In a recent New Your Times article on the role Carolyn Kennedy played in the Democratic Vice President search team, she made an interesting comment that I thought merited commenting on.
“I’ve campaigned with him and seen him in large settings,” Ms. Kennedy said, “but to see the way he asked questions, listened, brought people together, with his leadership style and the kind of judgments he was making, really made me think he was even better than I thought he was.”
Now, I am not supporting Obama (or for that matter McCain) and this is not a political statement. Rather it is a statement about what is fundamental in selecting a person who will lead any organization, whether it is a local community group, a large corporation or the United States of America.
A leader must be someone who can rally others towards the desire to achieve the desired outcome. They must work within the existing culture of the “group” even if they need to change that very culture. They must work with people who may be very different from them and hold radically different opinions as to what is the best desired outcome. (It would be nice to think we can simply replace everyone on the bus with only those who are already aligned with the desired outcome and the path towards accomplishing it, but I have rarely seen where that luxury is ever available.) And they must make difficult decisions about the proper allocation of available resources to maximize the probability of achieving the desired outcome.
So what attributes of a leader would we want to select? Well, the full answer to that is it depends. So much about a leader’s ability to lead has a lot to do with how well their competencies line up with the needs of the organization. The example I often use to make this point is that a company in a start up mode is very different than a company in growth mode and both are different than a company in a turnaround. And the leaders that lead these different organizations require a different skill set for each, a situation that often means someone who might be a great turnaround leader is not likely to be a great start-up CEO.
Given the importance of style and leadership attributes, how do we normally pick our leaders? Do we pick them based on these characteristics? Not usually. Usually we look to what they have accomplished and what they say they would like to accomplish. This is as true for the way most CEOs are selected as much as it is for how we pick the president.
It is comforting to think that if the person accomplished these things where they were before, they can accomplish the same things here. But where they were before is not here. The people are different, the circumstances are different the culture is different. So past performance is not always a good indicator of future performance, unless the future has all the same characteristics of the past. And promises made are also not indicative of whether they can deliver on those promises, especially given the environment they will have to operate in.
Since this is a presidential year, let’s look at some of our past presidents and see if e can learn anything from them. We all know Bush (the current President) came to the White House with a very positive record in Texas. Yet as president almost everyone agrees he is one of our worst. Shouldn’t his performance in Texas have indicated that he would do well in the White House as well?
Historians, of whom I am not, look to Reagan and Carter to illustrate the importance of style. Jimmy Carter was said to be a micro-manage and that is part of why he never could get anything done. Ronald Reagan on the other hand was considered a master of the bringing out the best in his cabinet allowing him to make the most critical decisions.
So what are we looking for as each of us cast our vote for the selection of the next leader of this country? I for one want to know more about their leadership style, how they work with people, how they work with those who carry different points of view, how well the can bring people of different perspectives to transcend those perspective and find the common cause we can all rally behind.
Now why don’t the media, the political commentators and others provide with this type of insight. I thank Carolyn Kennedy for sharing this perspective of Barak Obama. Anyone out there want to share a similar perspective of John McCain.