It’s not enough to lead

I was sitting in a doctor’s office over the weekend and picked up the latest copy of Rolling Stone to page through the interview with President Obama. And leaving aside my opinion on the president and his tenure to date, I found the article fascinating on a number of levels, the most important of which for this blog is the implications it had for leadership.

The perception of what you’re doing is as important as what you actually do

This has been an issue for every president, but, if you’ve been following politics at all over the last two years, I think you’ll agree that the current administration’s woes are a particularly sharp reminder of just how important it is to manage perception.

And I think we’ve  probably all worked at an organization that had analogous troubles with how folks in the trenches perceived the work that corporate leaders were trying to accomplish. Initiatives like Six Sigma or standing up an enterprise project management office can fail (or at least face massive resistance) if their benefits aren’t apparent–or worse yet, if they’re perceived negatively as time-wasters or executive pet projects with little business value.

Controlling (or at least managing) the terms of the debate about what you’re doing

Directly related to the perception of the work you’re trying to do as a leader is the terms of the debate about that work. For the current administration, it seems like every key aspect of the work they’re trying to do lives in contested semantic space: center-left-right, socialist-capitalist, marketplace-regulation–all the linguistic boundaries within which their policies are trying to operate are pretty much controlled by folks outside the White House at this point, from news media (institutional and informal) to the person on the street.

Yet so much of leadership has to do with using language to motivate people; and the way that people speak about the work you want them to do impacts the degree to which you’re able to get them on board with your program. And this is not solely a political problem. I’m sure we’ve all been at organizations that were “restructuring operations”, which we all knew meant a bunch of folks were getting fired, or had a top executive leave to “spend more time with their family”, which we all knew meant they got canned after one too many slow quarters.

Being intentional about what you leave undone

The last thing that struck me in the interview was how the President talked about the decisions they made to leave certain things undone. For example, in terms of health care reform, he said that they knew that pushing for 100% of what Democrats wanted would have been an all-or-nothing proposition, so things like a public option simply had to be off the table…the only way to get something passed was to leave aside certain things in the name of incremental progress.

In that same spirit, I’ll leave aside the issue of how well this President leaves things undone–since a central criticism of his administration from left and right is tackling too much at one time. But no matter where you come down on the issue for President Obama, I think it’s clear that leaving the right things undone is a critical skill for a successful leader.

Think of a CIO: in all likelihood, she’ll have 25% to 500% more work requested of her organization each year than it can deliver, so what can she do? She needs to sit down with her leadership team, with her managers, and even with key line-level employees to figure out how to chunk up that list into must-do and everything else. And then she needs to drill into the must-dos and figure out how to trim those down even more, whether by pushing them out or skinnying them down or pushing them back–but what she can’t if she wants to stay employed past 12/31 of this year, is to say yes to everything and hope that it’ll all come out in the wash.

The final word

Anyway, I’m sure there were more nuggets in the interview, but these were the three that really caught my attention. As usual, I’d love to hear what folks think about my take–let me know if I’m off base or missed anything. And if you’ve got other thoughts on leadership or good real-life examples, pipe up and join in…and let’s get the conversation started.


2 Responses

  1. So there’s already been lots of good traffic on this post and some comments are coming in, but they’ve mostly been political commentary on President Obama’s administration (pro and con) rather than on issues in leadership.

    And while I usually don’t edit or censor comments on this blog, I’m going to in this case because I don’t want to turn this into a Fox versus MSNBC forum…there are already enough of those out there!

    Anyway, thanks to everyone for taking the time to read and comment on the post–appreciate it as always.



  2. I totally agree with you Joe… perception is reality.

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