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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

First published November 24, 2012

How (Not) To Lead Like a Politician 

 A version of this article first appeared at Inc.com. We’re in the final stretch of yet another Presidential election campaign here in the US, and while every political season brings it’s own unique attributes, one thing never changes – the quality of leadership on display by the candidates is brittle at best, and at times shockingly bad. This is not to say that either candidate is a poor leader (your political persuasion will most likely determine your views on that), but rather that there’s something about running for election that seems to strip away the best of an individual’s leadership skills, and lays bare their vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Aren’t you glad that in business, we don’t need to run for re-election? That you’re not put through the wringer of public inspection every four years? Well…not so fast there, cowboy. Truth is, although we’re not subject to a rigid campaign calendar, business leaders face something very akin to a re-election campaign every time a major crisis hits. All it takes is one emergency, one calamity to hit, and suddenly, everyone’s eyes are on you – reassessing your abilities, watching how you respond, and subconsciously (at least) asking themselves if you’re up to the challenges of the future. And it’s at those times – when we’re in the crucible of predicament – that our vulnerabilities and weaknesses emerge. And sometimes, if we’re not careful, we respond like politicians, and as a result risk being viewed the same way. Here are the three mistakes I see business leaders succumb to – to their detriment – when they act like politicians: Becoming a Hostage to Fortune One of the great unspoken truths in presidential politics is that in reality, no President, Republican or Democrat, has absolute control over say, the price of oil or the unemployment rate (let alone even more complex dynamics such as global warming or the spread of democracy – both of which recent presidential candidates pledged to alter). And yet over and over again we hear politicians making dubious promises about those very things – promises which come back to haunt them later, when those promises, never deliverable in the first place, remain unfulfilled. Rule #1 in a crisis: Never make a ‘promise’ about something over which you have no control. You’re only storing up trouble for the future, and undermining your own credibility. Over-Promising and Under-Delivering What about those things over which you do have control? What is the leader’s role in a crisis when communicating their vision for the future? Unfortunately many business leaders do precisely what the worst politicians do – over-promise and under-deliver: The budget will be balanced; We will create 5 million green jobs; Peace will be restored in [insert your conflict region of choice]. Then, of course, when ‘only’ 2 million green jobs are created, or peace isn’t fully restored to that far-off region, or the budget shows a smaller, though reduced deficit, the result, though positive, is seen as a failure, because it didn’t stack up to the original, overdone commitment. Business leaders do this all the time. They tout inflated earnings projections, or growth or market share estimates, then post actual results that are sadly short. Or they understate the job losses needed in a restructuring, then lacerate the morale of their workforce by dragging the business through two, three or even more rounds of job cuts because they didn’t do it right the first time. Rule #2 in a crisis: Be fiercely realistic about what is going to happen next. Under-commit to positive outcomes and overstate likely negatives. Then work like crazy to improve on both. Pandering to the Base Some business leaders believe they can keep their positions secure, not based on what they deliver, but because of who they know. Call it the Pander Strategy: identify the politically important people in your organization, then make sure they get lots of attention, have their needs met, and are made well aware of all you have done for them. Problem is, when a true crisis hits, even the most docile panderees won’t be looking to you for more tummy rubs – they’ll be looking to you for effective action. And if all you’ve got for them is ‘look what I did for you lately’, you’re likely out on your keister. Rule #3 in a crisis: Don’t think flattery or patronage will get you through. It won’t. Rule #3A: A crisis is a lousy time to have to learn real leadership skills. Better to start well in advance.

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