Precarious Situations: Watch for Common Leadership

When the dust eventually settles, we will be able to look back upon the events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and elsewhere, and identify people who stepped up to assume a leadership position to drive positive change in those countries.
It will be interesting to learn whether those people were formal leaders with recognized station and power (say, opposition party leaders), or whether they are common people of passionate values who reached a breaking point where their consciences no longer allowed them to remain silent on the sidelines. I suspect it will be the latter, in the case of Egypt, and in Tunisia the ‘leader’ was the frustrated vendor who set fire to himself in protest against an oppresive regime.
It is usually such precarious situations, crises, or threats to survival that force regular folk into action to demand and force better conditions. The Roman Cincinnatus, twice left his simple farm and assumed the dictatorship of Rome in order to protect her from invaders, then relinquished complete power both times, to return to his farming.
I’m curious to learn who were the instigators of the Tahrir Square gathering, and the Tunisia uprising. In both cases, someone in authority in the military must have a least tolerated if not supported the cause, but it appears that regular citizens orchestrated the gatherings and protests, and if this is the case, there is an important leadership lesson to be learned from it.
The lesson is that anyone can be a leader under the right circumstances, and when we have the courage to step up, the benefits for all can be remarkable. One news reel showed an Egyptian man carrying a folded white cloth in Tahrir Square. He told the reporter “this is my cultural burial cloth; I am leaving this square either a free man, or in this cloth.” Perhaps the Tunisian vendor hoped that the sacrifice of his own life would embolden his countrymen; spark them into action. Powerful stuff!
Whoever did instigate these rallies also knew (intuitively or cognitively) the basic tenets of leadership: they were closely attuned to public sentiment (shared values), knew clearly what the people wanted, had credibility (look how many showed up in the streets), and inspired the crowds to call for the same action (in Egypt and Tunisia, for the current governments and leader to step down). They also knew and leveraged the power of modern communications tools (Facebook, Twitter) to organize people. And for those common leaders, it is some feat to have the courage to risk (or give) their lives for these noble causes.
These stories are not over: Tunisia has forced an interim unity government, more representative of the people, that will rule until new elections will be held mid-year. In Egypt, Mubarak has stated he will step down eventually, and dialogue has begun with all factions of the people, in an effort to find a solution that will end the protests. But the exercise of common leadership that we have witnessed is both extraordinary and encouraging. While it is still possible that old regimes will regain control, or that new, equally nefarious people will take over, it somehow seems that democracy of some sort will take root. If it does, that part of the world will radically change for the better.
And if it does, we would do well to study the stories of the common people who saw the need for strong leadership and stepped up to accept the challenge of driving positive change. We should then teach those lessons to our colleagues, our employees, our politicians and especially, to our children.

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Values: Leaders Need to Know, Live, and Communicate Them

