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Leadership as Strategy

Leadership.  There has been a lot of talk about it lately, or more to the point the lack of it.  In common talk it is defined as “Doing or standing for the things I like” far more often than is useful.  But most people will agree that the inability for our US Government to do something about a large deficit coupled with a lack of support for genuine growth comes down to a lack of leadership.

I argue that this is to be expected, given the horrible lack of leadership everywhere in the developed world right now.  Can anyone name a powerful nation with good leadership?  Perhaps you can name a few businesses that have it, but not many.  How about social leadership? Religious leadership?  Are there more than a few people in rich nations anywhere who have a strong following that is capable of getting done what they want or need to?

Then again, the lack of leadership is hardly surprising.  It is not about a charismatic figure that molds the masses to action – it’s about getting things done.  That requires strategic thinking, and strategy is something horribly under-appreciated.  I might chalk that up to excessive selfishness or a failure of moral character in our world, both of which are issues.  But upon reflection, it seems to come down to a lack of understanding of what Strategy is and why it is important.  And how we got here may well be fascinating.

militaryTeaching strategic thinking is not impossible.  People who have served in our military, especially as officers, have been through programs that teach how to be strategic and achieve goals.  They tend to be very different from the general population as a result – and invaluable to us all.  I do not know how this is done, and would appreciate feedback from anyone who can help.

What I can give you are counter-examples of horrible failure, starting with Washington.  But the best example has to be Occupy Wall Street, a group that deliberately refused to be strategic and eschewed the very idea of “leadership”.  Their failure to accomplish anything must be pointed out as foretold in their attitude.  Yet that attitude is very common among young people who have seen leadership abused and come to think of it as personality driven.  It’s not.  A good strategy can develop its own leadership organically.

Let’s start with what I mean.  To get something done you have to start with a Goal.  It’s something you want to do, to change, to achieve.  I’m not talking about a “vision statement” full of buzzwords – the only good vision I’ve ever seen was Microsoft’s circa 1982 – “A computer on every desktop”.  That was a vision, but for all its power it still only defined the Goal.  A successful organization or campaign always keeps its “Eyes on the Prize”.  What are we trying to do here?

That brings us easily to Strategy, which is little more than the roadmap between where you are and the goal.  That may seem like a very passive way to look at it, but a Strategy is rather passive.  It should only change when there is new intelligence about the lay of the land and where danger lurks.

Finally, there are Tactics, which are how you advance through that map towards the Goal.  They are the action, but they are born in the more passive coolness of the Strategy.

The separation between Strategy and Tactics is what usually trips people up.  For example, the Senate Republicans had been blocking everything that came their way.  This is not a Strategy, it is a Tactic.  It says nothing about the obstacles coming or the path that has to be taken.  A Strategy is about what is beyond you, not what you do.  The lack of that understanding renders Tactics to rote, such as blocking everything – a passive exercise where there should be action.

How did we get this way?  This is what may be inherent in the long-wave cycles which run about a lifetime in length.  In good times, people learn to keep on keepin’ on, doing the things that have always been successful. Why not?  As long as they work it makes sense.  But what happens when everything changes?  Strategy is about the territory ahead, and when that is unrecognized Tactics often fail to advance – that’s when we enter the “Winter” or Depression stage as we are in now.  Passive behavior turns into survival mode.  The only viable solution is a new Strategy, which is to say a new lay of the land.

This may seem to be very far away from the concept of Leadership, but it is not.  Separating the functions of Leadership from the personalities shows how it can become what Occupy really wanted in the first place – more democratic and open.  That implies that everyone understands the shared Goal, but more importantly that they understand how Strategy itself works.

What is Leadership?  It is an understanding of how to organize and accomplish things in a complex world.  The lack of leadership we see at the top is merely a reflection of the lack of understanding of leadership throughout our society, which is to say how to think strategically.  Perhaps we should listen more to those trained in the military, but we could also listen to the wisdom of Lao Tzu from Tao Te Ching 17, written 2,500 years ago:

The existence of the leader who is wise
is barely known to those he leads.
He acts without unnecessary speech,
so that the people say,
“It happened of its own accord”.

That’s a leader who teaches the lay of the land ahead.  That’s a leader who understands Strategy.  What do you think?

38 thoughts on “Leadership as Strategy

  1. Hmmmm. I don’t think Occupy failed to accomplish anything. They laid out some truth and showed the repression that results from truth-telling. People are clearer on “the one percent” and who they are. That may be as much as could be hoped for from a spontaneous, amorphous movement..

