Tag Archives: politics

Alpha Dogs and Leadership


dogs-1231010_1280Because this blog was on hiatus all summer, I didn’t comment on the political stalemates and morasses during those months. And I’m not going to comment directly on the ongoing issues today. But what I saw over the summer—and what I continue to see this fall—reminds me of a situation I encountered many years ago involving “alpha dogs” in a corporate setting.

My work group attended a gender diversity program sometime in the mid-1990s. I was not in management at the time; I was one of several individual contributors who ranged widely in seniority. I was in the middle of the pack at the time.

One of the comments about gender differences that the facilitator made during this gender diversity session was that men often try to be the “alpha dog” in a meeting by one-upping the other men in the room. Women, on the other hand, care less if they are seen as the highest power in the room. (Keep in mind that this program took place decades before Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” philosophy became vogue.)

I might have forgotten this “alpha dog” comment, except that a few days after the diversity program, I was talking about it with a male colleague, one of the more senior employees in our group. He freely admitted, “That’s why I have problems with [our male boss]. He and I both want to be the alpha dog.”

I thought about it. He was right—these two men did both try to be top dog. And trying to be the alpha dog wasn’t working for my colleague, because he didn’t have the corporate authority to pull it off. He wasn’t the boss, but he often tried to be.

I made a deliberate decision. As a fairly young and introverted female, seeking to be the alpha dog wasn’t going to work for me either. Therefore, I would consciously act like I was NOT the alpha dog. I would not overtly try to one-up other people I encountered in the workplace. I would defer to others intentionally. I would seek to provide good service to my colleagues and clients, rather than to command them. That didn’t mean letting others step all over me, but it did mean not being arrogant or seeking top billing on projects.

I’ve written before about “servant leadership,” a philosophy that advocates leading by serving others. I didn’t hear of that concept until ten or more years after the 1990s gender diversity program, but it resonated with me when I learned about it.

How did servant leadership work for me?

Generally, it worked well, at least through the middle years in my career. Over time, there were more and more times when I had to take command and make decisions. And occasionally, I didn’t get as much credit for my work as I thought I should have. But those times were less frequent than one might expect.

However, there were times after I moved into senior corporate roles when more of a command approach might have worked better. There were definitely people—mostly men, but a few women—who took advantage of my understated approach or who thought me weak. I could usually deflect them by being the best prepared person in the room, but there were a few jerks who only understood power, who only thought highly of other “alpha dogs” and sought to be the “alpha dog” with everyone except the CEO. They were never my favorite people, but sometimes I did have to flex my style to deal with them effectively.

dogs-1231008_640Unfortunately, many of today’s leaders—particularly the partisans on both sides of the aisle in Washington—seem to be of the “alpha dog” mentality. One-up-man-ship is all they understand. And so our nation has become increasingly polarized. If more of them would exercise servant leadership, we would all be better off.

What leadership style have you generally used? When have you had to flex your style?

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Leadership and the Truth: Lessons from the Vietnam War


7UcgHxn-asset-mezzanine-16x9-mAfzizc.jpg.crop.480x270Like many Americans, I’ve been watching The Vietnam War, the documentary film series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, which is currently available on PBS. I was a child during this era in history, and didn’t pay much attention to the news from the battlefields. I remember the protests in the U.S., and I remember the fall of Saigon, but I don’t remember much about the events leading up to the end of the war.

leadership sign 2I haven’t watched all the episodes in the series yet, but from the episodes I have seen, one of my prime take-aways is the importance of truth for leaders in any organization.

Avoiding the spread of Communism in Asia was an important objective for U.S. leaders in the early 1960s. We can argue today over how strategic Vietnam was, but the fact was that political and military leaders in many nations during that era were heavily influenced in their decision-making by the conversion of Eastern Europe into a Soviet bloc. Most of the populations in the U.S. and in Western Europe in these years supported their leaders’ goal of deterring Russian and Chinese expansion.

