Oct 202004

The Bush Dilemma

The Bush Dilemma

I think I’ve finally articulated The Bush Dilemma that I am having as a moderate Republican with the upcoming election. Here was my dialog with Fred, an ardent but utterly rational Democrat, the other night at dinner.

Matt: Kerry is clearly a much smarter person than Bush, but I tend to agree with Bush’s philosophy and positions on more issues than I do Kerry’s.

Fred: If you agree with him on the top 10 issues, then you should vote for him.

Matt: I agree with him on most of MY top 10 issues…but not on most of HIS top 10 issues.

Fred: That’s a dilemma.

I suspect many other moderate Republicans have this same dilemma. Whether they will vote for Kerry, not vote, or “hold their nose and vote for Bush” may determine the outcome on November 2.

Filed under: Current Affairs

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Oct 012004

Political versus Corporate Leadership, Part III: The First Debate

Political versus Corporate Leadership, Part III: The First Debate

Well, there you have it. Both of my first two postings on this subject — Realism vs. Idealism and Admitting Mistakes — came up in last night’s debate.

At one point, in response to Kerry’s attempted criticism of him for expressing two different views on the situation in Iraq, Bush responded that he thought he could — and had to — be simultaneously a realist and an optimist. And a few minutes later, Kerry admitted a mistake and brilliantly turned the tables on Bush by saying something to the effect of “I made a mistake in how I talked about Iraq, and he made a mistake by taking us to war with Iraq — you decide which is worse.”

So each candidate exhibited at least one of the traits of good corporate leadership, but on this front anyway, I think Kerry did a better job last night in turning one of his mistakes into a zinger against his opponent.

Filed under: Current Affairs, Leadership

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Sep 222004

Political versus Corporate Leadership, Part II: Admitting Mistakes

Political versus Corporate Leadership, Part II: Admitting Mistakes

The press conference this past spring where President Bush embarrassingly refused to admit that he had ever made any big mistakes, other than to reiterate his gaffe at trading Sammy Sosa when he owned the Texas Rangers, brings up another issue in this series: is it good for leaders, both political and corporate, to admit mistakes?

On the corporate side, I think the ability to admit a mistake is a must. Again, I’ll refer back to Jim Collins’ books Good to Great and Built to Last, both of which talk about humility and the ability to admit mistakes as a critical component of emotional intelligence, the cornerstone of solid leadership. And in another great work on corporate leadership, The Fifth Discipline, writer Peter Senge talks about “learning systems” and the “learning organization” as far superior companies. My experience echoes this. Publicly admitting a mistake, along with a careful distillation of lessons learned, can go a long way inside a company to strengthening the bond between leader and team, regardless of the size of the company.

But in politics, the stakes are higher and weirder — and the organization is a nation, not a company. Publicly admitting a single mistake can be a leader’s downfall. It’s too easy these days for political opponents to seize on a mistake as a “flip flop” and turn a candidate’s own admission into a highly-charge negative ad.

There was a fantastic op-ed in The Wall Street Journal back on April 15 on this topic, which unfortunately doesn’t have an available link at the moment, entitled “Bush Enters a Political Quandary As He Faces Calls for an Apology.” I’ll try to both quote from and summarize the article here since it’s central to this topic:

“For a politician, is an apology a sign of weakness or strength? That is the debate now swirling around President Bush after a prime-time news conference in which he refused reporters’ invitations to acknowledge any specific mistakes in handling the issue of terrorism or offer an apology to Sept. 11 victims’ families. Mr. Bush deflected the invitation, saying, ‘Here’s what I feel about that: The person responsible for the attacks was Osama bin Laden.’ Mr. Bush’s quandary is a time-honored struggle for politicians. While some have found a public apology helps them out of a tough spot, others discovered it can fuel more criticism. So far, there isn’t a definitive answer.”

The article goes on to say that while Harry Truman’s “the buck stops here” mentality was de rigeur in the Beltway for a while (through Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco and Reagan’s poor handling of Beirut), nowadays, apologies are a dreaded last resort. The reason? The rise of partisanship and the use of ethics and congressional or special counsel investigations used to humiliate or defeat political opponents by raising the spectre of corruption. The examples? Gingrich’s struggles in 1996 over his book; Clinton’s ridiculous linguistics machinations (“it depends what the definition of ‘is’ is”) around the Lewinsky scandal; and Lott’s downfall over segregationist comments.

