12/01/2008 04:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Leadership Promise

Welcome to the first in a three part installment on leadership challenges Barack Obama will face in guiding our country through these difficult times.

President-Elect Obama's words rang clear and true... "I came here today, not just to hold an office, but to gather with you to transform a build a better America." He enumerated a long list of imperatives; Strengthening the economy. Energy independence. Homeland security. Revitalized education system. Healthcare reform. No shortage of urgent and critical issues to tackle immediately.

Change. Uncharted territory. New fundamental realities on a daily, even hourly basis. An unprecedented array of complex challenges. To succeed, he and his team need leadership characteristics and skills equal to or greater than the challenges faced by the Country.

Over the past few weeks, many have compared the President's responsibilities to that of a CEO (Chief Executive Officer) as well as being Commander-in-chief. Indeed, Fortune Magazine's November 24 issue features an article on the President-Elect entitled "CEO in Chief". Given that the majority of opinion that America has been moving in the wrong warp speed, it seems that an equally apt descriptor is CTO or Chief Transformation Officer. Indeed, circumstances dictate that in addition to Commander-In-Chief, the 44th President will play the roles of CEO, CTO, and most importantly, CLO. These refer to roles of Chief Executive Officer, Chief Transformation Officer and Chief Leadership Officer.

Consider the issues: The news reports that the credibility gap of the present administration is staggering. Our reputation around the world has been tarnished. Moreover, US citizen confidence in its own current government is at an all-time low. We have not maintained our position and our prestige on any number of issues. These must be restored. What is needed is not just high hopes expressed in eloquent oratory; what we need is action, and in the field of Executive leadership, It is essential that the President of the United States not only set the tone but he also must lead. He must act as he speaks. .A leadership culture must be established at the outset as the President- Elect forms a team to tackle the Nation's business.

As Chief Executive Officer

Clearly, this is a time of dramatic change for the United States of America. Rapidly changing technology, a profoundly shifting geopolitical and business climate, a plummeting global economy and interest rate uncertainty create a "perfect storm" to produce a time of tremendous opportunity, but also one of substantial risk.

Leaders must make difficult decisions from day to day - decisions regarding strategy, tactics, resources, facilities - balancing short-term needs and long-term objectives.

Here are the necessary ingredients for identifying and resolving challenges and opportunities:

1. Establish a Sense of Urgency -- All change begins with a mandate for change. In business, external competitive market forces, changes in industry and product structure, a radically changed business climate or business-specific events can all serve as trigger events for implementing change. Most successful change begins with a business-driven sense of urgency - the recognition and identification of a compelling reason and the successful mobilization of change variables on a concurrent basis. It is the same with respect to the affairs of a nation.

2. Create an Inspiring Vision -- A vision defines what the organization or entity seeks to become. It must provide direction and definition, focus for structure and consistency, communicate the need for change, and instill enthusiasm, commitment and pride. The vision should create the impetus for all activity, sharpening the focus so that allocation of time, talent and money, day-to-day decisions, and direction are more easily rationalized, communicated and understood. As Kennedy's "Man on the Moon by the End of the Decade" served as a rallying cry for a nation during the Kennedy years and beyond, so too could "Energy Independence Within Ten Years" serve to galvanize a country in the pursuit of clearly delineated objectives.

The vision also defines which opportunities will not be pursued. No organization (not even a country) can pursue all opportunities simultaneously. If it does, resources become dissipated, as do the energy and creativity of those involved. Focus is lost, and with it goes the discipline to achieve the vision.

The President- Elect must step forth and quickly set the agenda. He will likely not waste time trying to get it perfect. The plan of action should set forth clearly delineated objectives, giving his team laser-like focus. Alignment of effort depends upon the ability to orient his team and orchestrate a coordinated approach. Follow-up will ensure the messages are clearly communicated and energies properly aligned.

