power in Organizations: A Social Psychological Perspective. Unpublished manuscript, University of Toronto.
Kirkpatrick, S.A.,& Locke, E.A. (1991). Leadership: Do traits matter? The Executive, 5, 48-60.
Northouse, P.G. (2013). Leadership:Theory and Practice (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.