Lessons From the Election

By the time you read this, barring more hanging chads, we will have elected a new president. That will be good news for about half the country. But no matter which ticket carries the day, roughly half the country will be unhappy with the outcome. How does a leader function effectively when half of those who are theoretically following him are not – or are even actively opposing him?

Think this happens only in politics? Mergers, reorganizations, changes in board makeup and even the ritual of annual budgeting create schisms that leaders must deal with every day. And union negotiations or major customer issues are certainly no less challenging than an oppositional Congress.

So how does a leader function when faced with such active opposition? Following are some thoughts from the blogosphere, gathered on Election Day, that apply to business leadership as well.

Although Seth Godin was writing about political marketing, his blog posting about persuasion (sethgodin.typepad.com) applies to employee engagement as well. “Motivating the committed outperforms persuading the uncommitted. The unheralded success factor of Obama’s campaign is the get out the vote effort. … It’s easier (far easier) to motivate the slightly motivated than it is to argue with those that either ignore you or are predisposed to not like you.”

Scott Eblin (one of my Georgetown coaching colleagues) wrote an excellent piece for his blog, “The Next Level” (scotteblin.typepad.com/blog), about the implosion at WaMu. Scott writes about putting the interests of a specific business unit or function above the interests of the organization through compensation: “How many times have you been involved in a budgeting system that encourages business units to go after their own objectives no matter what the impact is on other BU’s or the overall organization?”

This same issue applies to inter-departmental politics, cultural divides and even unintended preference on the part of a leader who grew up in a particular function. I currently coach one CEO who believes that he leads the entire organization; however, a review of decisions in the last 24 months shows that a new general ledger, financial reporting and treasury system were all approved while proposals for sales and distribution systems and a badly needed manufacturing refit have all been delayed. No surprise that the CEO was CFO before promotion. He does not purposefully favor finance. He simply has not promoted himself fully.

Finally, I found this opinion on the Financial Times blog of Clive Crook, a British journalist and economist living in Washington, D.C. In a post titled “The Heavy Weight of Expectations” (blogs.ft.com/crookblog), he says: “Great presidents inspire but they also deliver. The plain fact is, Mr. Obama cannot deliver what he has promised. The problems he will confront are too difficult. The parallel with Tony Blair is impossible for a Briton to ignore.”

Although the comparison to Tony Blair might not hold, the rest was equally true for John McCain. My own concern is that our very electoral process insists that candidates promise the undeliverable as the price of election (but that is a subject for another day).

Leaders must be aware of the delicate balance between inspiration and pie-in-the-sky promises. Generally, the difference is found in the plan for getting from here to there. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen divided executive committees or boards resolve major battles through rigorous, unbiased planning. A clear plan may not resolve differences about the desirability of the outcome, but it does make clear the organizational and financial cost, the return and the likelihood of success. That information alone clears much of the unreasonable reservation and over-optimistic enthusiasm on the table.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, November 10, 2008.