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2011 Winter Issue 6 (February 18, 2011)

Carleton alum channels Wellstone, inspires students

February 18, 2011
By Jonathan Lin

Jeff Blodgett, the founding director of Wellstone Action, a national center for training and leadership development, opened his convocation speech last Friday by recalling his own experience of studying with Paul Wellstone at Carleton College during the early 1980s. He described Wellstone’s admiration for strong individual conviction and the view that one’s work should involve what one really believes in. Blodgett thus described the model of leadership and change embodied by Wellstone, noting that although it was not unique to his philosophy, it certainly made him a distinctive force in leadership development.

In emphasizing the issue of power and more importantly “social power” – being able to accomplish collectively with people holding similar interests – Blodgett referred to the principles of the Wellstone triangle, which embody three core concepts: community organizing, electoral politics, and public policy change. He emphasized that all three of these “realms” must be present in order to have great social power, stating that he associates “every successful social movement to this model”, citing the Civil Rights Movement as an example. The importance of organizing the community lies in strengthening numbers and building bonds; electoral politics involves “deciding who decides” and who is the representative; public policy change presents the fundamental vision that the movement embodied.

Blodgett highlighted the two key players involved in the successful social movement. The first, the leader, is someone “with a following, who moves a gathering from A to B, to gather social power for some end.” He pointed out that we mostly focus on the leaders – usually the party candidates, the spokespeople – and do not know about the other essential component: the organizer. These people “are where the rubber hits the road” – in essence helping to identify, support, and guide leaders.  Blodgett said that emerging leaders should master qualities of both these players, arguing that the result would be transformational rather than transactional leadership. He defined the latter as simply “doing deals with a focus on maintaining the status quo as opposed to changing it,” while the former entails an inspiring force that “taps into people, empowers leadership, and takes the spotlight off you as the leader and instead on others, harnessing the energy of your following.” He stated that Obama was a great example of both a leader and an organizer, and attributed his recent drop in political performance to the faltering of his transformational energy; he “chose to lead with politics of compromise rather than advocacy,” in the process neglecting his followers because “he turned the ‘Yes We Can’ into ‘Yes I Can.’”

Blodgett focused on three essential qualities that the Wellstone leadership development model fosters. The first, authenticity, requires candidates to “seem real” to their voters. The second is strategy, the act of actually reconciling these two groups of people to a common ground of experiences and values. Blodgett emphasized how essential this is – that “without strategy, authenticity is just about you” and does not focus on the constituents. These two qualities would be worthless, however, without the third quality,  “hard work.” Blodgett stated that this may be the most important, that candidates need to understand the superhuman efforts that leadership demands. In the constant need to empower leadership by harnessing grassroots power, galvanizing the voters, and properly channeling their energy, the successful leader must be willing to work hard.

In conclusion, Blodgett highlighted Paul Wellstone's embodiment of authenticity. He recalled that “for some of his voters, they didn’t necessarily agree with him, but liked that they knew where he stood,” summing up how Wellstone effectively built up and then channeled his social power. By stressing that “authenticity is good politics,” Blodgett returned to his strong admiration for conviction, urging us as Carleton students to use our time here to determine our true beliefs, and then head out into the world and work for them.

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