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LEADERSHIP IS A PROCESS OF SOCIAL INFLUENCE, WHICH MAXIMISES THE EFFORTS OF OTHERS TOWARDS THE ACHIEVEMENT OF A SHARED GOAL.
Friday, October 08, 2010
In many ways, when President Obama stood up to deliver his address to the United Nations on September 23, he faced challenges similar to a business leader working inside a multi-national corporation. He's addressing a group of rough equals (who nonetheless form a hierarchy); he wants to move an agenda forward, and to do so he has to combine persuasion and truth in a delicate mixture.
Business leaders can learn four lessons from the way in which Obama approached his task:
1. You can gain leverage with your colleagues by telling the truth rather than sticking to familiar cant.
All companies, like all countries, deceive themselves in ways large and small, and form tacit agreements to leave certain uncomfortable truths unsaid. Anyone who is willing to say them can wield power.
2. Finding the simplicity amidst complexity will allow you to set the agenda.
After setting the record straight on a number of issues, Obama announces "four pillars" — non-proliferation and disarmament; the promotion of peace and security; the preservation of our planet; and a global economy that advances opportunity for all people — that then form the basis of the rest of his talk. Inevitably, this simple announcement will set the agenda for many discussions that follow.
3. When you're dealing with a difficult crowd and contentious issues, give a few presents away early on.
The United States has been quixotic in its treatment of the United Nations — like many other nations — using the world body when convenient, and ignoring it when it wasn't helpful. That cavalier attitude has created ill will toward the United States in the UN. Obama's announcement that the US would pay its bills and re-engage with the UN was shrewdly calculated to sweeten the pot and create some good will. Similarly, an executive can create a warmer atmosphere by unilaterally giving away some corporate goodwill early in the talk to sweeten the pot. Address nagging issues that don't cost you very much but have symbolic import.
4. Once you've told the truth, sweetened the pot, and kept it simple, it's time to ask for the hard things.
A well-crafted speech doesn't make the difficult demands until the right atmosphere has been established. And because we have a deeply ingrained need to be reciprocal, never ask for something until you've offered something free first.
Here are some thoughts on how to manage in the new economic order post recession:
Stay flexible. Managers will need a flexible organisation, so that it can be repositioned quickly to address new threats and master new challenges. You will have to be prepared to re-evaluate your mission, strategy and goals more frequently than before, in order to adjust to the uncertain and changing environment.
Devour data. Managers will need to have their "ears to the ground" in order to hear changes as they are coming. That means you'll need to seek out fresh sources of information, intelligence and data.
Be (somewhat) humble. Managers will not be able to assume they know the answer -- because more often than not, they won't. You'll need to be willing to hear hard truths from your employees, your customers, your suppliers and anyone else closer to a changing marketplace than you are.
Communicate. The days of keeping your head down as a manager, focusing on operations instead of external communications, are over. More than ever, managers have to become advocates. Critics will abound, and you'll need to be able to rally the support of your employees, your customers and clients and a whole array of outside stakeholders to survive and thrive.
Plan for contingencies. It's natural for people to focus on what they know, but as a result, we time and time again fail to take into account what we don't know. With rising uncertainty, the advantage goes to those who can imagine the improbable. Keeping cash and other resources on hand for emergencies will also become increasingly important.
Be proactive. If you see a problem coming, don't wait until it hits you...by then it will be too late. You will need to be prepared to react quickly.
Insist on candor. To succeed in an uncertain and rapidly changing environment, it's critical that everyone in an organisation be brutally honest. There's no time for dealing with the small lies that people routinely use to burnish their own record or avoid offending others. Everyone needs to know exactly where things stand at all times.
Stay involved. At times like the present, no manager can afford to be seen hiding in his or her office. It's important that you be seen out among your employees, in part to give them confidence, and in part to collect necessary intelligence.
Keep your organisation flat. It was a good idea before the new era; it's critical now. You can't afford to have layers of bureaucracy between you and the action. That will guarantee that you are too slow to react.
Cross-train your talent. Good managers have been knocking down silos in their organisations for years. But again, what used to be a good practice is now essential. You need people with multiple skills, who aren't qualified for just one narrow task, and who can be redeployed as the situation demands it.
Assess your team. Few organisations can afford to have people who aren't pulling their weight. You need to be constantly reassessing your team, making sure you encourage and promote the best, and dealing quickly with those who aren't contributing.
Use your judgment. No team of Ph.D. students building computer-powered mathematical models will ever be a good substitute for common sense. You didn't have to be a rocket scientist to know it wasn't a good idea to make housing loans to people who put no money down, or to waive rules requiring them to document their income, or to make loans with payments that would balloon in two or three years when they couldn't afford the balloon payments. The bankers who survived this crisis weren't the ones with the most sophisticated risk models, but rather the ones who kept their heads.