Third Rail and Fifth Column Leadership: A Contrarian’s Thought


-J. William DeMarco

“In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” —George Orwell

How many of us use the term 3rd rail or 5th column with no concept of the definition or history?  I did, but after some research it appears to be a truly impactful leader, we need to attack the third rail with a fifth column.  Let me explain.

The Third Rail and Servant Leadership

The third rail of a nation’s politics is simply a metaphor for any issue so controversial that it is “charged” and “untouchable” to the extent that any leader who dares to broach the subject will invariably suffer.

It is commonly attributed to Tip O’Neill, Speaker of the House of Representatives, during the Reagan presidency, although it seems to have actually been coined by O’Neill’s aide, Kirk O’Donnell, in 1982  referencing Social Security.

third-railThe metaphor stems from the high-voltage third rail in some electric railway systems. Stepping on or touching this rail usually results in electrocution, and the use of the term in politics relates to the risk of “political death” that a leader faces when tackling such issues.

What does third rail mean to the leader? In his 1977 book and television series The Age of Uncertainty,  Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith states, All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.”

Galbraith would argue that if a leader is not standing on the third rail he’s probably not leading.  As a leader are we ready to be electrocuted for what we believe are the anxieties of the people we lead?   Are we willing to confront those?  Do you own a pair of rubber boots?

The Fifth Column: Rebels and Rogues

A fifth column is any group of people that undermines a larger group from within, usually in favor of a rival group or nation—the rebels and rogues. The activities of a fifth column can be overt or clandestine. Forces gathered in secret can mobilize openly to assist external pressure.

c15bc71cf0aff42b7cd5c3a8f4fae369Emilio Mola, a Nationalist General during the Spanish Civil War, told a journalist in 1936 that as his four columns of troops approached Madrid, a “fifth column” of supporters inside the city would support him and undermine the Republican government from within. The term was then widely used in Spain. Ernest Hemingway used it as the title of his only play which he wrote in Madrid while the city was bombarded, and in 1938 it was published  in his book The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories.

Fifth column is usually shorthand for sedition and disloyalty, but given the third rail leadership’s concept of confronting “unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time“, might there be a need for a fifth column and a need to define healthy fifth column leadership? Can an organization truly achieve disruption without a fifth column?

Third Rail Thought and Fifth Column Operations: 

The question that fifth column leadership raises is, “Where precisely does noble opposition to tired, bureaucratic leadership end, and treacherous collaboration with belligerent entities against one’s own people begin?” Noble opposition to tired, bureaucratic leadership is definitely required as we operate in a post information age—and the leader that can innovate and disrupt will ensure the brightest possible future for the people we lead.  The later— treacherous collaboration with belligerent entities against one’s own people—has no place in any leadership venture.  The leader must be firmly grounded in ethical behavior—understanding the leader is simply the servant of those we lead.

orwellspainmap2If we are indeed addressing a third rail issue, there will be opposition. Knowing what we are doing is right and necessary, ethical fifth column leadership almost seems obvious and required.  Leadership addressing such charged issues will require support from good rebels within the bureaucracy.

These fifth column leaders must start loosening the solid screws of certain key concepts, thus making those concepts less charged and reliable.  These good rebels must assist those in the organization to more fully understand the issue and the consequences of prolonged inaction.

Fifth column leaders infuse critical thinking against long held beliefs that may no longer be valid, yet the organization holds on to old ideas and antiquated ideology as a comfort and longing for the past.  Without a fifth column, disruption—innovation may never occur.

If we are bold audacious leaders with a willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxieties of the people we lead or the fifth column issues of the people in our time and fully understanding this, and not much else, is the essence of leadership–we can have a huge impact for those we serve. March your four columns forward, but ensure you have a fifth column in reserve ready to support as required.

4 Replies to “Third Rail and Fifth Column Leadership: A Contrarian’s Thought”

  1. Hi Bill,

    Sun Tzu had something to say about 5th columns as well. Sometimes I wonder if that is useful for 3rd rails. Know your enemy and know yourself.


  2. Some good reflections here, Colonel. When I sat back to think on it some, I was drawn to the underlying nature of this Third Rail. Arguably, any attempt to ‘change the tracks’ of an enterprise involves gauging the amperage (amps not volts kill) and properly planning to move this rail.

    Cases for change in the elemental enterprise components of Technology, People & Process are almost exclusively an appeal by force of objective truth and logic (some ROI formulae analogous to ‘X’ costs to attain some ‘Y’ effectiveness/efficiency with ‘Z’ level of confidence). The people component, however, is always two-fold (possessing subjective energies of propulsion or resistance). Most any Wharton Excel jockey can model the math of decision-making in uncertainty – but it takes a leader to address the underlying hearts and minds variable of the equation for organizational change.

    You are particularly right to call out bureaucracies. Bureaucracy is endemic to infirmed enterprises where people are apt to increasingly ‘do things right’ rather than ‘do the right things.’ In fact, is has been said that the sole purpose of any bureaucracy is really to foment the bureaucracy (like a metastasizing cancer). People under such too often resist giving up the comfort and safety they perceive as earned (and so the enterprise be damned).

    I suppose another name for the Third Rail is the ever-lurking special or self-interest to be found in any endeavor. Overhauling U.S. Social Security serving as particular example (motive to preserve the treasury versus to pleasure to be had in plundering it). In selling change over the course of years, and as signal embedded within any technical proposal(s) at hand, we frequently reminded ourselves of an underlying, unspoken mission in success: coin-phrased as ‘helping our client have more sex’ (that by working with us, we must see to it that he shine amongst his peers, more often gets home in time for supper, and less often kicks the dog, etc. … in short, care after his personal self-interest in addition to honoring our contractual consideration).

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