Daughter: “Mom, have you seen my green top anywhere?”
Mother: “Honey, you know that isn’t exactly my style.” Smiles thinly.
As the daughter runs off, mother dashes upstairs to rifle through her laundry basket, retrieve the stained top (to flashbacks of her out on the town with friends while wearing it) and quickly launders it with Tide’s newest product.
Pan to the daughter now wearing the top “hey mom, I found it; must’ve been hiding somewhere in my closet!” Mother smiles knowingly.
Some may think I am moralizing in criticizing this commercial, but I suggest there’s more going on here than meets the eye, especially the eye of Proctor & Gamble. This is surprising given the excellent job P&G has done for over 100 years to protect and manage it’s brand.
I imagine the ad agency was just trying to be cute: aging mother borrows daughter’s cool blouse to go out and have fun again as a youngster with her friends. This is completely innocuous. All of us middle-agers relate to the urge to do that. I’m wearing my son’s old Notre Dame fleece as I write this.
What P&G overlooked is the message that mother’s subtle lie sends to viewers.
First of all, don’t they realize that for a mother to be afraid or reluctant to tell her daughter the truth reflects an unhealthy family relationship? Quite the contrary, they try to portray this as cute and acceptable. Parents who lie to their children (directly or indirectly) quickly lose their children’s respect. Children played for fools quickly demonstrate to parents they’re anything but fools. This ad portrays as ‘normal’ exactly the dynamic that every family should work hard to avoid: deception and silence.
Second, from a marketing perspective, it is risky and dangerous. P&G has been a leader in (among other things) learning how to tap into and leverage the power of the internet and social media to build relationships that strengthen long-term buying. What I’m sure they quickly learned is that this new savvy audience cannot be easily zoomed; that they, more than ever before, demand transparency, authenticity and integrity, not just in products and services, but also in the companies that sell them. If P&G sanctions an ad celebrating family deception, why should the audience believe P&G doesn’t march to that same drummer? What ‘little white lies’ about P&G are they concealing?
Am I overreacting? Perhaps a tad. After all, it IS only a soap commercial. But the point is that for the pubic to understand and decide on a company’s values, (that is, should I buy from these guys?), that company must first clearly know what their values are, must walk that same talk, and must then ensure that every message sent out from their domain reinforces those values. Consider Hyundai’s ‘green’ car ads as perfectly aligned value statements.
Values, actions and messaging must be tightly aligned, especially among today’s buying public, where online conversations make or break product success. Judgments are swift, harsh, and viral.
Over the centuries (imagine that!) P&G has done a stellar job of crafting their solid image, so I think this ad is simply an oversight. That said, it is enough to make me decide not to buy that product, as the ad irritates me every time I see it. And lucky for them, my blog has yet to build a huge audience.
Values matter: know them, live them, and consistently communicate them.

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Torontonians Set Good Example for US Voters

There are some excellent lessons from the recent Toronto Mayoral election that other Canadian cities and all US cities/states can ‘go to shool’ on.
First, a voter turnout of over 50% shows individual ownership and intention to make a difference; quite impressive given the pervasive apathy and discouragement that has of late descended on our jaded, cynical society. I did not vote this time around (shame on me, but Hazel won again in Mississauga and I favoured her), but kudos to all of those who did get out and exercise their precious right. Recent ads in the US advise disenfranchised Latinos NOT to vote at all, as a sign of protest! Not a particularly good suggestion.
Second, in the end, the campaigns of Smitherman and Ford moved away from attack ads, and Smitherman showed extreme class and dignity with his final speech acknowledging defeat. Both he and Ford based their campaigns on clearly different platforms from which voters could choose, and put it all out there for the people to decide.
While democracy is a flawed form of government, it remains, as Churchill once said, the best one we’ve invented so far. The leadership shown this time around by the candidates (expressing their different visions for the city) and by the voters (modelling the way by taking action and going to the polls) demonstrates that if we truly want it to, our system can work well.
Hopefully, Canadians and our leaders at the national level will learn from this. And given our close integration with the giant south of our border, hopefully, they will take note prior to their November 2nd elections too.

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Leadership Development and Executive Coaching: Not the Same Thing