3. Communicate the Vision
-- It is unlikely that a new strategy will be implemented if it is not understood. Frequently, the reason that a strategy appears to be faltering may have more to do with its not being understood than any weaknesses in the strategy itself. High performing leaders ensure that the vision, objectives, processes and requisite actions are clearly and fully communicated. In every situation, through actions, behavior, language (verbal and nonverbal) and technique, the leader communicates and symbolizes the vision of the organization. People often underestimate the amount of communications necessary to power and direct change by a factor of ten. The President-Elect hopefully, will continue his practice of clear and frequent communication. The recent election has underscored the power of a clear, consistent message, and the dangers inherent in the lack of same.

4. Evaluate and Reevaluate People Assets
-- A changed climate requires continuous monitoring of the talent to work with. The casting of people - determining who stays, goes, and who goes where, carries a lot of weight in the change process. A new administration with new priorities rewrites job descriptions. Staff capabilities, skills and strengths must be accurately and consistently assessed. This should be done with a dispassionate, discerning eye. Strengths, weaknesses, aspirations and work preferences must be thoroughly assessed and vetted. The sharper the insights into each individual, the better the placement.

5. Reward the Change Leaders
-- The current issue of Conde Nast Portfolio states "The election of a new President, and the revamping of Wall Street's regulatory system give us the best chance in 75 years to rethink-from the ground up- how business should be regulated, financed and structured". This holds in other areas for which the government is responsible as well. The reward system signals to every member of the organization what it is that management truly wants, really values and really recognizes. The "organization" must reward results not activities, substance not style, meaningful change not superficial change and innovation not imitation. The most potent types of recognition should be used to reinforce innovative leadership. A mandate for change will produce heroes: the people who stick their necks out, try new approaches to management, and make them work. The entire organization watches to see if they are rewarded or punished for their risk-taking. These are the people who must be rewarded with recognition and additional responsibilities.

6. Leverage Core/Distinct Competencies -- Competencies are the fundamental source of competitive advantage. Competencies are the combination of skills, know-how and resources an organization or country uses to compete effectively. Organizations vary dramatically in their capabilities, but they also vary in how they leverage their capabilities to achieve competitive advantage."

There are capabilities that currently and prospectively set America apart and give us an advantage over competitors. They should be fully leveraged. There is nothing wrong with this country that cannot be fixed by what is right with this country.

All organizations and executives committed to change face certain common needs: to establish a strong sense of direction and a firm grasp of their responsibilities; to quickly come to grips with the key issues and opportunities they face; to develop a common vision of what needs to be done and viable plan to do it; and to accelerate the organizational "pulse rate" to make the right things happen faster. The great differentiator is those who do it well and quickly.

Required Skills

Over the next several months, the policies and structures of this nation will be reshaped to target our greatest opportunities. In some cases, the President-Elect will undoubtedly choose to get out of endeavors that do not leverage our strengths, or do not offer a big enough opportunity. In others, he will choose to invest more resource. This year, this country will try to become more focused on our key priorities with fewer distractions.

In doing so, the President-Elect will need to deploy many fundamental strengths including: thinking strategically about major trends affecting the Country; seeking and accurately interpreting information, data, trends, and futures in order to conceptualize viable strategic alternatives to achieve strategic intent; identifying opportunities for "strategic leverage." Further, his skills as a decision-maker will be tested. He will be called upon to make sound, timely decisions, sometimes with limited facts, information or knowledge; to act bravely to seize opportunities as they arise; act decisively and with conviction by committing appropriate resources to support a course of action; assume responsibility for the results of decisions made.

In large measure, our collective fate is in his hands.

Next time, we will examine the challenges President-Elect Obama will face as Chief Transformation Officer

Michael has spent 25 years helping Fortune 50 companies undergoing massive transformation. Chairmen, CEO's and COO's of such organizations as Merrill Lynch, Motorola and Lockheed have sought his advice in developing strong leadership teams. You can learn more about Michael by visiting his website at

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