Leadership Lessons From The U.S. Political Process

Mistakes are the usual bridge between inexperience and wisdom.” Phyllis Theroux

I thought, given the timing of this posting, that I would focus on some of the lessons from the U.S. political process regarding leadership.  Unfortunately, most of the lessons at this time fall into the category of “what not to do.”

First, a qualification. What follows is not meant to be partisan.  The lessons are equally drawn from both sides of the aisle and are endemic.  In most cases I believe our political leaders are reacting to the societal and cultural signals they receive regarding the mindset and behaviors that will make them successful.

I have noticed an unmistakable trend to undervalue the longer term values and commitments of the leader and instead, to focus on specific issues, events and gaffs.  Some of the more important manifestations of this trend are described below.

I believe that there is a general lack of respect accorded in our political process to the “learner leader.”  As discussed in my September 27th 2011 blog posting, Bias For Action,” great leaders are learners.  They exhibit “reflective” leadership, regularly taking time to reflect on their experiences and insights in order to learn and make better decisions.  They freely admit to mistakes and shortcomings as important learning for the future.  Our current political process, on the other hand, does not celebrate learning.  In fact, it would be risky and even taboo for candidates to admit in a debate viewed by over 50 million Americans that a decision they made was imperfect but that they learned a great deal from it for the future.  Instead “reflexive” leadership focuses on justifying actions at any cost.  To display vulnerability and humility, (necessary conditions for the learner leader) is seen as political suicide.

The moderators of the political debates, correspondents interviewing the candidates or ordinary citizens who are afforded the opportunity to ask questions of the candidates, rarely ask the candidate what he or she has learned and how the experience has shaped their future course of action.  Each side prefers their candidate to display absolute knowledge, confidence, skill, an impressive physical stature, loving and stable families, impeccable values … In short, perfection. Numerous experts in public relations, communication effectiveness, stage design and cosmetic consultants surround the candidate to ensure that all blemishes are corrected and information is purged or spun to favor of the candidate. History has shown that great leaders are shaped by challenging experiences that helped create the learning necessary to reach their greatest leadership moments.  Imagine if JFK had folded his tent and the electorate had run him out of office after the Bay of Pigs political disaster.  We would never have seen him at his finest making the perfect call on the Cuba blockade, despite intense pressure by some in his inner circle favoring a more aggressive response to the Soviet threat.

In the wonderful article titled “The Opiate of Exceptionalism” in the Ops Ed section of the October 21st edition of the New York Times, Scott Shane of the New York Times, writes “How far would this truth telling candidate get? Nowhere fast.  Such a candidate is in fact unimaginable in our political culture.  People in this country want the president to be the cheerleader, an optimist, the herald of better times ahead.  During a presidential campaign it can be deeply dysfunctional, ensuring that major issues are barely discussed. Problems that cannot be candidly described and vigorously debated are unlikely to be addressed seriously.”

The lesson for organizations is clear.  Organizations must create a culture where the leaders feels safe showing vulnerability, admitting not knowing the answer and being able to share information that may not always be positive without fear of being labeled an ineffective leader.  Here are some examples of important business leaders that learned from their setbacks to achieve phenomenal results:

Henry Ford convinced a group of businessmen to back him on the biggest risk of his life—a company to make horseless carriages. Ford knew nothing about running a business. Learning by doing often involves failure. The new company failed, as did a second. To revive his fortunes, Ford took bigger risks, building and even driving a pair of racing cars. The success of these cars attracted additional financial backers, and on June 16, 1903, just before his 40th birthday, Henry incorporated his third automobile venture, the Ford Motor Company.

At the age of 22 Walt Disney’s cartoon series in Kansas City failed and he went through bankruptcy.  He went to Los Angeles with $40 dollars of cash.  He thought he would give up animation and become an actor.  However, he realized that animation houses were not headquartered in California.  He set up his company and with his brother Oswald and became very successful.  However, soon he found out that his signature character, the Lucky Rabbit was owned by another distributor and most of the artists that worked for him had committed themselves to the other distributor. On his way back to New York he created another character called Mickey Mouse that became the symbol of his new company and the vanguard of his future success

When I started my career with Citibank the CEO, Walter Wriston, would often remind the staff that in baseball if you get 3 hits out of 10 at bat you wind up in the hall of fame. But make those 3 hits good ones…   This served as his mantra for Citibank. This brand of learning, risk taking and entrepreneurship made Citibank the leader in its industry at the time by a wide margin.

Questions for online conversation

  1. What are some examples of failures in your career that led the way to insights and learning for future success?
  2. Have you experienced working for leaders who celebrated the learning from failure for future success? How did they do it? What was the effect of this leadership style on the culture and performance of the organization?
  3.  How does the current culture of your organization view failure? How does that influence the behavior of your leaders?
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