Lately I’ve been struck by the frequency with which the fast-growing field of executive coaching, and leadership development are mentioned in the same breath. They are sometimes used interchangeably and synonymously. But they are not the same.
While coaching is increasingly proving itself to be a highly effective method for helping executives grow, it should be clearly stated that coaching does not automatically improve their leadership ability or performance. To achieve that, a context around proven leadership behaviours needs to be introduced by the coach or the sponsoring organization.
Some coaches have bridled when I mentioned this to them. In coaching, the client is believed to be “creative, resourceful and whole”, and coach training institutes (ICF, CTI, Alder) rightfully insist that the coach’s role is to help the client identify, set and follow their own learning agenda.
But in leadership development, there is a subtle yet critical difference. In a direct coaching relationship, the client decides they would like help in some growth aspect of their life, and engages a coach to that end. Two partners; the client’s agenda.
In leadership development, it is usually a sponsoring organization that initiates and pays for the executive coaching program, and they usually do so with a specific aim to developing the leadership skills of participants. In such cases, either the organization’s own leadership competencies, or those provided by the coach must become the context within which the coaching takes place. It is only within that context that the client can introduce their own agenda.
Why? Consider this example. Let’s say I’m a senior manager and I take an EQ assessment that indicates I need to improve my emotional self-awareness. The coach works with me to gain understanding and new insights around that topic, and does so within the context of my management duties of planning, budgeting, organizing, coordinating and controlling my people and resources. Things go well, and I improve. Do I become a more effective person? Absolutely. A more effective manager? Probably. A better leader? Unlikely.
Leadership involves setting a vision, which implies change; challenging the status quo. Aligning and inspiring people. Growth in emotional self- awareness definitely will help one be a better leader, but only if one first understands what leadership is all about. The truth is that a growing body of research has shown that leadership competencies are very different from those of management. Both are absolutely necessary, but nonetheless, very different.
There are many highly capable coaches who are skilled in helping clients move to a new level of awareness. This is always beneficial in any context. Yet often these same coaches have no idea of the differences between leadership and management, and have not even heard of Warren Bennis, John W. Gardner, Kouzes and Posner, Jim Collins and the like.
If your organization has a crystal-clear understanding of leadership, and well-defined competencies for your leaders to develop, then a good coach without a background in leadership can still be effective. Just ensure they work within the context of your leadership competencies.
Better yet, if you want to maximize the depth and effectiveness of a leadership coaching experience for your people, select coaches who have a deep grounding in leadership development to complement their coaching offerings.
Doing so will result in transformational change at a faster pace than might otherwise be the case. Stronger leaders in less time.

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BP Oil Spill – The Shift in Power

If you click on the URL below, you can watch a status update from a VP of BP, outlining the latest efforts to plug the leak and control environmental damage.
http://bp.concerts.com/gom/kentwells_update24052010.htm
While it remains absolutely inexcusable that an organization of BP’s size, stature and experience would not have had a standard emergency plan in place, it’s fruitless to ruminate over it further. All resources must be forward-focussed on solutions.
What’s more productive and enlightening is to witness the shift in power that technology is forcing, and how this trend is a two-edged sword.
First, BP says in the video that so far they’ve received over 15,000 suggested solutions from the public(!)Of course, they’ve already deployed 20,000 professionals from the industry (even including experts from competitors)and given the complexity of the issue, I’d imagine the ‘right’ solution will come from the latter. But technology (the Internet)allows the public to easily and instantly vent their emotion and contribute opinion, and it also allows BP to keenly feel the full breadth and depth of public opinion. Perhaps even ten years ago, any one of the Seven Sisters oil companies might have simply ignored the public and dealt with this problem internally and arrogantly. They would do so today at their peril. A widespread boycott of BP could spread through the Internet like grass-fire, should the public perceive that BP was reacting irresponsibly. No company can risk that outcome.
Perhaps BP would have taken their current course of action anyway, but the fact remains that given the shift in power to the public, they are almost forced to do so today.
From a corporate perspective, it could be said that this shift in power is an annoyance; one that shifts management’s time, energy and resources towards something that before could be ignored. But there is another edge to the sword, so to speak, and it has a hugely positive benefit.
Any ability to interact with others on a broad scale, to collaborate, is a blessing by any measure in today’s competitive business arena. So while the Internet facilitates a ranting public, it also enables BP to engage in real-time conversation, to ensure they have their ‘day in court’ every day, through status updates. It allows BP to manage the rumour mill by supplying timely facts to any who care to listen. In my opinion, BP has done a good job leveraging this technology on their website. I am impressed by the high-cost, multi-tiered approach they’ve adopted, and while I’m certainly no expert, watching their video left me thinking that their approach was both logical, committed and sincere.
Even more important to ponder though, is how this shift in power might beneficially transform even the very structure of organizations. How will the capability to interact and collaborate in real-time with the global talent pool affect the traditional boundaries and definitions of employment in companies? P&G has already tapped into this capability in the area of product development, actively soliciting new product ideas from the public. In 2002, Goldcorp posted all their data for the Red Lake mine on the Internet, with a six figure prize for the geologist who told them where to drill next for gold. It worked; with many geologists collaborating successfully, none of whom Goldcorp had previously even heard of.
Immediate two-way access to all the intelligence on the planet is changing the rules of the game. The resultant transparency will force the ‘leaders’ of less conscientious companies to act more responsibly. That’s a good thing (are you listening Wall Street?) Many organizations will simply try to cope with the shift in power that the Internet has caused; to identify the ‘must do’s’ and grudgingly comply, but the smart ones will embrace it as a boundless opportunity to access brilliance, innovation, and creativity.
Regardless, the shift in power is here to stay.

