Monday, December 8, 2008

Down with the state(s), sort of

Imagine that you've been hired to serve as the CEO of a very, very big company. Everyone is looking to you to guide them through some very perilous times. You have a laptop full of plans and ideas for how to deal with things. You put your team in place. All set to go? Not so fast. In some divisions of this company, there's a middle layer of managers who don't really have to do what you tell them. They don't have to follow your policies. They can even go in the opposite direction. You have some power to give out money to get them to do what you want, but sometimes even that can't guarantee that they will. In fact, they work very hard (and often quite publicly) to get around your policies. They even talk to the media to tell them how bad your policies are. The kicker: you can't fire them. Still, if your policies don't succeed, you get the blame.

Would you want this job? Could anybody succeed under these circumstances? The strange thing is that lots of people want this job. It's almost hopeless. What company is this? The United States of America. No, really. The President is hired to run this country, but there are 50 governors, state legislatures, state court systems and state bureaucracies that stand between the President and the successful implementation of many policies.

What has been said repeatedly in the last few months is the need for the new administration to take decisive action on a number of issues, notably on the domestic agenda: (starting with) the economy, education, health care, energy, environment, etc. While much has been said about what the President plans to do in these areas, it really depends on the states implementing the policy–or not.

The one area where this is egregiously obvious is education. (But, the same problem arises in any number of issues.) Education is a state function. This means that we have 50+ education policies and programs. There is little, if any, consistency between states. What a student studies and learns in any given grade in one state, does not necessarily match with the same grade in another state. In some cases, it can even vary from district to district within the same state. This means that we don't have a national education system. We have a hodge-podge of educational systems without any real sense of what is in the national interest. The country is seriously behind in science and math knowledge and no real plan or way to improve. Theories of all stripes and colors come and go every fall. No matter what policy the President sets, it has very little impact in the classroom. If anything, the federal government is adding to the problem with burdensome regulations and paperwork.

The same goes for virtually all domestic issues. So, what can we do? It is time to rethink this state-federal division of conflicting responsibilities. While not yet advocating the elimination of the states, I think some serious thought needs to be given to cutting some layer of administration out. While it may have worked 200 years ago, this system, like the electoral college, has outlived its usefulness and is even making the situation worse.

Other countries that do not have this middle layer of opposition management, seem to be better at addressing national issues. It's time we took a true national approach to national problems. It's just good leadership.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Cool Factor in Leadership

You've seen it before, probably many times. In a crisis or even when a standard level problem arises, the boss or supervisor blows a gasket or something like it. His or her voice gets louder. It rises to a shout. All of a sudden, tensions spread across the department or company like a wave or tsunami, depending on the level of crisis.

On the other hand, you may have also seen the boss or supervisor who remains calm, almost unconcerned, when the same problem comes up. Everyone around them remains just as calm. They discuss the challenge, map out a plan and then get to it. Where would you rather work?

So, what makes the difference here. According to an article
in The New York Times, genetics plays a major role, "But the calm temperament is not so superhuman, nor is it entirely the gift of the chosen few. It can be cultivated, even as the world cleaves around us."

Of course, they make the expected reference to No Drama Obama. They also connect this to the ordinary (if you would ever consider yourself as such) worker.

The article gives this example, "Imagine two people with equally high measures of neuroticism dealing with the same irascible boss. One gets yelled at and leaves the boss’s office perfectly composed; the other gets yelled at and flees to the bathroom in tears or storms out and kicks the wall. The difference is that the first person has learned to regulate the neuroticism."

There's more here and worth reading. But, ask yourself, "how do I deal with crisis and challenges?" If you're the cool, collected type, you're generally doing well. If not, time to learn how to control your responses.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

What leads to success?

I am currently reading "8 to be Great," by Richard St. John. It's an interesting book so far. I was turned on to it by a video I came across on TED. See the video here. Its less than four minutes long:

It's a great presentation. It all started with a simple question, what leads to success? If you ever need to do a presentation about success, this is a ready-made one. You can take the basic outline and put your own touch on it. The quotes in the book help quite a lot. Just give credit to St. John for the ideas.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

It's not just socializing. It's hard work.

You thought surfing the net and working on MySpace pages was all about socializing. How wrong you were. It's all about training for the work force of the future. That's what the New York Times says in an article ( posted recently. Okay, I can't quite get the hang of having the link linked to a word on my blog so that you just click on the word and it will take you to the article. You'll have to cut and paste the link. I'll work on it.

But the point is clear, socializing is a good skill we need to have. It's really part of leadership. As one of the researchers says, "...their participation is giving them the technological skills and literacy they need to succeed in the contemporary world. They’re learning how to get along with others, how to manage a public identity, how to create a home page.”

So, MySpace and FaceBook are really powers for good and not slackering? In a way, yes.

As the recent economic downturn points out, we're turning into a country that is more and more moving toward a service- and computer-based economy and less toward production of goods. We have to start thinking that way. As in some other things, youth tend to point the way, if inadvertently, toward the future. It's not so much that they're looking for the future as that they're just looking and exploring what's out there. But, that's where the future is.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Steve Young: Football Legend, Negotiator

Steve Young? Football legend, certainly. Negotiator? As it turns out, he's quite a negotiator. To hear him tell it, it's been a skill he's used most of his adult life, on and off the field. In the following audio clip, he tells us gives us an introduction to why he thinks its an important skill. The podcast is part of the Stanford University Technology Ventures Program. I was surprised he was a lawyer, with a real law degree. He worked on it during his time with the San Francisco 49ers during the off-season. That's quite a task and accomplishment. As he put it, he would play in the Super Bowl and then head the following Tuesday for classes. It's quite a story with some good lessons with real world applicability. For anyone working to improve their leadership skills, this is a good resource and inspiration. His comments about his agent are particularly keen.

You can access the video/audio podcasts directly. The audio podcast is superior because it has no interruptions. The video is broken up into 16 sections. I wish Stanford would issue an entire video podcast for download.

Hope you enjoy it.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Leading Through the Noise

There seems to be quite a lot of noise right now: from the media, from politicians, from business leaders, from economists, from labor leaders and from average folks. What's all the yelling about? You name it, they're yelling about it. The economy, and what to do or not do about it, seems to be hottest topic. Still, there are countless other topics: health care, Social Security, education, etc.

Given the tremendous changes that are coming or just expected, it is natural that people are taking the opportunity to voice their concerns lest their issues be fall to the wayside. However, this all comes back to adding to the noise level. In all that noise, it is hard to focus on one thing. It is not impossible, it just requires focus and discipline.

I do an activity with some of my training groups that has them break up into partners. One of them is blindfolded, and the other guides the blindfolded partner to one side of a room they have not have not seen. On the floor are a number of objects and furniture. At my signal, the "seeing" partners start yelling out directions from across the room to guide them. Of course, it becomes a challenge as each guide tries to yell louder and louder in order to be heard by their blind folded partner.

In this exercise, most teams fail to navigate the room of objects. In some cases, some teams develop some codes to get them through it. For example, rather than yelling, "right two steps" (which everyone else is yelling), they may yell, "red two." Others wait until other teams have finished to let the noise die down.

So, what does this have to do with leadership? There is always noise. There are always distractions. There may be more media attention right now, but the noise is always there. Leaders need to always stay focused and disciplined to not let the noise distract them from what their priorities are. Likewise, the new President, or any good leader, needs to be focused on what their priorities are and keep on going toward their goal. One needs to know the difference between the real voices to listen to and what is just noise. That's what you should be doing, whatever you are doing.