The piece wraps up by saying that “Mr. Bush was backed into the apology quandary by one of his administration’s toughest critics, former White House terrorism expert Richard Clarke…Since then, White House officials have been pressured to do likewise [apologize to victims' families about the government's failings on 9/11] — or explain why they won’t…[but] aides are convinced that admitting error would only embolden Mr. Bush’s critics in the Democratic Party and the news media.”

So the question is: would Bush be better off by saying “Sorry, folks, we thought there were WMD in Iraq, but it turns out we were wrong. And we miscalculated how difficult it would be to win the war, how many troops it would take, and how many lives would be lost. I still feel like it was right for us to go to war there for the following four reasons…”?

I’m not sure about that. He’d certainly be more intellectually honest, and a number of people in intellectual circles would feel better about him as a leader, but my guess is that he thinks it would cost him the election in today’s environment. My conclusion is that today’s system is discouraging politicians from admitting mistakes, and that it will take an exceptionally courageous leader (neither Bush nor Kerry as far as I can tell) to do so.

In the end, while humility appeals to many people in a leader, it’s not for everyone. Fortunately for us, CEOs don’t have to run for office and most CEOs don’t have to face some the same level of public, personally competitive, and media scrutiny that politicians do. Now that’s an interesting conclusion that I didn’t intend at the beginning of the post — being a good political leader and being a good politician are sometimes deeply at odds with each other.

Next up in the series: Not sure! Any ideas? Please comment on the blog site or by emailing me.

Aug 302004

Political versus Corporate Leadership, Part I: Realist or Idealist?

It’s election season, the GOP convention is literally in my backyard, and while this is not a political blog, I can’t help myself. As we as Americans grapple with the question of who we want to be our next leader (or at least those people who live in the 11 annointed swing states do), I have had a lot of thoughts lately about the question of what makes a good leader, and what the differences are between successful leadership in politics and successful leadership in business.

James O’Toole’s article on President Bush on page 31 of the September issue of Fast Company (no link available yet) brings up a really interesting point in comparing Bush to former president Ronald Reagan. He asserts that “what made Reagan effective and respected was that his actions followed consistently from a positive worldview.” (I’d also argue that the positive worldview as a starting point had something to do with it, but that’s beside the point.) He goes on to say that Bush has an “implementation problem” in that he “has vacillated between contradictory approaches to leadership: realism and idealism.” His central thesis is stated very clearly that

“Realists and idealists can both be effective leaders. But one cannot be both at once…The leadership lesson for GW – and for any leader – is simple: Followers don’t much care if leaders are realists or idealists, but they distrust inconsistency.”

This may or may not be true in the political arena, but I know it’s not true in business. Jim Collins’ watershed books Built to Last and Good to Great — both must reads! — describe the ideal CEO as someone who can simultaneously be optimistic and idealistic about the future of the company while simultaneously recognizing and dealing with the realities of the short-term situation. Ironically for this posting, Collins calls this the Stockdale paradox, after retired Admiral James Stockdale, a military leader and erstwhile vice presidential candidate of Ross Perot in the 1992 election.

As CEO, I have to constantly be selling the vision of the company — what we’re trying to become and how we’re going to get there — in broad strokes to my investors, board, management team, employees, and even customers. It’s that vision that keeps the whole machine running and keeps everyone focused and excited and working hard towards our long-term goals. But I have to be equally vigilant about the mundane realities of the current quarter, making our numbers, containing costs, and running the machine. If I did either one without the other, I think the whole system would break down.

Is Bush’s problem, as O’Toole asserts, that he articulated two different types of reasons for the war in Iraq — one rooted in Realism (WMD) and one rooted in Idealism (freedom and democracy)? Same goes for his states reasons for the tax cut — Realism on the one hand (to stimulate the economy) and Idealism on the other hand (shrink government). I agree that the Bush Administration has occasional implementation problems and doesn’t have nearly the “following” that Reagan and other more successful leaders in the past have, but I don’t think they’re caused by combining Realism and Idealism in the President’s leadership style. I think the leader of the free world has to do both well, each at its appropriate time, in order to be effective at his job.

Next up in this series: Admitting Mistakes.

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