Are You a Bush or an Obama?
Are you a Bush or an Obama?
Eight Ways to Nail it or Screw it Up
Only history will judge Barack Obama’s presidency. Regardless, in his election campaign and first days in office Obama successfully ‘nailed’ important leadership elements where other leaders, including his predecessor George W. Bush, often screw-up. Here are highlights from Obama’s yet-to-be-written Primer for Leaders:
1. Do: Define joint aspirations. When was the last time that you experienced goose bumps when thinking about your organization’s mission or leaders?
Throughout his election campaign and first days in office, Obama has created goose-bump experiences worldwide. These experiences then mobilized millions to want to work jointly and passionately toward higher aspirations – hard work and sacrifices notwithstanding.
Don’t: Create a mission statement that no one can relate to or use fancy strategy words that no one except your hired consultants can understand.
2. Do: Offer a ‘sticky’ message. Obama’s “Yes, We Can” is a ‘sticky’ idea that stays with those who hear it. It transcended conventional and geographical boundaries. I came to appreciate how truly sticky his message was when, in a yoga class immediately following his election, as we all were struggling to hold a particularly challenging pose, the instructor cheerfully chimed, “yes, we can!”.
Don’t: Avoid messages whose only stickiness revolves around fighting a joint enemy. Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ presented a memorable slogan but its stickiness alienated rather than transformed.
3. Do: Make it matter – create deep engagement. During his campaign, Obama reached out to usually indifferent younger voters through channels that were familiar to them. His clever use of Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, SMS and Flickr led millions to feel that they have a personal stake in his success. He deepened this engagement by launching a unique website immediately following his election, one that focused on harvesting people’s ideas and providing a vehicle for their continuous input into the larger process.
Don’t: 9/11 presented a golden opportunity to meaningfully engage Americans in re-creating the very extraordinary society that Al-Qaeda was trying to destruct. Instead, Bush told them to go shopping.
4. Do: Eliminate the intermediaries – create direct relationships with those in the trenches. One of the biggest problems leaders face is losing touch with what’s really going on amongst their ranks.
Obama’s direct relationship with the public is remarkable. For example, campaign volunteers received a thank-you text message directly into their cell phones as he was making his way to Grant Park to declare his victory.
He reads 10 letters from regular folks every day, chosen by his staff as a sampling of the 40,000 letters he receives daily. At times, he instructs advisors to create policies that address the issues raised.
Don’t: Bush created a thick layer of management between himself and the populace. The secretive Rumsfeld and Cheney had neither his charisma nor his ordinary-man charm. Worse, they hampered his ability to grasp what ordinary folks really wanted.
5. Do: Create a map – any map! Organizational theorist Karl E. Weick tells the story of a group of soldiers hopelessly lost in the Alps on a training mission. With no maps and in the midst of a frigid winter, the soldiers were preparing to die. At this point, one soldier found a map crushed down at the bottom of his pack. With the map in hand, they regained their courage, and proceeded to find their way out of the mountains. Only later did someone notice that the map they had been using wasn’t a map of the Alps at all; it was a map of the Pyrenees. “This story raises the remarkable idea,” Weick says, “that, when you are lost, any map will do”. Taking steps – in any direction – will lead to new paths, offering new experiences and insights.
Years will tell whether Obama’s economic plans will have guided the nation to a safe destination. But when leaders behave as though the map they’re following is reliable, others will follow.
Don’t: Offer a map that everyone can see is bogus. Whatever map Bush was using, it was divisive inside the US and destructive to its image across the globe.
6. Do: Demonstrate calm in the eye of the storm. One of the decisive factors that made the American electorate elect Obama over the tempestuous John McCain was his consistent equanimity in the face of chaos.
When people sense that the person at the helm will not get fazed by the crisis of the moment, confidence and trust develop. Furthermore, such calm provides a huge competitive advantage to any organization going through turbulent times.
Don’t: Be calm in a clueless way. George Bush definitely demonstrated calmness. Unfortunately, people began wondering whether his composure stemmed from a lack of grasp of the issues.
7. Do: Admit your mistakes. Most leaders operate under a “Thou shall never admit thy mistakes” imperative. True leaders, however, reflect on their actions, admit mistakes and move forward having learned from those mistakes.
When it became apparent that his nominee for health and human services secretary, Tom Daschle, carried a questionable taxes record, Obama withdrew his nomination and plainly stated in a CNN interview: “I screwed up”.
Don’t: Whatever happened to those “weapons of mass destruction”? Under Bush’s administration, there was never an admission that such weapons never existed. In the meantime, American soldiers died and Iraq was destroyed.
8. Do: When necessary, let them fail. Nature ensures continued survival of the larger system by extinguishing malfunctioning systems. Unfortunately, organizations rarely follow nature’s example.
Obama inherited a barely viable auto industry. Shortly after assuming office, he took a ‘no sacred cows’ approach: he was willing to let these giants fail, regardless of the consequent domino effect, in order to protect the health of the larger system.
Don’t: Hold on to systems that lost their reason for existence. Bush did not shut down Guantanamo Bay even when it became blatantly evident that the solution it offered led to nothing but dead-ends.
Implementing these Obama-inspired principles is no small feat. But if Obama could rally people world-wide, it’s definitely worth applying them in any organization.
by Sharon Bar-David