Sunday, February 15, 2009

More Leadership Lessons

Now we can add David Brooks to the list of people who are in despair about our chances for recovering our "animal spirits." (See my posts of Jan. 3, Feb 2 and 6.)

Brooks is rightly worried that President Obama has risked his presidency and the nation's economy on mathematical models that have a poor record of predicting human behavior. Link here.

The issue is how to motivate people, how to impel them to take action. Today I want to consider it in terms of executive leadership.

How does a great executive bring out the best in his team? At the least, he gives each employee the opportunity to take initiatives, to shoulder responsibility, and to exercise authority... within the parameters of job description and company policy. (See Dov Seidman's book "How" for a fuller analysis of this issue.)

When an executive lords it over his staff, asserting his authority by telling everyone what to do, he will be draining their initiative and motivation. He will end up with a staff that will do the minimum required, and will never take the extra steps required to bring his company to greatness.

How do leaders motivate? First and foremost by setting an example. If the boss takes initiatives, accepts responsibility, and exercises authority within the parameters of his job, then it is reasonable that his staff will do as much.

Humans are natural-born imitators. If you want to encourage people to behave a certain way, start by doing it yourself.

The same applies to our nation. Is our new president leading us by his example to a brighter tomorrow filled with hope and initiative, to say nothing of revived animal spirits.

Of course, it is not entirely a fair question. President Obama has been on the job for just a few weeks. This is his first executive job of any kind. Before he became president he did not even have the chance to spend much time walking through the corridors of power.

It is unfair to expect that he would instantly be able to provide presidential leadership, especially in a time of crisis.

When I say that Obama and his point man on the financial crisis, Timothy Geithner, look like the junior varsity, I mean that they have yet to grow into their jobs.

Last week, for example, Obama touted Geithner's plan to solve the banking crisis. But when Geithner stepped forth and delivered his much-awaited speech, he was instantly dismissed as vague and inconsequential. By failing to be clear and detailed, Geithner showed that the was not in charge. He took an initiative that was empty of substance. The market sold off on the news.

But President Obama has also been having trouble wearing the mantle of leadership.

First, Obama outsourced the writing of his signature stimulus bill to Congressional Democrats. This shows superior followership, but no real leadership.

Second, Obama objected to the protectionist language in the first version of the bill. Congress left them in anyway, with a slight modification.

Third, Obama disagreed with the bill's provision about limiting the pay of bank executives. He sent Larry Summers and Tim Geithner to persuade Senate Democrats to remove it. They left it in.

Fourth, after insisting that his administration would allow Congresspeople to take the time to read and study the bill before voting on it, he changed his mind and insisted that it be voted on before anyone could read it.

The unseemly rush to legislate bespeaks panic. Strangely so, since most of the bill's provisions do not take effect on the day after tomorrow anyway.

With the Democratic party in complete control of one house of Congress and in virtual control of the other, what did Obama imagine was going to happen if our representatives had taken a few days or weeks to study the bill?

Out of his depth in the oval office, Obama then decided to go on the road. He set up town hall meetings and campaign rallies... to attack the big, bad Republicans whose support he was pretending to enlist.

This divisiveness, coupled with the fractious attitude of Congressional Democrats, ensured that only three Republicans in Congress voted for the stimulus bill.

Obama had offered to usher in an era of post-partisanship. An excellent idea. Yet, in his actions and the example he set, he introduced further partisan division.

By failing to negotiate with Republicans, or simply by not knowing how, Obama missed the opportunity to make his stimulus into an American bill. He allowed it to remain a Democratic bill.

This is not the way to revive anyone's animal spirits. Remember the old line: "A house divided against itself cannot stand."

If Republicans and Democrats are spending their considerable energies attacking each other, they will have precious little left to attack the nation's problems. Their only goal will be: shifting the blame.

Every executive knows that when he decides on a policy, he must negotiate with those who have offered different proposals. Otherwise they will not do their best to execute the policy.

In my February 6 post I suggested that World War II revived the nation's spirits because the nation was unified. Only a group united in common cause and common purpose will work effectively.

Some mentally-challenged individuals have praised Obama for having gotten the stimulus bill passed. But leadership is not about showing who is boss. If you have to resort to bullying to ensure that you get your way, you will alienate a large part of the citizenry and will not be able to inspire hope, to motivate action, or to revive anyone's animal spirits.

No comments: