Wednesday, December 31, 2008

George Washington: Still a role model

Historical references pop up in the darnedest places. Today’s New York Times (Dec. 31, 2008) profiled the current crises facing Georgia’s president Mikheil Saakashvili and discussed the pressure on him to stand down from some of the power he had accumulated during his tenure.

“Last week, he announced a constitutional amendment that would lessen the president’s power over Parliament. Lately, he said, he is [more] attracted to the model of…George Washington, who, he said, ‘could have been a king, but instead chose to give up power, and become a democracy…It’s something I’m thinking about more and more,’ he said. ‘George Washington.’”

Powerful leaders, whether in government, private industry, or even the nonprofit world, could certainly benefit from thinking more about George Washington and his relation to power and leadership.

For those who may not remember it, George Washington, took on leadership roles from an early age. In the beginning, he wasn’t necessarily very good at it. But he learned from his experiences, from observing both strong and poor leaders, and from wide-ranging reading. He set himself on a self-directed path of improvement, with high standards and clear goals.

By the time he came before the Continental Congress to resign his commission at the end of the American Revolution, he had perfected a leadership style that won loyalty from his troops and admiration from the public. He was not without his critics, of course, who pointed out his all-too-human failings. But when George III heard that Washington had retired from his military command without seizing power in a military coup or allowing himself to be elected king, he remarked that he must be the greatest man in the world.

At the end of his second term as the elected president, not king, he walked away from power again, despite a faction that would have elected him king for life.

Washington presents many object lessons for modern leaders…not the least of which is knowing when to limit one’s own power. Dictators and dictatorial executives and managers are eventually toppled. True leaders know when it’s time to step back or even pass the torch.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Did the founding fathers support smaller government?

Folks often want to find support for their contemporary views by citing our U.S. founding fathers, something like folks quoting from sacred writing. The problem is that the ‘fathers and mothers’ did not share a monolithic point of view as documented in their public and private writings.

I was struck by this recently when I read an otherwise thought-provoking opinion by Carly Fiorina in the Wall Street Journal December 12, 2008. ( It was entitled “Corporate Leadership and the Crisis: CEOs seeking bailouts should be willing to resign.”

Although I agree with much of what Ms. Fiorina said in her article, citing the Founding Fathers as supporting smaller government was off the mark historically.
In fact, the founders and framers of the U.S. Constitution had serious disagreements about the extent of government. And, some of them changed their views over the course of time. For example, when James Madison and Alexander Hamilton allied with others to call the Constitutional Convention of 1787, they both envisioned a strong national government to replace the supreme power of the states under the Articles of Confederation.

A few years after the Revolution, the weak confederation was collapsing under its own weight. Madison's statement on government applies as well today as it did over 200 years ago: "But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary."
Madison and Hamilton argued forcefully, writing as Publius in The Federalist, for the supremacy of the new national government. Hamilton would have gone further and abolished the states themselves according to his critics.

By Washington's second term as President, Madison had moved away from his more nationalist stand and allied with Thomas Jefferson to found a political party to tout the need to have more power in the states and to lobby for smaller national government. When Jefferson defeated John Adams in the 1800 election, he proclaimed a second Revolution and tried to undo as much of the Federalists' initiatives as possible.

As the parties morphed, evolved, disappeared, and sprang to life over our history, they all tried to claim the founders and framers as their own. The truth is somewhere else. The tension between the states and the federal government was built into the Constitution because the framers understood they could never get agreement on a perfect system.

The so-called Great Compromise of the convention was about how states would have power in the new system. The fault lines run directly from the convention to the civil war and on into today.

Essentially, we have agreed to disagree, just as the founders and framers did on how much power government should wield at each level, how big government should be, and how the checks and balances of a republican system should work.
Indeed, we are not angles and our system of government reflects accurately on our human nature.

Want to know more about what the founders and framers were really thinking and how it relates to contemporary strategic leadership questions? Conventional Wisdom: How Today’s Leaders Plan, Perform, and Progress Like the Founding Fathers will be published by TobsusPress at the end of January 2009. Check out the website for pre-publication offers.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Who is closer to Jefferson, Obama or McCain?

A friend asked me this question: Who is closer to Thomas Jefferson, Obama or McCain?
A loaded question because I didn't want to favor one candidate or the other publicly.

But the question set me thinking.
Obama certainly has Jefferson's gift of language and eloquence. He shares his cool demeanor and laid-back elegance.

McCain has many positions that are closer to Jefferson such as smaller government and lower taxes. Jefferson hated to give speeches and preferred more intimate settings for discourse much like McCain.