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Leading Based Upon Principles, Not Party

I feel somewhat remiss that my blogs on leadership often deal with US examples (Obama), but I must confess that of late I am not impressed with leadership in Canadian politics. I did recently hear Michael Ignatieff speak, and admit that while I was initially against him, he seemed informed and sincere in his speech, and even showed a bit of (dare I say!) passion. So we’ll see what actually happens.
But what we have just witnessed in the US should be examined carefully because it represents the epitome of leadership behaviour. First, Barak Obama became convinced that reforming health care was an absolute ‘must’ in order to position America competitively for the next century. Having heard arguments from the best and brightest on the issue, he decided it had to be done, even if it risked forfeiting his second term if efforts failed. When, during the eleventh hour, senior Democrats advised he pull back, and table a diluted, mini-version of the bill in order to reduce risk to his Presidency, only he and Nancy Pelosi insisted that they continue to push forward with the full bill. Nutshell version: do the right thing for the country regardless of party politics or personal risk.
Second, Obama had already engaged in critical strategic programs ‘under the radar’ and in parallel with the highly controversial and media covered health care issue. Witness the US/Russia nuclear arms reduction treaty, the FLOTUS national initiative on reducing obesity, the quiet overhaul on the national education system, channelling of stimulus funding to create jobs in the renewable energy fields, the desperately needed financial reform legislation, and today, the announcement to allow off-shore drilling for oil.
Effective leaders focus intensely on the most critical issues, but also keep multiple plates spinning at the same time. Examining each program, we will also find that they are all strategically aligned to achieve an overriding objective for the country.
For Obama, that objective means protecting and positioning America to lead in this century, which means facing the serious obstacles it has created for itself. Every program needs to be aligned to serve that objective. So reducing health care costs (notice that the Obesity program systematically attacks the problem from the source, too) will lower indebtedness, and allow more competitive economic growth globally. Revamping education will ensure their workforce is capable of competing in the burgeoning hyper-speed Internet economy. Financial reforms will ensure the greedy few cannot jeopardize the majority and crash the global system. And allowing short-term offshore drilling will alleviate the stranglehold currently enjoyed by foreign oil producers, while allowing research into renewable energy to gain a foothold and eventually deliver American energy independence.
Will all or any of this work? Who knows? But the important leadership lesson is two-fold: to have the courage to put the most important objectives above personal and party agendas, and to carefully align all efforts to yield synergistic results. Should time and fate defeat eventually the initiative, Obama can rest easy that he led the right way.

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Crunch Time

“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you”

That’s the opening line of my favorite poem “IF” by Rudyard Kipling, and if Obama hasn’t yet read it, now’s the time. A sensationalist U.S. media, starving for some major misstep on his part that would fuel their audience’s penchant for the negative, has already begun to insinuate that the health care reform is not going to pass, that Afghanistan will be his undoing, that the stimulus package has not worked, that he’s taken on too much too soon. And they barely conceal their glee when announcing that his ratings have “plunged” to 59%.
What a colossal failure Obama is! After a whole six months, he hasn’t fixed anything yet! The sky will soon fall according to them. And it is unfortunate that the general public chooses to watch CNN and Fox rather than the level-headed, factual, seasoned experts invited by Charlie Rose and Jim Lehrer on their programs (thank God for PBS!). There one can find some semblance of sanity; there one will see “old” clips of Obama repeatedly telling the nation back in January and February that these are deep, long brewing, systemic problems, that are going to take some pain, and a long time to fix; there one will hear Director of Management and Budget Peter Orszag explain the lag required for a stimulus of that magnitude to take effect on the economy. But most of the public watch the network news, or partisan cable stations, and set their expectations accordingly, and have now started to scream for unemployment to fall by next week, for the Iraq and Afghanistan problems to be resolved soon

