Koehn on Obama, Lincoln and Leadership

January 25, 2010

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.

Unsolicited Advice for Palin’s “Going Rogue” Tour

November 15, 2009

Sarah Palin wants the option to run for president in 2012.  Seven out of ten Americans think that’s a bad idea. Here’s my advice for starting to win them over on the book tour:

  1. Pivot from past to future relatively quickly.
  2. Voters are craving steady hands and a “buck stops here” approach to leadership. Keep the score settling to a minimum.
  3. Have a strategy for creating jobs.
  4. Explain your resignation in a way that reveals an interest in governing.
  5. Sarah v. The Staffers shouldn’t be a fair fight. The narrative that you got rolled by these slick, chain-smoking Washington types doesn’t position you well to lead a nation.
  6. The best version of you doesn’t take herself very seriously, but takes the fate of the nation seriously. Signal both.
  7. We’re exhausted by anxiety. Tap into our aspirations.
  8. Remind us that you’re the adult and Levi’s the child. Again, that shouldn’t be a fair fight.
  9. Take responsibility for some piece of McCain-Palin. In particular, own your interview missteps. You’re auditioning for Spokesperson-in-Chief.
  10. Your base won’t be the only ones buying tickets to the show. Talk to the rest of us, too, for at least part of the time.
  11. Wear incredible shoes (see #7).

Unsolicited Advice for Obama’s Gay Speech

October 6, 2009
The President is delivering the keynote address for the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Washington dinner. The context includes frustration in the gay community for his mixed signals on reforming policies such as Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act. He and his team have also surprised observers by their lack of demonstrated grace on the issue of gay rights.  My suggestions for getting it right Saturday night:
  1. Assume a high sensitivity to trivializing the issues. Keep it sober, earnest, honest, direct.
  2. We don’t believe you when you say you’re outsourcing this one to the Bible.
  3. Gays in the military is not a hypothetical issue. Gay soldiers are now serving and dying for America. You are their Commander-in-Chief.
  4. This is about identity, not lifestyle or sex. Convince yourself of that before you take the podium.
  5. Serious scholars think your political hero was probably a homosexual.
  6. There are dangers to over-learning the lessons of the Clinton administration (see over-correction on healthcare strategy). The don’t-waste-your-political-capital advice is obsolete.
  7. Not to alarm you, but the crazy thing about us is that we’re everywhere and nowhere. We’re safely in that “other” camp, and then suddenly we’re your colleagues and your spouses and your children. Just ask Dick.
  8. Tell it to us straight, if you will. We’re very good at separating posture from truth. It’s one of the closet’s many gifts.
  9. Courage and caution can’t coexist for long.
  10. Lose the Blackberry holster. A fashion don’t.
  11. Bring Michelle.
  12. Man up.

Katrina’s Environmental Subplot

August 11, 2009

I am a reluctant environmentalist.  I like people more than animals, animals more than plants.  I’ve come around to caring about our mismanagement of the environment because of the devastating effects of that mismanagement on human beings.

There is not a more vivid metaphor for the human costs of environmental incompetence than the direct links between the destruction of Gulf Coast wetlands and the horror show that unfolded in the Superdome on 8/29/05.  As Time’s Michael Grunwald wrote in 2007, in his scathing exploration of Katrina and her enablers:

….FEMA was the scapegoat, but the real culprit was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which bungled the levees that formed the city’s man-made defenses and ravaged the wetlands that once formed its natural defenses. Americans were outraged by the government’s response, but they still haven’t come to grips with the government’s responsibility for the catastrophe.

Ravaged wetlands are not a central part of the narrative we’ve built around Katrina, at least not up North.  When we do acknowledge the human missteps leading to the not-so-natural disaster, we invoke Brownie’s “heckuva job” and W vacationing while whole neighborhoods drowned.  That’s the story we like to tell around Boston.  Sometimes we bring the Corps into it, usually for its engineering mistakes with the levees themselves.

But Grunwald and others have made a powerful case that the most tragic leadership failures can be traced to the “U.S’s cockamamie approach to water resources,” a decades-long, pork-filled drama that doles out responsibility across generations, sectors and Congressional aisles.  Everybody got it wrong by razing wetland barriers, and the most vulnerable among us paid the ultimate price.

One of the challenges of mainstreaming the environmental movement is its lingering sentimentality.  Another is its emphasis on valuing the future more than the present, a message that is often heavy with moral authority.  Katrina reminds us that smart, strategic stewardship of the environment matters right now.  I’m unlikely to ever hug a tree for the tree’s sake.  But when that tree starts teetering towards my fellow citizens, I find that my affection for it grows.

Avoiding Common Ground

August 3, 2009

John Chambers, Chairman and CEO of Cisco Systems, recently recalled advice he received from Sandy Weill, which essentially supports the prescription to always search for common ground with people:

“…when you’re interfacing with people who have dramatically different views from yours, you immediately gravitate to the areas that you share in common, and then focus on those. That’s how you build relationships, even with people who might have different views or different attitudes toward business than you.”

