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Thursday, March 04, 2010

Leading with Dignity

The Financial Times ran an excellent analysis on February 3rd by Edward Luce concerning the very tight inner circle—just four people—that President Obama relies on for advice. In 'America: A Fearsome Foursome', Luce advocates a broader circle of advisers and notes, “To be successful, presidents need to separate the stream of advice they get on policy from the stream of advice they get on politics.” 

Intellectually we know that we need to get their advice and information from a wide variety of sources. In practice, however, it doesn’t always happen. We like to talk to those with whom we are comfortable with and share our views. It’s very reassuring. But dangerous.

Dangerous because it clouds our vision and makes us less agile. More importantly, seeking the opinions of others helps to make them feel a part of a larger purpose, connected to the leader and a part of a community.  This points to a basic function of leadership: to make connections.  

The point is made well in a follow up letter to Luce’s article, published in the Financial Times, from Francis Bator, Harvard Kennedy School emeritus professor. Before coming to Harvard in 1967, he was for three years deputy national security advisor to President Lyndon B. Johnson. He shared the following story with FT readers:

Treasury Secretary Henry Fowler, shrewd, effective, a superb negotiator, but somewhat shy of Lyndon Johnson, would occasionally feel in need of a presidential laying on of hands even when he had no serious presidential business. After one such occasion - it had ended with Fowler, sitting on the edge of the Oval Office loveseat, reading in monotone from his own memo on the floor in front of him, while the president was plucking yellow news tickers from the ticker machine at the opposite end of the Oval – LBJ turned on me, angrily: “What on earth did you bring him in here for, wasting my time ...” and so forth, but then stopped himself mid-sentence. “No, I’m wrong. Make me see him when he asks even if he has no real business! While you staff fellows are safe in the White House, these cabinet fellows are out there every day being shot at, on the Hill, in the papers, on TV. They are my field generals. Never forget that. They’ll be useless to me if they don’t feel connected to me. Always treat them with dignity.

A leader’s position is in the middle; to share and connect. In a world bent on differentiation, leaders must make connections.