Thursday, January 15, 2009

Time for Leadership

President-Elect Obama is about to shed part of that title. In just five days he will become the President. Once that happens, the time for campaigning stops and the difficult part, the ‘sausage making,’ begins.

Until that happens he can ‘get away with’ the simpler parts of governing and leading: telling us what he intends to do and how he intends to do it. That is the meat and potatoes of campaigning and of political talk shows. As the economic crisis has dragged on, this has increasingly focused on discussions about the various bailouts: amounts, to whom money will be given, who will be responsible, etc., etc.

But, leadership is much more than telling people what to do or how to do it. Leadership, real leadership, involves developing a goal, a vision, and convincing others of that vision, convincing them to adopt that vision as their own. And that is done by communicating. But it is not simply communicating. The key to selling any vision is communicating why.

There is an old saw in Washington that ‘when you are explaining, you’re losing.’ It’s clever, but it also happens to be false, at least when it comes to real leadership, which probably explains why it is very popular among bureaucrats. In fact, on a day-to-day basis, leadership is all about explaining why; why we are headed in one direction and not all the others, and why we are doing A not B. There is a story, which I believe came from President Eisenhower, that during World War II he was confronted by a German General, a prisoner, who suggested that American soldiers were an undisciplined bunch who didn’t follow orders well. Eisenhower responded that in the US Army the belief had always been that if an officer explained what you were trying to do and why you were doing it, you didn’t need to give an order.

For people to follow a vision, to adopt that vision as their own, they must believe that the vision is going to fulfill them. Leadership is, except in the case of demagogues and true cults of personality, never about the leader. Rather, leadership is about the vision and how the vision connects to the each of the led, individually. And the only way that the leader can connect that vision to those he would lead it to explain to them why they should adopt his vision and why they should believe that he is going to successfully lead them there.

It is the nature of a democracy such as ours that the citizens already have a well formed, but not necessarily crystal clear, vision of the country and their particular role in it. More importantly for any potential leader who wishes to change the course of the country, each individual has his own vision, his own goal (or goals). To lead in a democracy the leader has to connect his vision, which is a national vision, with the visions of the individual citizens. And to do that he has to be able to explain why his plan is the best way to get to their individual goals, he needs to convince them that his broader vision is the best way for them to achieve their individual goals, and convince them to adopt his greater vision of the country as a whole as theirs.

And this leads back to ‘Why?’ The leader needs to be able to explain why this plan over any other plan, why this course over any other course, why these policies and rules and decisions over any other policies, rules and decisions. This is a process that most leaders don’t handle well. President Bush, despite a clear vision for providing security for the US, failed to adequately explain to the citizens of the US why he was doing the things he was doing, and why these steps were necessary.

This point is important. No one in this country will argue with the idea that President Bush should have responded to the attack of September 11th, no one will argue with his authority to use the armed forces to protect the country, or use the intelligence community to gather information needed for national security. But issue was taken when a majority was no longer clear on why certain things were being done.

To those who argue that President Bush did explain it, my answer is: not enough. Explaining why is not easy, nor is it simply necessary to only do it once. If that were so, we would only need one sermon on the wages of sin, not one a week, and parents would only need to explain once why kids need to eat their vegetables, not every night for 15 years. The leader needs a clear message that explains where we are headed, how we get there and why we are doing it this way.

And that is what soon to be President Obama needs to start doing quickly. The campaign is over, the parties and dances will soon be over. He needs to be ready to explain why we are doing it his way. If the explanation makes sense, we will let him lead us. But, it has to make sense. Tell us why.


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