December 22, 2007
Book Short: a Corporate Team of Rivals
One of the many things I have come to love about the Christmas holiday every year is that I get to go running in Washington DC. Running the Monuments is one of the best runs in America. Today, at my mother-in-law’s suggestion, I stopped i8n at the Lincoln Memorial mid-run and read his second inaugural address again (along with the Gettysburg Address). I had just last week finished Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, and while I wasn’t going to blog about it as it’s not a business book, it’s certainly a book about leadership from which any senior executive or CEO can derive lessons.
Derided by his political opponents as a “second-rate Illinois lawyer,” Lincoln, who arrived somewhat rapidly and unexpectedly on the national scene at a time of supreme crisis, obviously more than rose to the occasion and not only saved the nation and freed the slaves but also became one of the greatest political leaders of all time. He clearly had his faults — probably at the top of the list not firing people soon enough like many of his incompetent Union Army generals — but the theme of the book is that he had as one of his greatest strengths the ability to co-opt most of his political rivals and get them to join his cabinet, effectively neutering them politically as well as showing a unity government to the people.
This stands in subtle but important contrast to George Washington, who filled his cabinet with men who were rivals to each other (Hamilton, Jefferson) but who never overtly challenged Washington himself.
Does that Team of Rivals concept — in either the Lincoln form or the Washington form — have a place in your business? I’d say rarely in the Lincoln sense and more often in the Washington sense.
Lincoln, in order to be effective, didn’t have much of a choice. Needing regional and philosophical representation on his cabinet at a time of national crisis, bringing Seward, Chase, and Bates on board was a smart move, however much a pain in the ass Chase ended up being. There certainly could be times when corporate leadership calls for a representative executive team or even Board, for example in a massive merger with uncertain integration or in a scary turnaround. But other than extreme circumstances like that, the Lincoln model is probably a recipe for weak, undermined leadership and heartache for the boss.
The Washington model is different and can be quite effective if managed closely. One could argue that Washington didn’t manage the seething Hamilton and frothy Jefferson closely enough, but the reality is that the debates between the two of them in the founding days of our government, when well moderated by Washington, forged better national unity and just plain better results than had Washington had a cabinet made up of like-minded individuals. As a CEO, I love hearing divergent opinion on my executive team. That kind of discussion is challenging to manage — at least in our case we don’t have people at each other’s throats — but as long as you view your job as NOT to create compromises to appease all factions but instead to have the luxury of hearing multiple well articulated points of view as inputs to a decision you have to make, then you and your company end up with a far, far better result.