On the other hand, if Jefferson were able to overcome his prejudices, he might enjoy sitting with Obama on his mountain top at Montecello discussing philosophy and ideas. If McCain were at that dinner party, they might swap war stories and Jefferson would recount his narrow escape from the British when they were in hot pursuit.

Of course ahistorical speculation is always fun...
But thinking about Jefferson and his ideas on government got me to thinking about the election of 1800. If you watched the HBO series on John Adams you may remember it was bitter and brutal. In fact, it ranks up there as one of the dirtiest campaigns in our history. We seem to think that we invented dirty tricks in more modern times but human nature being what it is, nasty elections are nothing new.

During George Washington's second term, Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State, began to form a faction that he called the Republicans. (Now before you get too confused, this party morphed into the Democratic Republicans and then into the Democratic Party. Today's Republican Party formed in the 1850s to oppose slavery and preserve the union, but that's another story.)

As Jefferson began organizing his party to take on John Adams and his Federalist Party he did it behind the scenes. He paid a journalist to start a newspaper to attack the Federalists (and put him on the State department payroll!) He fired up his buddy James Madison to go after his hated rival Alexander Hamilton and implored him to take out his pen and cut him to shreds.

So the election of 1800 was an unremitting mudslinging bar fight. If we think the media are biased today, go back and read the dueling broadsides, pamphlets and newspapers of 1800. When the dust settled Jefferson and Adams were tied and the whole thing was thrown into the House of Representatives. The House went through many, many ballots when one representative finally threw his vote to Jefferson.

Adams tried to pack the Supreme Court and make other midnight appointments before he lit out for home in the wee hours of the morning rather than have to see the power of the presidency pass to Jefferson.

They remained alienated for many years until a mutual friend got them to make up. For the years they had remaining, they renewed what had been a close friendship during the Revolution. They wrote a wonderful set of letters discussing everything from crop rotation to the fate of the nation. On July 4, exactly 50 years after the Continental Congress passed Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, they both died.

You just can't make this stuff up. History is so much bolder than fiction.

So the answer is a toss up...Both Obama and McCain are Jefferson's heirs because they both share his vision of a republic where everyone is equal and free to pursue life, liberty and happiness. So choose a candidate that fits your notion of what that means and vote...after all, it's citizen involvement that sustains a republic and that's what Jefferson and the rest of the founders wanted for us.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Vision is NOT a hallucination

With the political season in high gear, there's a lot of talk about vision coming from all the candidates...and that's a good thing. We need to have a clear idea about where we're going before we set off in the wrong direction. But it's hard, in the middle of such contentious races, to talk about the candidates' visions without getting mired in their political views...

So here's something less controversial (except to New England Patriots fans.) After the Super Bowl cliff-hanging last quarter, the press talked to winning Giants' quarterback ELI MANNING, who was voted the Most Valuable Player. He talked about those last thrilling minutes when he threw the winning pass that won the game and described his thought process. "I was glad we were down by 4 points! If we were only down by 3, I'd have been tempted to go for a field goal. Being down by 4, I had to get a touchdown. I didn't have a choice. So I did."

Necessity forces us to translate a vision into reality.

That's what I think about when I talk about "vision." That almost calm determination. Manning believed he had no choice but to go for the winning touchdown. The founding fathers believed they had no choice but to go to world with Great Britain, the most powerful country in Europe. The framers of the Constitution believed they had no choice but to risk committing treason for the second time by overthrowing the Articles of Confederation and setting up a new republican form of government.

When I was interviewing CEOs and executives for my new book, everyone one of them told me something very similar. They looked down the road...they had a vision...they saw the future they want to create and they set about doing it.

A City Manager was called to city after city that had deteriorated. He looked at each one and saw a new city, vibrant and unique, waiting to escape from the urban decay. He shared that vision and city after city rose from the squallor and decay.

A banker looked out and saw a different approach to helping individuals who had accumulated great wealth look to their legacy. Knowing the predictive statistics that that fortune would begone within another generation, he fought back. He saw these peoples as wealth creators and their legacy families. He brought the entire family together to create a vision for their future and to create a plan and decision making process to protect that vision.

An executive, who had sold "tooth paste and sandwiches," was tapped to head a new healthcare delivery system of walk-in clinics co-located in other stores. He saw a chance to 'change healthcare' and is delivering on that promise, growing the business at a phenominal rate and being called on to advise industry leaders and the government.