So Obama needs now to keep his head when all about him are losing theirs, and blaming it on him. From a leadership perspective, this is precisely the time that he must stay the course, and live by his principles and values, despite the firestorm whipping up around him, and the criticism and abandonment of those who such a short time ago were solidly on the bandwagon. It’s crunch time: time for steely resolve, calm thinking, and leading by example until the emotional crowd comes back to it’s collective sense and realizes that it can no longer place it’s head in the sand and delay the inevitable. It’s crunch time: time to take the lousy tasting medicine, and start the tough journey that will create a better future for them and their children.
The easy route for him would now be to stoop to the old politics: deal-making, compromises made to secure another term as opposed to solving the astounding problems the nation faces, let the riskier challenges fade off the radar. But that would mean a betrayal of those who elected him. True leadership means delivering on the tough promises, even when those you made them to waiver and flag because they seem too overwhelming. Great leaders, even so abandoned, persist until the right things get accomplished.
There were times like this for other Presidents: Lincoln, Roosevelt, Truman. Each held the course, and persisted until their duty was complete, despite calls for their heads by many who had elected them. It is now Obama’s turn. Let’s hope he can keep his head.

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Seismic Shifts in Leadership

It has been happening for about 20 years now, maybe a bit longer, but has, as of September 2008, started to make a seismic shift. The “it” I allude to is leadership development, and while leadership of one sort or another has been with us since people first started living in groups, it is only lately that our image of it has started to change; and change for the better in my view.
In Barak Obama, people around the world witnessed an underdog pull off one amazing upset after another: textbook perfect leadership behaviour as he became a national senator, gained the Democratic nomination, fended off the maniacal Jeremiah Wright, ousted Hillary Clinton, and soundly defeated John McCain. And how did he do this? When we examine it closely, we see someone who measured his words and promises carefully, then backed up his words with action. An ‘olive branch’ speech to the Muslim world was followed immediately by granting his first interview as President of the U.S. to Muslim a network. Rather than shrink away from the Wright controversy, Obama met the challenge with the most eloquent and forthright speech on racism in America in 40 years. He walked his talk.
The shift that is starting to register with people is the notion that we have a right to expect leadership to be a set of behaviours rather than a position of authority. That means Wall Street ‘leaders’ can no longer take irresponsible risks with our society, bring it to the brink of disaster, and still dole out outrageous bonuses to their old boys club. If they lay claim to leadership, the public is beginning to hold them accountable for their deeds and for results, as seen in the AIG bonus reversal. I doubt those ‘leaders’ have changed their minds or hearts, but if public pressure is the only thing that yields accountability, so be it. It’s a start.
Human rights journalists in Russia (at least two so far) have shown leadership by putting their lives on the line (and, unfortunately, losing them) for their beliefs. Former Iranian President Rafsanjahni dares to make a speech against the regime, demanding that those who are still distrustful of the election results be listened to and appeased. Dangerous and honorable leadership behaviour. Conversely, pols in the West (particularly Britain and America) are fast learning that prior public apathy and tolerance for scandal, corruption and deceit is exhausted.
This momentum bodes well for all of us. As our leaders begin to realize that we will more and more in future hold them accountable, expect them to live as they claim they will, perhaps they will rethink what it means to be an effective leader, and begin to develop the habits that will produce better results. Again, it would be better if they made the necessary changes for the right reason (that being to deliver the best possible outcomes for those they lead), but even if their sole motivation is to keep their political office or business position, we’ll still be better off.
The shift is starting, and it is not going to go away. But if we each look inward and ask how we might be better leaders too (clean our own houses first) we can ensure the momentum builds quickly and broadly. A little personal introspection will also help us know better what we can reasonably ask of our public leaders. Doing so on a regular basis will give us a better world.

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