We would like to offer an alternate approach to collective progress.  Focus on what’s different, not on what’s common.  You likely already understand the logic and beliefs that got you to your current views.  Engaging someone with different views is an opportunity to understand the logic and beliefs driving a completely divergent position — which is where the breakthroughs in behavior are more likely to live.  Our advice is to challenge yourself with the question, how would a reasonable, intelligent, honorable person reach a diametrically opposed point of view?

It’s not an easy exercise. For it to work, you must genuinely believe that the person sitting across from you is as reasonable, intelligent, and honorable as you are.  In our observations, this is a significant stumbling block because it is tempting to conclude that someone who feels differently — particularly about an important or emotional topic — is somehow morally or intellectually flawed.  The political process is a constant reminder of how falling into this trap yields stagnation and mediocrity on both sides.  The search for consensus rather than understanding regularly produces incremental change, but rarely significant progress.  This is not good enough for many issues.  Healthcare is just one.

The insight that breaks open learning is more likely to be found in uncommon ground, in the presence of differences not similarities.  Consider the analysis of data, where learning occurs by exploring variation.  Indeed, if there is too much consistency in the data, it is difficult to produce any insights at all.  The same is true, in our experience, for human behavior.

Anna Deavere Smith on the Beer Summit

August 1, 2009

Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith is best known for playing diverse characters in powerful, thoroughly researched, one-woman shows about events that shake us at the foundation such as the L.A. riots.  Smith is among the great observers of our time.  She holds a mirror up at an angle that always illuminates and sometimes burns.

I saw her perform last fall in Let Me Down Easy, a show that explores the presence and absence of grace.  The characters she channeled ranged from Rwandan genocide survivors to a horse trainer in Kentucky.  Some part of me was scared to be less than 20 feet away from her.  I wasn’t sure I could handle the truths she was about to reveal.  She let me down easy.  When I saw her the next day at a gym around Cambridge, it took all of my self-control not to interrupt her stretching and thank her for being gentle.

Smith weighed in on the Beer Summit this week in a blog entry on The Huffington Post.  She spends a lot of the post working through her own conflicted relationship with the police, and then lands with a strong challenge to the prescriptions being offered for making good use of this “teachable moment.”  She suggests that most of what we’re hearing is too soft, too 1998, a year that no one has examined like Smith.  We now need to pivot, she argues, from teaching and learning to action:

What concerns me about the “heated debate” is that as radio hosts and guests talk, I hear the same kind of language that I heard — and studied — in the ’90s. Talk of “safe places to have conversations,” for example. That’s not what we need right now. This is not about conversations and “learning about one another.” We don’t need salons. We need initiatives and resources to spark the work of building a stronger society, one with public spaces that allow for shared excellence.

Beers and Handshakes at the White House

July 26, 2009

How did a “post-racial” black president with extraordinary empathy, an exemplary police officer who specializes in racial profiling, and one of the country’s great scholars on race relations crash into each other on the topic of race?

Maureen Dowd chalked it up to a “town vs. gown” clash of egos, which feels too simplistic. As does Obama’s attribution of stupidity.  One clear sign of a systemic problem, we’ve learned in our business, is the folks at the top blaming errant, front-line employees.

A typical organization works to get average inputs to create excellence.  In this case, excellent inputs created a massive service failure, which means that the system is probably broken.  Learning occurs when we understand why reasonable people make the choices they do, so let’s give the principals here – the professor, the cop and the President — the benefit of the doubt, and see where it lands us.

Here’s my quick accounting.  The cop thought he was interrupting a burglary.  As a white person, he had the luxury of not experiencing the events that followed through the prism of race.  He could just do his job.  The professor did not have that option.  He responded to the possibility of arrest in his own home for an ambiguous crime in a context of deep distrust between “black and blue” in America.

That distrust turned standard procedures and routine questions into the perception of race-based aggression.  The professor responded disrespectfully to his experience of being disrespected.  The cop responded to his experience of being disrespected with handcuffs.  Enter the President, who used his bully pulpit to name the context of distrust that escalated the incident – racial profiling – a phenomenon that is both improving and that no one really disputes.

So the problem here – and this is not breaking news – is that race still influences the experience of American citizenship.  And this moment represents an extraordinary opportunity to talk about it, to surface and address the lingering symptoms of our country’s “original sin,” a social, economic and political system that was not race-blind, to put it mildly.

It turns out that the same people that failed to produce a good law enforcement outcome are perfectly positioned to lead that conversation.  The brilliant scholar, visionary President and honorable officer could engage a public that’s leaning forward to build trust that would improve our public life.  The biggest risk at this point is that the opportunity will be lost in a series of photo-ops, press conferences and politicized meetings designed primarily to benefit the individuals involved.

There’s a collective opportunity here, which the President described as a “teachable moment.”  But we’re unlikely to get there with beers and handshakes at the White House.  We’re unlikely to learn anything from this moment unless someone makes a clear decision to lead us.