THE BLOG
01/15/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Leadership, Strategy, and Experts. More lessons for Obama.

Over the years I have seen far too many enterprises and leaders fail because they didn't understand how leadership development and strategy must work together. They turn to experts who have "fish to fry" in either leadership development or strategy. Good leaders defend against narrow-gauge advisers by creating a clear vision that gets diverse teams working collaboratively, resolving dilemmas and taking action.

President-elect Obama is being swamped by well-intentioned experts selling their patented solutions. Usually they are not wrong per se, but too narrowly focused for the scale of the economic crisis. They are not without merit, but disconnected from other important aspects of success. Too often they focus on "policy" and neglect vision, leadership capacity and interconnectedness. Policy wonks are not obliged to make things happen. Its up to others to breathe life into their stillborn strategy. The well-worn aphorism "if the only tool you have is a hammer, you will see all problems as nails," certainly applies. Most experts seem to work from the "have hammer will travel" motto.

An expert's advice can be hugely appealing especially if it matches the leader's own impulses and biases. A deregulation-oriented President Bush and the Republican controlled congress enjoyed any advice that encouraged their free market economic policies, especially if such advise came from well-known experts like Alan Greenspan and the Federal Reserve. They lapped up his permissive utterances like puppies go for warm milk.

In the N.Y. Times on January 9th, Al Gore wrote a highly persuasive advice column that tied defeating global warming and economic recovery. It was well reasoned and persuasive. The only problem was that it didn't deal with a massive issue: how do we get the leadership required to do the job? Alas, we are awash in bureaucrats and experts, and short on leadership at every level. The good news is that this can be remedied.

When John Gardner was Secretary of HEW, a Republican in Lyndon Johnson's White House, he and others conceived the Urban Coalition. The year was 1965 and the hot summer had seen riots and fires in major U.S. cities. In reviewing his thinking he saw urban revitalization as a matter of finding and directing needed resources and lots of leadership at the local level. Gardner called together leaders across all sectors to quickly figure out what cities needed and then organize local leadership to address those needs.

Gardner told me that he had found someone who could act as a role model, the mayor of Dallas, Erik Jonsson, a former business leader. After Kennedy's assassination in Dallas the city went into a deep depression of spirit. The mayor realized that a massive overhaul was needed and launched "Goals for Dallas." By drafting good leaders from all parts of the community a coalition was formed, needs were assessed block-by-block, resources found, and action taken. Dallas became a model of community leadership at a time of crisis.

President-Elect Obama might do well to start such grassroots programs across the country in every town and city. As a former community organizer, he would know how to frame the vision, assemble the talent, and make the call to service. The federal role would be to support local initiatives in a Rebuild America's Future Movement. The goals could be clearly stated, for example:

* Three million new jobs in three years.
* Rebuild Americas infrastructure for its "green" future
* Provide national service opportunities for millions to serve their nation

And focus as much as possible on health care, education and technology for a sustainable global economy.

America doesn't need a facelift or a booster shot; big defects (deficits?) have accumulated from neglect, foolish ventures, and hubris. The nation must boldly rebuild to avoid the perils of a dangerously gyrating world where yesterday's swaggering certainty is tomorrow's worn out wisdom.