HBS Publishing is now hosting a blog called Imagining the Future of Leadership, which includes a six-week series on how leadership might look in the future. This week’s focus: leaders for the future, where I posted on Suze Orman: Defying the Standards/Empathy Tradeoff.
In today’s column David Brooks tells a riveting story about rapid change in the culture and mindset of the U.S. Army, in response to bad news coming back from the Iraq War. The story itself is fascinating — he chronicles the rise of the “COINdinistas,” a small group of leaders led by Gen. David Patraeus that embraced a counterinsurgency strategy — but I was also deeply moved by how a few individuals dramatically changed such a large and complex organization. If you’re looking for evidence that it’s possible to transform your own environment, it’s worth the read.
As usual, Nancy Koehn of HBS has some provocative insights into Obama’s leadership challenges, wrapped up in a rich historical package. In a recent contribution to the Washington Post’s “On Leadership” column, Koehn compares Obama’s challenges to the political, military and economic disasters threatening to overwhelm Lincoln at the end of his first year in office:
…the Civil War was going badly for the Union, and his main general, George McClellan, refused to march on Confederate troops; radical elements in his own party…concluded the president was incompetent (indeed, Lincoln’s attorney general, Edward Bates, said the president “lacked will and purpose, and I greatly fear he, has not the power to command”); his treasury secretary had few funds to keep fighting the war, telling Lincoln he could raise no more; and most Northerners were impatient for a more vigorous prosecution of the war. As Lincoln himself said in early January to the Quartermaster General,”The bottom is out of the tub…What shall I do?”
Koehn finds inspiration for the Obama Administration in Lincoln’s ultimate response:
What Lincoln did in the first six months of 1862–with critically important consequences for the fate of the country–was to find his own leadership backbone. In the crucible of his own failure and anxiety that winter, he found a clearer focus, a new resolve about the importance and purpose of saving the Union–a resolve that would by mid-summer result in his drafting the Emancipation Proclamation, a new well of confidence in himself and his position that would help him discern whom he could trust and who had to be fired around him, and finally, a deeper understanding of the power of the presidency and how to use that power in service to his mission.
She closes by connecting the dots. It’s good advice for anyone looking for their leadership mojo in a context of doubt and despair:
Barack Obama’s most surprising weakness in his first year as president has been his own inability to find his leadership backbone and to draw from this core strength and animating purpose to really lead — that is, to focus on the most important problems, to articulate and then embrace the central mission of his presidency, and then to take up the reins of presidential power to advance this mission, even at the expense of challenge and hostility from other powerful players.
Elizabeth Weil – who is now working on a “memoir about marriage improvement” called No Cheating, No Dying – wrote a riveting piece for the New York Times Magazine about trying to improve her own relatively functional marriage. The project occurred to her when she realized how little conscious effort she was putting into the relationship, in contrast to almost all other areas of her life (work, kids, redoing the bathroom).
I was particularly moved by two passages. The first spoke to the link between private relationships and public impact:
In psychiatry, the term “good-enough mother” describes the parent who loves her child well enough for him to grow into an emotionally healthy adult. The goal is mental health, defined as the fortitude and flexibility to live one’s own life — not happiness. This is a crucial distinction. Similarly the “good-enough marriage” is characterized by its capacity to allow spouses to keep growing, to afford them the strength and bravery required to face the world.
And when the goal is leadership, “good-enough” may not be enough. One pattern we’ve observed in our own work is that people who have strong, energizing private relationships, whether with friends or family or partners, have an easier time leading in the public sphere. They have the emotional energy to stand up and take the inevitable hits and falls. A counter-intuitive lesson for aspiring leaders is to strengthen their connections to their favorite people, who may not have anything to do with their vision for change.
The second paragraph that got me touched on the fundamental contract between any two people, in any organization, including a family unit. As a note of caution, I’m giving away the ending here:
Over the months Dan and I applied ourselves to our marriage, we struggled, we bridled, we jockeyed for position. Dan grew enraged at me; I pulled away from him. I learned things about myself and my relationship with Dan I had worked hard not to know. But as I watched Dan sleep — his beef-heart recipe earmarked, his power lift planned — I felt more committed than ever. I also felt our project could begin in earnest: we could demand of ourselves, and each other, the courage and patience to grow.
The courage and patience to grow. One definition of leadership may be to pull those things out of ourselves and each other.
The title is from the opening pages of the Cleveland Clinic’s Annual Report, which quotes Dr. Rene Favaloro: ”the patient is not only an illness, he has a soul.” I came across the quote as I watched my colleague, Ananth Raman, teach a class in our Achieving Breakthrough Service executive education program at HBS. Ananth took the class through an incredible discussion of why a healthcare provider would need to remind employees that a patient has a soul. His larger point was that we can get so lost in the quest for operational excellence that we lose sight of the humanity of the people we’re serving.
Ananth titled his talk “Empathy and Execution.” One of the reasons it resonated so deeply with me is that it intersects with what I’ve been stressing in my work with executives, which is the need to set high standards for their people, but to do so with high empathy. Getting one right with out the other is much easier than getting both right, as I explored in a previous post.