    What is “leadership?” Most of what we hear about that seems rhetorical. Was Hitler an effective leader? One could argue that he was. (Evil and perverted as his methods and doings were.) If he had died in 1940 I wonder how he’d be viewed today. How about Napoleon? He remade Europe in lasting ways…. At this point in our own time, are we vulnerable to demagoguery? Maybe in some sense we are lucky that Obama doesn’t show much ability to make an emotional connection with the masses. Be careful what you wish for….

    • Yes, I want to move away from the idea that leadership is charismatic and into a more democratic (small “d”) view of it. We all can provide leadership in our own ways.
      I am hard on Occupy because I think it has to be much more than “raising awareness”. We need very real change – and the landscape ahead of us is changing very rapidly. That makes people scared and breaks a lot of easy ways out. So what do we do? Crawl back inside of pleasant sounding aphorisms like the Tea Party wants? Their anxiety is real and shared by many, but they don’t offer a solution, either.
      Should Obama be more? Maybe. I think we should, first. Then I’ll rag on Obama. 🙂

  2. Developed world? I don’t know about that. But it sure is in short supply in America, yes. You’re being provocative again which is good but I’m not sure this goes anywhere. Leadership in all of us rising from the bottom? Sure, it would be great. Maybe that is what we need.

    • Yes, the whole developed world. It’s a huge problem. Angela Merkel, for example, is a very skilled politician who is only looking out for herself, IMHO. It’s a serious problem everywhere – but we all rode the same waves and we all got fat and happy together.
      Yes, I mean that leadership has to rise from the bottom. Why not? I think that’s how it naturally does. 🙂

  3. I disagree. Leadership is a lot more than strategy, although it is important. A leader doesn’t have to be charismatic but they do have to be competent. Inspiration is important and that doesn’t always come from inside people. Maybe that’s your point that it’s all about what comes from outside and that I agree with but people won’t see the map of the landscape until it’s shown to them most of the time. That’s just human nature.

    • OK, fine. Let’s teach strategy to everyone, especially our kids (and I do my best to teach this to my kids!). Where people don’t “get it” they should at least be able to recognize when others do, and can show the way. That gets around a lot of BS at least.
      Is that a fair compromise?

    • That is definitely true of the “Charisma” definition of leadership – I don’t think anyone can really be taught that (but it can be refined and improved to the next level).
      I realize what I’m advocating here is unusual at best, but a world well versed in the methods of leadership is one I would like to see, at least.

  4. From TheHill.com
    Battered by division and defections, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is setting out to re-unify his conference and prove to Democrats in the White House and the Senate that he can command a governing majority of the House.
    Boehner, who lost 12 of his members in a surprisingly hairy reelection vote, took the first steps in a closed-door conference meeting Friday morning. Boehner told lawmakers he would not seek to punish the Republicans who deserted him on the House floor Thursday.
    “I’m not a retribution kind of guy. I don’t hold grudges,” Boehner said in the meeting, according to several people in the room. “My door is always open, whether you voted for me, or didn’t vote for me.”

    Moral: Leaders need followers.

    • I really do hope it works for him. He seems like an OK guy, even though I disagree with him. But House Repubs have often been a strangely unruly lot, going back to Bob Michel & Newt Gingrich at least.

  5. Leadership involves acting ethically.

    Machine politics is part of American history, though. A man name Tom Pendergast 1872-1945 was from Kansas City. He controlled politics and patronage there.

    Another man Harry Truman tied his fortunes to the Pendergast and eventually reached the US Senate and VP and President of the US.

    At the 1948 Democratic convention it wasn’t clear he would be renominated. He was sitting on the fire escape steps outside waiting.

    • Funny you should mention this – I am distantly related to Truman and my neighbor not so distantly to Pendergast. 🙂
      That aside, I did leave out ethics and that is a glaring omission. At there very least there has to be a moral completeness – cult leadership isn’t ethical but it has its own code.
      How about this – we’re developing a list of important qualities of leadership, and a leader has to have at least some of these elements present:
      Strategic Thinking

      I am now going to go back to read my favorite book on this subject, “Certain Trumpets” by Garry Wills. He breaks down different kinds of leader and presents an archetype and an antitype – for example, under “Military Leader” he has Napoleon and George McClellan, and under “Electoral Leader” has has FDR and Adlai Stevenson.

  6. I think I also disagree. Maybe you won’t remain a leader for long if you are not strategic but as you point out we have a lot of people like that in positions of power now. That might continue indefinately but it might for a long time if no one better comes along.
    Your list is more interesting to me. Conviction seems to me to be more important than charisma but they are both important. Strategy seems to be pretty far down that list to me.

    • Thank you, I am thinking about this a bit. I don’t think we can continue as we are now for very long, however, and part of why I wrote this is that I anticipate new leadership rising, perhaps “Mr Smith Goes to Washington” style.

