Regarding Leadership

Posted by on 05.06.2009 in business, civics, global

I can’t see the merit in complaints that Obama’s Cairo speech “didn’t set out any concrete new policies.”

The last thing the Israel-Palestine conflict, for example, needs, is more policy-for-the-sake-of-policy… “Look: concrete action: a new treaty!… a new accord!… a new roadmap for peace!”

What Obama has done is established a background, or foundation on which to frame a process of working-out more sustainable policies over the long-term.

Just as he did with his campaign, he was specific and forceful enough that people have something to identify with, yet it’s open and dynamic enough that anyone who’s interested can buy into it and add their own initiative to push it forward. That voluntary buy-in builds solid momentum, broadens the acceptance and deepens people’s genuine commitment.

Obama’s position matches my own, and as far as I know these are the shared opinions of most reasonable and informed moderates — for example (again), concerning Palestine-Isreal: there has to be two states, both self-governing, Palestine must give up the violence and Israel must give up their expansionism via settlements. 

(Aside: via Matt Yglesias, Obama seems to have all the right enemies: “extreme elements on both sides are in a symbiotic relationship.”)

Delivered with both eloquence and force, the speech said, “Here are the boundaries. Violate them and I assure you there will be consequences. Work with me — with us, together — and I assure you there will be mutual benefits.”

Great leaders don’t just speak to policies and policy-makers. They speak to the people whose daily lives are directly affected — people who will be constantly presented, often in subtle and barely-perceptible ways, with decisions whether to uphold and perpetuate the spirit of the policies or whether to violate and take advantage of them.

And whatever they choose, whether virtuous or vicious, tends to become habitual and infectious.

There’s always elbow room when it comes to actually executing and upholding policies. When leaders come straight out with yet another corporate initiative or political treaty without generating buy-in at all levels, then very soon the foot soldiers and middle managers and colonels get restless and start taking liberties, testing how elastic the rules are… and that continues to spread like a virus because most people prefer to be amenable to the people around them rather than stick to abstract policies they presume nobody really took seriously.

The irony of that is that people often allow violations to occur and then point to those violations as justification to disregard the policies even more. It turns into a vicious self-perpetuating cycle. It’s like breaking the first window and then complaining that the whole building is condemnable because of it.

“Well just look at that damned broken window: it’s a disgrace! We might as well break all the rest…”

It happens all the time in large corporations and institutions. I think most people would recognize this from their own experience.

“Nobody else cares… hell if I’m going to.”

Then five more people pick up on that attitude and say the same thing, then twenty-five more people see those five, and on and on and on until the whole culture is caught in a vicious feedback loop.

The virus doesn’t have to be not-caring, it could be over-aggressiveness, short-term thinking, anti-intellectualism (or over-intellectualism), vindictiveness, greed, rudeness, general stupidity, overspending, blindness to reality and change, not washing hands after using the washroom, etc.  

The most timely example of institutional culture gone-wrong is General Motors, as everybody knows.

Speaking of that there was a good conversation on Charlie Rose about it the other night. They discussed how only a few months ago bankruptcy was unthinkable but Obama gradually “conditioned” people to embrace it. 

That’s what sets great leaders apart: not just their decisions and what they do but how they communicate — and how they say it is often more important than what they say. 

Imagine how the Iraq War might have proceeded if there was more effective communication and conditioning, more buy-in — and subsequently, better input into how it should (and/or should not) have been executed.

I’m not saying Obama is perfect and I’m not predicting all of this is going to turn out great. We’ll have to watch to find out.

What I’m saying is that if great things are to happen, or great catastrophes to be avoided, then it has to start here. 

It isn’t exactly “selfless” leadership. It isn’t about putting oneself ahead of, nor behind, everyone else’s wants and needs. It’s about granting everyone the respect and responsibility they deserve as people who are capable of making their own decisions — whether good or bad — and using those connections to cultivate mutual benefit, gradually proliferating the good and diminishing the bad, by speaking to people, not to abstract political conceptions.

[I wonder if Obama’s high self-regard is simply a result of the higher-than-normal regard in which he seems to hold everyone.]