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Archive for October, 2008



I love Halloween.  All the wonderful, inventive decorations;the little kids in cute costumes; their glee at all the free sugar; my daughter and her husband still getting excited about dressing up.

When my kids were little, we lived in Colorado for a number of years, and there was at the time a pretty strong fundamentalist movement in the schools to ban Halloween celebrations from public schools. I remember seeing one little kid interviewed on TV, absolutely terrified that if she dressed up like a witch or a goblin for Halloween she would get taken away by the devil.  Seriously. I’m not kidding.
Fear is such a corrosive emotion.  And people who try to make other people afraid as a way of controlling their behavior – I find that really despicable, whether those people are parents, bosses, religious figures, or Republican presidential nominees.
Human beings operate much more effectively and have a much better time when they’re motivated through love and hope for the future.  Possibility!
Posted in Thinking


Far-sighted, Courageous, Wise

The Arena – Politico's daily debate with policymakers and opinion shapers | Politico.com.

OK, one more Obama-based blog post…

This is an article by Cass Sunstein, a professor at Harvard Law School who is a friend and former colleague of Obama's.  I just had to include it, because Sunstein does such a great job of articulating some of the leadership characteristics I've been talking about – and that both he and I see in Obama.

At one point, he mentions Obama's enthusiasm for the approach Lincoln took to building a diverse group of advisors (described in Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals).  This, especially, seems far-sighted, courageous and wise to me, and I deeply hope he has the opportunity to create such a team. Good leaders look at all sides of a problem so they truly understand it before moving forward.  How wonderful it would be to have a president who approaches issues like that!
Posted in News


Our Longing for Good Leaders

For any of you who haven’t yet figured this out: I’m very much a supporter of Barack Obama, and in fact, have already cast my absentee ballot for him. Given that, I suspect the observations I’m about to share aren’t entirely objective. But I still think they’re accurate. I’ll let you be the judge.

As I’ve watched Obama continue to maintain and solidify his lead in the polls over the past month, I’ve noticed that many commentators ascribe it to factors entirely extrinsic to the candidate: bad economic times favor the Democrats; people are disgusted with Bush; John McCain shot himself in the foot by choosing Sarah Palin (or by acting weird in the debates, or by behaving erratically in response to the financial crisis); McCain’s strong suit – foreign policy – is less important now; Colin Powell’s endorsement calmed people’s fears about Obama’s lack of military and foreign policy experience; people are sick of negative campaigning (Bill Ayers, et al); etc. etc.
Some or all of those things may be true.  And yet, I think there is at least one very important element, something simpler and more elemental, something within the man himself, that the pundits seem, for the most part, to be ignoring.  Let me say it simply:  I think the majority of the voting public has come to believe that Obama looks, feels and sounds and acts more like a leader than McCain.
Human beings, I believe, are hardwired to sort for certain attributes in their leaders.  Until fairly recently in history, selecting the right leader was a matter of life and death. Natural selection favored those who chose well: they lived in greater numbers to procreate.
Certain “good leader” traits show themselves again and again, in history, in myth, in folk and fairy tales. I posted last February explaining my understanding of these traits, so I’ll just note here why I believe Obama is demonstrating them and McCain isn’t.
People want leaders who are Far-sighted.  When Obama speaks, he articulates his vision of a positive future for America in a way that is both compelling and inclusive.  McCain, though he may hold such a vision, tends to speak instead about how the downsides of Obama’s vision. This doesn’t come across as far-sighted.
People want leaders who are Passionate, and by this I don’t mean volume or rhetoric, I mean a depth and consistency of commitment to achieving their vision. Obama continues to focus on the issues that he believes are essential to achieving his vision of the future, regardless of what the Republicans, or external circumstances, throw at him.  He is, as Colin Powell noted last Sunday, “steady.” McCain, on the other hand, has acted in ways that are so inconsistent as to seem almost haphazard.
People want leaders who are Courageous and Trustworthy. Obama consistently responds to attacks and setbacks with calmness, poise, clarity and dignity – which people interpret as courage and trustworthiness.  McCain – though he is in many ways a very courageous man – has, by resorting to an almost exclusively negative approach to campaigning, caused himself to appear both not courageous and untrustworthy; most people interpret character attacks as “back-stabbing” – the act of a coward.
People want leaders who are Wise. They want leaders who are thoughtful, who reflect on and grow from their mistakes, who acknowledge the strengths of their adversaries and learn from them, who look for common ground.  Obama has consistently behaved in these ways, especially in the presidential debates. McCain looks angry, erratic, reactive vs. reflective; like someone who would throw a punch – physically and metaphorically – rather than taking the time to seek the best solution.
People want leaders who are Generous.  Obama has run, by every account, an extraordinarily well-managed campaign. Both his staffers and the many thousands of volunteers are almost uniformly enthusiastic and positive, not only about their candidate, but about their experience working in his organization. People assume that happy followers result from generous leaders: generous with time, money, praise, support, direction.  McCain, in contrast, seems to have had a difficult time pulling together a strong on-the-ground team, and has appeared both bitter and condescending toward his opponent, two characteristics which strongly translate to people as ungenerous.
Today I watched a youtube video of a woman in New Hampshire, a Republican who has decided to vote for Obama, and when she tried to explain why, she said two things that support this sense I have that people are seeing him as the leader they want:
“By the third debate, I was sure.  I think first of all, when Barack Obama came walking out on stage, he gave me that presence of a President.”
“…I think in the long run, he’s going to do what’s best for me and my family.”
And that’s the bottom line: People want leaders – not only of nations, but of companies as well – who they think will put the welfare of those they lead first; who will consistently choose to do what’s best for the group, rather than simply what’s best for themselves.
Posted in Leading People