Ananth convinced me that this frame is important for customers, too. In fact, I’m increasingly persuaded that one of the secrets to healthy organizations is a culture of compassion and excellence around all human interactions. These values benefit everyone in the system — managers, staff, suppliers, investors and, yes, customers. I’m finding they work for my toddler, too.
One of the most powerful acts of leadership is often the easiest to overlook: the decision to remain standing. As my obsession with Lincoln continues, I find that I’m most moved by his ability to simply endure. Lincoln revealed a pattern of political brilliance, but he often chose the wrong spaces on the moral and military chessboard. Those missteps arguably delayed a Union victory and weakened the movement to end slavery.
But the man showed up. He showed up even when he was crippled by despair, even on days when his army was routed, his soldiers were sacrificed by mediocre generals, his country was burning, his children were dying, his wife was descending into madness, his political future was doomed, his life was threatened (Booth was not the first one to take a shot at him), and his God had seemingly forsaken him.
Lincoln made it into the office. Sometimes it was on the emotional equivalent of his hands and knees, but he managed to get back up, and that choice saved the fact and idea of America. For all the talk of his strategic mind and silver tongue, Lincoln’s daily decision to stand may have been the one that made the difference.
These aren’t easy times. The burden of leadership is weighing heavily on many people right now. There are countless reasons to abandon the task, to retreat to a fetal position and fend for yourself. Lincoln gives us a model for resisting that call. He challenges us to simply show up. On many days that will be enough.
Amy Wallace of the NY Times just offered up a rambling, poetic tribute to Cesar Millan, better known as the “Dog Whisperer,” for the NY Times business section. Millan has an extraordinary personal story. He was a poor kid from rural Mexico who crossed the border illegally and now presides over a dog-themed media empire that grosses annual revenues in the “mid seven figures.” He counts Oprah and Michael Eisner among his clients. He wants a plane. For the dogs, of course. Flying cargo is degrading.
Millan is in the “dog rehabilitation business.” Or as he likes to clarify, he rehabilitates dogs and trains people. He’s brought in to correct canine mischief, but to get there he has to teach humans how to become better leaders of their dogs. The dogs have typically taken over the household, and he shows his clients how to reclaim and maintain their pack leader status. The change is often instantaneous, sometimes as soon as Millan walks in the door. This makes for great television, which is why 11 million people tune in to watch his show every week.
An uncomfortable amount of his advice is relevant to leading people, too. According to Millan, dogs thrive with generous amounts of exercise, discipline and affection. They love to be led, and are less anxious and more productive when someone else is clearly in charge. They have an overwhelming preference for pack leaders who bring “calm, assertive energy” to the task. (Millan’s worldview gave me a new lens on the showdown between No Drama Obama and John “The Maverick” McCain. Senator McCain has many strengths, but “calm, assertive energy” is not among them.)
What doesn’t translate from dogs to people? According to Millan, dogs “won’t be around unstable energy. That’s how much integrity they have.” One of Cesar’s favorite observations, in fact, is that human beings are the only animals that will follow unstable pack leaders. That’s how much integrity we lack is the not-so-subtle implication.
I agree with the observation, but I read it a bit differently. I think we’ll tolerate instability in our leaders not because we lack integrity on a mass scale, but because we’re so hungry for leadership, even hungrier than our four-legged friends. Our progress as individuals and organizations and nations is so dependent on it, in fact, that we’ll override our basic instincts and follow people who aren’t really up for the task. Close enough, we seem to conclude, with sometimes devastating consequences.
In a recent article in the NYTimes, Linda Hudson described her first day on her job after being promoted to president at General Dynamics:
… I went out and bought my new fancy suits to wear to work and so on. And I’m at work on my very first day, and a lady at Nordstrom’s had showed me how to tie a scarf in a very unusual kind of way for my new suit. And I go to work and wear my suit, and I have my first day at work. And then I come back to work the next day, and I run into no fewer than a dozen women in the organization who have on scarves tied exactly like mine.
Hudson’s scarf is a great metaphor for the power of non-verbal leadership. Language matters in leadership, of course, but non-verbal leadership — the signals that leaders throw off in their actions and body language — can speak as loud, if not louder than those carefully-chosen words. This phenomenon can be an enormous opportunity, as long as you understand and harness it. Ms. Hudson got it immediately:
And that’s when I realized that life was never going to be the way it had been before, that people were watching everything I did. And it wasn’t just going to be about how I dressed. It was about my behavior, the example I set, the tone I set, the way I carried myself, how confident I was — all those kinds of things. It really was now about me and the context of setting the tone for the organization.
I try to focus my students on the non-verbal influence they have on their peers in the classroom, influence that they will eventually have on organizations. This is counter-intuitive in the beginning. Students often think they’re only being evaluated on the two minutes they may contribute to a conversation in any given class, but I try to explain that the other 78 minutes matter just as much. Our goal is to get as much out of the discussion as we can as a group, which means everyone needs to work hard when they’re not speaking, too. It turns out that the body language of one student can have an incredible effect — positive or negative — on other students.