A public servant took over an ailing healthcare system in a major urban area and in two years turned it from a problem-beset, crumbling system into a financially sound system with patient satisfaction soaring and people opting to use their services instead of going to private hospitals.

An engineer rose to CEO of a national engineering firm and set out to make it the "first billion dollar company with a culture!" He created a common vision for the seven merged companies that made it up and insisted that engineers become involved in the community as trusted advisors. Then with a simple statement, "Our offices ought to look like the communities they serve," he transformed the board, the staff and the company's vision for its future.

I could go on with these exciting examples. Each of the executives that I interviewed had thbe ability to turn vision into reality. They simply did not believe that it couldn't be done. As one executive told me, "I was too dumb to know any better!"

Stop a moment and think about the vision you have for yourself, your family, your company, your country. Vision is a powerful driver...It doesn't give you any choice but to succeed.

-- Rebecca Staton-Reinstein
Visit our website

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

5 Criteria to Look for in a Presidential Candidate

It's what the British call the silly season -- elections -- or more precisely the Primaries. If you're like me you've watched debates, stump speeches and interviews. You may have visited websites and blogs and tried to figure out what each candidate is offering. It can still be confusing. When people tell pollsters that they made up their mind as they entered the voting booth, I cringe.

Deciding on a presidential candidate is a privilege of living in a democracy. Over the last few years as I've researched the early American republic and its leaders, I've discovered 5 criteria you should consider when choosing a candidate.

(WARNING: You will have to think and ponder. You will have to examine your own heart and values and beliefs. You may have to make some hard choices.)

1. The candidate must have a Vision -- a big picture of where they want to lead the nation. They must also be able to tell you what they want to see happen by the end of their four year term.

2. The candidate must be able to make that vision a reality. For some candidates this may be done through their experience and based on their track record. For others it may be based on their ability to inspire others to act through their positive persuasive powers.

3. The candidate must have the proven ability to grow, to change and to evolve. They should have demonstrated that they can continue to examine the facts and change their minds in a principled way, based on changes in circumstances. They must be able to admit both mistakes and evolving thinking.

4. The candidate must have "character." They should demonstrate their values in their actions.

5. The candidate must be willing to be the leader of the entire nation and all the people. To quote James Madison in Federalist 10: They are people "whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations."

Line your favorite candidates up against these criteria. Do they make it on all 5 criteria? Can you say that they make the grade 100%? If not, time to think some more.

Whoever your candidate is, show up and vote. There is an old adage that says people get the government they deserve. I don't necessarily agree with that but if you don't vote, you really can't complain. See you on Primary or Caucus day.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Be Careful What You Ask For: Getting the Mission Wrong

Be Careful What You Ask For: Getting the Mission Wrong
Is your Mission statement leading you to new and greater accomplishments or down the road to perdition?

No, this is not a rhetorical question. Although everyone today is aware that they need a mission for their organization, just having one doesn't mean you will automatically be successful. In fact, many mission statements are simply meaningless. They've been wordsmithed by marketing types and vetted by the lawyers to a point where they no longer really say anything.

The mission should bind the individual to the organization. It should give him or her a clear statement of what the organization is all about. Then the person can make decisions and take actions by asking one simple strategic question:

Will this decision or action move me closer to or further from accomplishing my mission?

No firefighting. No knee-jerk reactions. No crisis management...or at least not as much!

The first step is to have a clear concise mission statement. It should be short and to the point. It should provide guidance for action.

Ritz Carleton Hotels stated in its credo: We are Ladies and Gentlemen Serving Ladies and Gentlemen. Every employee can view his or her work through this clear lens.

It's 2 AM and you're the desk clerk facing a disgruntled guest who just got in from a grueling trip. He's tired and cranky and taking it out on you. What do you do? In most hotels the rest of the story would not be pretty. At Ritz Carlton, the clerk goes through something like this in his or her head: 'I'm a gentle person and that guest is a gentle person having a very bad day. What can I do to help?' And then the clerk acts accordingly...the key word is 'act' not 'react.'

A couple of decades ago the city of Portsmouth, Virginia was down on its luck...but not completely out of luck. The City brought in a remarkable and talented City Manager who set a new -- simple -- mission for the city: ‘Clean City, Economic Development, and Customer Service.’ And then George Hanbury spread that mission and it's meaning to every official and employee.

The city turned around under Hanbury's leadership. Eighteen years later they invited him back for a special 'George Hanbury Day.' At the reception a man came up to him. "I'm sure you don't remember me but I drove a garbage truck when you became City Manager. I still remember that mission you gave us, 'Clean City, Economic Development, and Customer Service.' It changed everything."