Presidential Strategy

As I watched the first presidential debate, I found my attention especially caught by the wrangle over strategies and tactics that arose regarding the surge in Iraq. At one point, after Obama had called the surge a tactic, McCain responded: “I’m afraid Senator Obama doesn’t understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy.” As so much of the work we do with our clients focuses on strategy, and on helping them to be strategic, I thought it fascinating that this should be a point of argument. 

When McCain accused Obama of not understanding strategy, his look, his lip and his tone of voice all conveyed that this was very unfortunate indeed; a lack we should reject in a potential president. Somehow we have all come to agree that being strategic is good and not being strategic is bad, but what do we really mean by it? 

Dear readers, many of you know what I’m going to say here: I think the essence of being strategic is consistently making core directional choices that will best move you toward your hoped-for future. That is, to have a clear and compelling vision of the company, the department or the career you want to create; to decide on a handful of broad directions efforts that will take you to that future; to be consistent in acting in support of those key directions. 

If that’s what it means to be strategic, then it is an essential quality in a president. And by this definition, I agree with Obama that the surge was a tactic – a specific action intended to have a near-term impact, rather than a strategy – a broad directional choice made to move toward a long-term desired outcome. And he actually explained very clearly why he saw it as such during his interview last summer with Katie Couric: 

“What happens…if we are willing to send as many troops as we can muster continually into Iraq? There's no doubt that that's going to have an impact. But it doesn't meet our long-term strategic goal, which is to make the American people safer over the long term. If that means that we're detracting from our efforts in Afghanistan, where conditions are deteriorating, if it means that we are distracted from going after Osama bin Laden….” 

It seems to me that Obama has been quite clear about strategy and tactics from the beginning of his campaign. Whether or not you agree with Obama’s politics, his rise, over a period of eighteen months, from a junior senator far back in the pack of Democratic hopefuls, to his stunning and unexpected overthrow of the Clinton machine, argues strongly for his strategic capability. 

It’s one thing to want something (it would be very difficult to find someone who wanted something more than Hillary wanted the Democratic nomination), it’s quite another to be able actually to achieve that thing – and that’s where being strategic is often the difference between success and failure. Obama was able, throughout the primary season, to make – and keep making – those core directional choices that continued to move him toward his hoped-for future. For instance, his focus on creating strong on-the-ground teams in each state, knowing that, generally speaking, a large turnout would favor his candidacy. And – another mark of a strategic leader – he was able to inspire and direct his organization to tactically execute those choices well and consistently. 

And, when circumstances change (as they invariably do), a strategic leader, keeping his or her eye firmly on that hoped-for future, makes new directional choices that will continue to move the organization toward that future given the new circumstances. Obama and his organization also did this repeatedly, throughout that long, confusing and fast-moving primary season. One example: his shift toward more policy specifics, both in his speeches and other communications, when it became clear that’s what people needed to hear from him. 

McCain, on the other hand, seems often to be reacting to current circumstances in a fairly random way, without much thought for or focus on his hoped-for future (his will-I-won’t-I dither about participating in the debate and/or suspending his campaign; his sudden and seemingly spontaneous vice-presidential pick). He clearly wants very much to be president – there’s little doubt that’s his hoped-for future – but he seems often unwilling or unable to define and execute against those directional efforts that have the highest likelihood of moving him toward that future. 

I would agree that one of the presidential candidates understands strategy and the other is less clear about it – but I think John McCain got it wrong about which one.
Posted in Leading People


Say It to the Person

Yesterday and today I was meeting with the senior team of a media company. I was very impressed with them. They really got down to the nitty-gritty of what's working with their team and what isn't…and how to improve what's not working.

We spent a couple of hours wrestling with a knotty problem: when you have an issue with someone, not saying anything directly to them, but instead only complaining to third parties.  I see this problem as endemic to organizations, and they saw solving it as being key to their success (I agreed).

I've had this conversation with many teams over the years, and I really liked how this group framed the challenge at the root of the problem: "How can we make it safer to bring difficult issues to each other directly?"

There you have it. We aren't straight with each other because it's scary.  We think, What's going to happen?  Will the other person get mad, be defensive, resist?  Will it hurt the relationship?

So, here's what the group came up with:
– do it one-on-one and NOT via email.
– the person bringing the issue takes responsibility for being constructive, timely and behavioral.
– the person "receiving" the issue takes responsibility for truly listening; for seeking first to understand.
– both people take responsibility for focusing on finding a solution.

Great, simple stuff. 

Think for a minute about what the business world would be like if people actually did this. 

Think for a minute about what your life would be like if you actually did this.
Posted in Community