  7. With your ties to Truman and Pendergast you should start a political machine. You could sit at a desk, dispense patronage jobs, tell people how to vote and screen candidates for the next primary. You would need to take up smoking Cuban cigars however. Not a healthful thing.

    During the 1960 election Robert Kennedy called Mayor Daley to find out how the voting turnout was going. RFK said, “How is the vote looking for us?” Daley replied, “How many votes do you need?”

    • It would be great to run a machine! Nice work if you can get it. But, alas, I think those daze are over. 🙂
      No, seriously, it’s just as well that this stuff is gone. The downside of corruption (as you pointed out with RFK/Daley) is obvious, but on the upside the bosses were able to tell people when their career was over because they screwed up too many times. Wouldn’t it be great if someone told Michele Bachmann that it was time to go? There are a lot of good conservatives in that district who would be able to represent it well, do actual constituent service (Oh my!) and generally be much more effective as part of a team. A “boss” could do MN6 some good. Something to think about, eh?

    • I never know what to think about Unca Joe. I am glad he’s there, though – he seems to keep it all real in an otherwise rather intellectual administration. 🙂

  8. Sometimes we need the old school, charismatic politicians.

    How could one not like Hubert Humphrey. He talked 90% of his waking life.

    And how about Fiorello LaGuardia

    Fiorello Henry LaGuardia (pron.: /fiəˈrɛloʊ ləˈɡwɑrdiə/) (born Fiorello Enrico La Guardia)[2] (December 11, 1882 – September 20, 1947) was Mayor of New York for three terms from 1934 to 1945 as a Republican. Previously he was elected to Congress in 1916 and 1918, and again from 1922 through 1930. Irascible, energetic and charismatic, he craved publicity and is acclaimed as one of the three or four greatest mayors in American history.[3] Only five feet tall, he was called “the Little Flower” (Fiorello is Italian for “little flower”).

    And who can forget George Latimer.

    • We haven’t had a leader with both charisma and substance in a long time. All the men you named did. They exist in other nations – particularly developing nations – but not here. Obama might yet be a candidate, but he isn’t really pushing for anything big or showing a lot of leadership.
      It is probably time for one again. That’s part of why I wrote this – I want to encourage us all to think about leadership and maybe something good will bubble up from places as yet unknown.
      (so I’m a hopeless Romantic, sue me!)

  9. Obama, Reid, McConnell, Boehner, and Pelosi should meet everyday for one half hour over coffee and negotiate some policy item. They need to learn how to play nice and practice negotiating. They could hire a facilitator who uses a dry erase board.

    • I volunteer! 🙂
      Seriously, you are right on. And every Senator should find a “buddy” from the other party to just have a few beverages of their choice with at least once a week.

  10. Manufacturing leadership is interesting. People in the 19th century started thinking about interchangeable parts and precision machine tools. These were precursors to mass production techniques.
    Henry Ford wanted to produce a car that the laborer could afford. I’m not sure where he got that idea, but perhaps he did the math on a spreadsheet.,

    • That’s one of the areas Garry Wills didn’t cover in “Certain Trumpets”, but you are very right. W Edwards Demming is who comes to mind as the most recent leader worthy of note – got Japan together after WWII and preached Just In Time to the US.
      This October, incidentally, is the 100th anniversary of Ford turning on his assembly line for the first time.
      We could use another Henry Ford.

  11. Sometimes in leadership you don’t compromise:

    From wikipedia. Virginia Agpar, pediatric anesthesiologist

    During the rubella pandemic of 1964-65, Apgar became an outspoken advocate for universal vaccination to prevent mother-to-child transmission of rubella.[5] Rubella can cause serious congenital disorders if a woman becomes infected while pregnant. Between 1964-65, the United States had an estimated 12.5 million rubella cases, which led to 11,000 miscarriages or therapeutic abortions and 20,000 cases of congenital rubella syndrome (CRS).

  12. Reblogged this on Sara Geneva Noreau Kerr and commented:
    Are you experiencing good leadership? Can you even define it?

    Regardless of your answer, please read Erik Hare’s thoughts on the subject. Here’s an excerpt:

    “What is Leadership? It is an understanding of how to organize and accomplish things in a complex world. The lack of leadership we see at the top is merely a reflection of the lack of understanding of leadership throughout our society, which is to say how to think strategically. Perhaps we should listen more to those trained in the military, but we could also listen to the wisdom of Lao Tzu from Tao Te Ching 17, written 2,500 years ago:

    The existence of the leader who is wise
    is barely known to those he leads.
    He acts without unnecessary speech,
    so that the people say,
    “It happened of its own accord”.

    That’s a leader who teaches the lay of the land ahead. That’s a leader who understands Strategy. What do you think?”

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