That's the power of a good mission. It's transformational.

But there is a nasty little problem hiding under the surface in many mission statements. They can contain the seeds of their own destruction. And when you get it wrong and follow it successfully, you can destroy yourself. A major utility company presents an object lesson. The company decided to reinvent itself and implement a new quality philosophy. They stated their road map for action this way.

"During the next decade, we want to become the best managed electric utility in the United States and an excellent company overall, and be recognized as such."

On the surface it looks fine. It is striving to be well managed and excellent. These are admirable goals if a little vague. But the problem comes in the final part of the statement, 'be recognized as such.' At first it seems reasonable. Come up with a measurement that will demonstrate this excellence. Sounds OK. It helps counteract the vagueness.

Here's where things took a wrong turn. The CEO and his team decided that the 'recognition' would be winning the Deming Prize. This was the prestigious Japanese quality award named for the great guru of quality, Dr. W. Edwards Deming, who had been pivotal in helping Japanese industry recover after World War II. A special foreign division prize had just been announced. So the company decided to 'go for it.'

Now this in itself was not necessarily a bad thing. The prize required great rigor, dedication and leadership to be achieved. It would certainly be an important recognition of excellence. So far so good...

They set off on their excellence journey. Without meaning to or even noticing it, the mission shifted to emphasize the 'recognized as such' part of the mission. This happened slowly, imperceptibly despite a lot of good intentions and excellent improvement results that were well documented. As the prize itself slowly refocused people's efforts, a 'quality bureaucracy' materialized. As a former employee quipped, 'you couldn't plan lunch without doing a 7 step storyboard!'

The great day came and sure enough the company achieved its mission measurement -- the Deming Prize. It was a Pyrrhic victory.

First they were attacked in the local paper and then Public Service Commission got into the act. Who was going to pay for all of this? The rate-payers didn't want to foot the bill! This was despite the fact that the company made significant strides and reduced costs. There was that initial investment that people did not want to pay for. Later that year there was a freak storm and service was interrupted significantly. The howling media jumped all over the notion that the company was 'excellent' or 'well-managed.'

It wasn't long before the CEO was out of work and a memo was 'leaked' to the papers announcing the dismantling of the quality improvement program and its infrastructure.

What went wrong? That decision to add 'be recognized as such' led to choosing to win a prize and then to a distortion of the company's focus. No one meant it to happen. These were bright, experienced and well intentioned people. And the media weren't fair but by that time it was really too late. Chasing the prize (which Dr. Deming himself always criticized) did the damage long before the papers got into the act.

The point here is not to 'put down' the company. In fact, I was a great admirer of their efforts and accomplishments. I used much of their methodology to accomplish some great results. The point is to be very careful in constructing your mission. If you use it right, you will accomplish it, unintended consequences and all.

The mission requires regular scrutiny. Is it still leading us in the right direction? Is it as powerful in achieving results as those of the city of Portsmouth and Ritz Carlton Hotels? Have we slipped off the path without noticing it? Does every single person understand it, embrace it and use it every day? Are we on the happy path or the road to perdition?

There's a wonderful old country tune that the Carter Family used to sing:
Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side,Keep on the sunny side of life. It will help you on your way, It will help you every day,If you keep on the sunny side of life.

Keep your mission on the sunny side.

-- Rebecca Staton-Reinstein, Ph.D., President

Advantage Leadership, Inc.

* * * * *

Want to learn more about creating a strategic plan that gets robust results?

There are two easy ways to get our best selling book, Success Planning: A 'How-To' Guide for Strategic Planning. It is now used in hundreds of companies world wide and is part of the curriculum at one of the US military War Colleges.

(1) Buy it directly from our website: Add on our unique 30-day e-mail mini-course on strategic planning for more practical tips and techniques.

(2) Buy it on Amazon: Search on Strategic Planning -- we are on one of the first few pages

* * * * *

Look for our new book, Conventional Wisdom How Today's Leaders Plan, Perform and Progress Like the Founding Fathers early in 2008 and read more about how leaders handle mistakes and much more.

Based on the US Constitutional Convention of 1787 and interviews with successful CEOs, this unique business book combines history and business. I examine the Convention as an example of typical strategic planning with all of its creativity and messiness. Spring forward to the present and see how today's CEOs use the same techniques to transform their companies and translate vision into reality. Learn from all of the leaders --what works in the real world so that you can improve your own abilities as a strategic leader.