As a simple example, imagine the quality of participation when Student A speaks and Student B is leaning forward and listening carefully. Not only is Student A much more likely to deliver on the high expectations of Student B in that moment, not only is she much more likely to step up and share something brilliant with her audience of believers, but she’s also more likely to stay focused on the collective learning of the group. Student B’s eagerness to learn from Student A shuts down the possibility of narrow, self-promotional exchanges that can sometimes creep into the dynamics between students and teachers. Student A can no longer just talk to me, the evaluator. She must respond to Student B’s non-verbal invitation to help him improve. Now consider the quality when Student B is barely listening, or appears bored or dismissive. Why should Student A bother to do anything but think about herself?
In my experience, the classroom is a microcosm for organizational dynamics. It’s a laboratory for learning how our choices influence others in the structure of a group. As I’m reminded every day when I step into that laboratory, our non-verbal choices are a powerful tool for creating the conditions for others to thrive. The next time you are in a conversation, take note of how the body language of listeners affects the speaker. If you accept the premise that our job is to bring the best out of the speaker, then we need to learn how to lead non-verbally. The first step is understanding that we’re accountable for it.
If you ever wonder how much exposure matters in your ability to influence people, Glenn Beck is as pure an experiment as you’ll find on the public stage. Beck is all heart, no head. As much as he’s attacked for his words, his critics don’t get that his words don’t much matter. What does matter is that by stripping down in front of his audience, with no armor to protect himself or the rest of us from his swirling emotions, he gives his viewers permission to feel things, too. That’s good television.
It’s also good leadership, or at least the foundation for it. Whatever you think of Beck’s politics, he’s been able to influence the behavior of a lot of people over the last six months. The chattering class is confused and appalled. How is it possible that a man who told us FEMA might be building concentration camps has a large and growing following?
I recall seeing him host an obscure cable access show three or four years ago. I was stuck in an anonymous airport hotel in Miami, desperate for distraction from my own circumstances, and I stumbled on his show. I was riveted. I couldn’t leave the room, even with the promise of a fruity, poolside umbrella drink, and I stared for a jaw-dropping hour while he and his guests wrestled openly with their demons. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing or my own reaction to it. Sure, here was a crazy man, talking crazy, but that part got old after a few minutes. What kept me there was the strangely empowering part of the ride. In Glenn Beck’s universe, it was ok to feel things intensely and to channel those emotions into action and progress. This was exciting for a good WASP from Ohio.
I rarely agree with Beck’s proposed actions or definition of progress, but I’m convinced that there are lessons in his ascent for anyone who aspires to leadership. Show up. Remove whatever mask you’re wearing to protect yourself from judgment, and give us regular access to the emotions that drive you.
That means you, too, Mr. President.
The NYT’s Adam Bryant delivered an interesting interview with Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs. Blankfein offers some suggestions for leading in a crisis, which can be summarized as keep talking, to everyone, both to better inform your choices and to communicate changing conditions and strategies. Blankfein walked the halls constantly during the height of the financial crisis and left a daily voicemail for the entire organization.
Blankfein also speaks to the need to “be good” to your people without lowering standards, a theme I explored in an earlier post. In his words:
…being good to them doesn’t mean you pay them more or you’re more liberal, or you let them get away with things. Most people, what they want is to be better.
Getting this right is a central part of good leadership, but it’s harder to do in a crisis. There is often intense pressure to care too little about your people — to become distracted by anxiety and external events — or to care too much and lower your expectations of their performance. The first reaction is more common, but the second is more insidious.
Anxiety is a deeply selfish emotion. We don’t think of it that way because it’s often threats to other people that trigger the sensation, but anxiety’s unique rush of hormones and chemicals is biologically designed to promote our own survival. The response is self-distracting, by design. It’s almost impossible to focus on the experience of other people in these moments, to perform the very act that makes leadership possible, and so we end up hardening ourselves to the people who need us most. Anxiety is an indulgence that destroys our capacity to lead.
In contrast, a crisis tempts some of us to become overly sympathetic and lower our standards. When people you care about are going through a tough time, it can feel reasonable to compromise and let them off the hook a bit. But there are two significant costs to that choice. First, it denies your team the opportunity to learn. People, like muscles, need to push themselves beyond their comfort zone to grow. They need to bump up against their perceived limits in order to break through them, and protecting them from reality disrupts that growth process. Second, lowering standards signals your hidden belief that maybe they’re not up for it after all. It reveals a lack of confidence in your people when the stakes really matter. They will internalize the message. Their performance will rise only to the level of your diminished expectations, and everyone will conclude that you were right. It is hard for organizations to recover from those dynamics.
A provocative way to think about it is that a crisis tempts us all to become anxious mothers or protective fathers. Leadership requires that we reject both of these unproductive stereotypes.