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Brian Whetten

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Leadership Lessons From Obama and Romney

Posted: 11/15/2012 7:27 pm

Great leaders are great students, always seeking to learn from their mistakes and from the mistakes of others. President Obama and Governor Romney, while remarkable, made two fundamental mistakes in this election, which we would each be wise to learn from.

Leadership Lesson From President Obama: Change Creates Fear

While Obama won a historic victory, it took a depressingly negative campaign for him to do so. The right denigrated this as a character defect and the left justified it as a necessary response, but it really was a direct consequence of the biggest leadership mistake he made in his first term. As the president explained on CBS news:

"The mistake of my first term -- couple of years -- was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right. And that's important. But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times. It's funny -- when I ran, everybody said, well he can give a good speech but can he actually manage the job? And in my first two years, I think the notion was, 'Well, he's been juggling and managing a lot of stuff, but where's the story that tells us where he's going?' And I think that was a legitimate criticism."

Obama's problem wasn't just a lack of communication. It was a lack of understanding. It took some hard knocks, including the debt ceiling crisis, for him to truly 'get' one of the fundamental lessons of leadership: Change creates fear.

President Obama came into office with a clear vision for the country. He then diagnosed the problems we faced, created a concrete strategy for addressing them, and -- backed by a Democratic congress -- turned his strategy into action. Saving the country from another Great Depression, rescuing Detroit, re-regulating the financial industry, passing universal health care, killing Bin Laden, repealing 'don't ask don't tell,' appointing two Supreme Court justices, winding down two unfunded wars -- it's one thing to argue that he didn't take the right actions, but it's hard to argue that he didn't take enough actions.

Vision, diagnosis, strategy, action -- like many executives, Obama successfully navigated the first four stages of deep change, and then got blindsided by the fifth: embracing resistance. Having run on a campaign of change, and then implemented a great deal of change, he naively assumed that Americans would approve of his performance. Yet this wasn't the case, because he failed to address the fear those changes created.

Even worse, it wasn't just his policies that were the problem. The defining characteristic of our age is its unprecedented, exponential pace of change. Bad changes include the financial crisis, the increase in income inequality, and environmental devastation. Good changes include our continuing advance of civil rights, the decrease in violence and poverty, and an increase in technological capabilities. Yet while we tend to focus on the things that are going wrong, all changes -- good and bad -- create fear and resistance. It's a hardwired human response. The bigger the impact a leader wants to make, the more important it is for her to embrace and address the fear that deep change automatically creates.

This is the primary reason why 70 percent of major change efforts fail. It's one of the reasons why the average tenure for Fortune 500 CEOs has dropped to 4.6 years. And it's the reason why -- having failed to bring the country along with the changes he was making -- President Obama was faced with the choice of either running a negative campaign or seeing his legacy dismantled by Romney.

Leadership Lesson From Governor Romney: The Danger of Denial

Perhaps the most telling moment in Romney's campaign was seeing how shell-shocked he was by his loss. Governor Romney was so sure of victory that he didn't write a concession speech. Instead of looking to the data-driven pollsters and statisticians (who correctly called all 50 of the states) his campaign -- as well as many conservative journalists -- genuinely believed that the country "just couldn't re-elect Obama."

While it's easy to criticize this behavior, it points to a second leadership lesson - how ever-present the danger of denial is.

Average leaders ask "why are others in such denial?" Good leaders ask "am I in denial?" Great leaders ask "where am I in denial?" They're always looking for their own blind spots, and enlisting others to help them do so.

Great leaders know that power creates self-deception. Always. The more we care about something, and the more important our responsibilities are, the more difficult it becomes to look reality in the face. The bigger the stakes are, the greater our fears are (our fears of failure, our fears of hurting others, our fears of making mistakes) and the more our mind automatically and unconsciously tries to protect us from those fears through the process of denial.

This pattern is easy to see in others, yet excruciatingly difficult to see in ourselves. This may be why, while study after study shows leadership to be the top predictor of long term corporate success, less than 5 percent of leaders receive executive coaching. And it may be why so many CEOs order 360 degree evaluations for their people, but not for themselves.

Average leaders intellectually understand the dangers of power -- how "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." But they assume this corruption happens as the result of a character defect that "bad leaders" have. They may look at Bernie Madoff, Kenneth Lay and Bernard Ebbers, and tell themselves that "I could never do what they did." They assume that denial, corruption and hubris are bad things that only happen to bad people.

Great leaders understand that denial is a largely unconscious process, which is often fed by the overly deferential bubbles that surround most leaders, and certainly involves issues of character, but which is created as an automatic, internal way of coping with the level of challenges they have to face. Average leaders think that denial is something they already should have mastered. Great leaders recognize that every new promotion requires developing yet another level of self-awareness.

People who have worked with Romney describe him as an unusually honest, principled, caring, and capable leader. My father was friends with him in college, and said that Romney was the greatest mind of their generation, and one of the greatest leaders he's ever known.

Yet Romney's campaign was particularly inauthentic and dishonest, even by the standards of modern politics. How did this happen? While he's the only one who can answer this question, it appears that his desire to win became larger than his capacity for self-awareness. Whether it was because of the value he felt he could create as president, his fears of letting others down, or a desire to make up for his father's loss, Romney needed to win -- so badly that he wasn't able to see the real costs of his choices.

The great irony is that if Governor Romney had run as the pragmatic moderate he really is rather than the "severely conservative" politician he thought he needed to be, he probably would have won. If he'd developed a greater ability to be authentic with himself and others, by confronting the patterns of denial and self-deception that automatically came with his aspirations, he likely would have been able to stand up to the politics of fear, run a more honest campaign, let people see who he really was -- and been elected as the 45th president of the United States.

 

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