Despite the laudatory objective, the U.S. decisions in Vietnam went horribly wrong almost from the beginning. Failure of the political and military leaders to seek the truth and tell the truth were large factors in creating the fiasco that Vietnam became.

The need for truth flows in both directions in every organization. Leaders must seek the truth from as many sources as they can, and they must tell the truth in every word they utter. Truth-seeking and truth-telling apply to all interactions with subordinates, peers, superiors, customers, investors, and the public—in short, to every communication with internal and external stakeholders.

The Vietnam series is brutal in pointing out incidents where our military and political leaders did not seek out information from those with first-hand knowledge of conditions on the ground, where underlings feared to volunteer negative information that leaders didn’t want to hear, and where leaders lied or hid information from the public. As a result of these failures to seek truth and to tell truth, bad decisions were made for far too long, and these bad decisions were kept secret from the public who might have opposed the carnage sooner, had they known the facts.

There’s a saying about how generals tend to fight the last war. They learn lessons from that war, and use those lessons in the next conflict. But they might forget other lessons of history or they might see the current battle through the wrong lens because of their focus on the past. That was part of the problem in Vietnam.

Many corporations also fight the wrong problem because they do not see the current challenge clearly. They focus on the wrong competitor, the wrong customer, the wrong product or technology. Their vision is myopic, they don’t see the big picture.

Moreover, leaders in any organization sometimes forget the importance of truth. The reasons for not seeking or telling the truth might vary, but it seems to be part of the universal human condition to only hear what we want to hear and to only say what we wish was true. Part of the rationale is self-preservation, part is wishful thinking, part is a futile attempt to protect those who might be harmed by reality. In the end, however, the truth generally comes out.

Good leaders make an extra effort to seek and to tell the truth, even when it hurts. They look for multiple sources of input and they are candid and transparent in all communications. They realize that facing the truth sooner rather than later is usually best for the organization . . . and, in the long run, for their own reputations.

When have you seen avoidance of the truth cause problems in an organization?

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The Myth of 100 Days, and the Reality


presidential sealMuch of the news for the past couple of weeks has revolved around how is President Trump doing in his first one hundred days in office. President Trump himself set high expectations before he was inaugurated, and recently he has been trying to tamp down the importance of the 100 day marker. He hit that marker this past Saturday.

One hundred days is an arbitrary period. It is less than a year, less than one-twelfth of a president’s term of office. Nevertheless, it is used as a milestone not only for new Presidents but also for new corporate executives.

I’ve read many articles outlining what a new CEO or CFO or head of Human Resources—or any other “chief” of a corporate function, for that matter—ought to accomplish when he or she takes office. Here are just a few articles telling new executives what to do in their first one hundred days:

Five Myths of a CEO’s First 100 Days, by Roselinde Torres and Peter Tollman, January 30, 2012, in Harvard Business Review

Your First 100 Days as CEO—Eight Must-Avoid Traps, by Scott Weighart, Bates Communications

An Action Plan for New CEOs During the First 100 Days, by M.S.Rao, October 8, 2014, on TrainingMag.com

Assuming Leadership: The First 100 Days, by Patrick Ducasse and Tom Lutz, The Boston Consulting Group

Rather than go through all the recommendations, which they are not entirely consistent, I want to focus on two topics: setting up for long-term success and strong communications. These, in my opinion, are critical marks of new leaders.

1. Long-Term Success

One area in which there is a difference of opinion among the experts is whether to strive for “quick wins” or whether to focus on setting up for success in the long term. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, and a few quick wins can win over supporters who will improve the chances of long-term success.

It all depends on whether the wins are what the organization needs or wants, or whether the new leader achieves them by running roughshod over the organization. If the early wins are gained at the expense of long-standing corporate culture, then the new executive will be seen as insensitive.

I believe that long-term success is more important than early victories. It is better for the new executive to be seen as listening to stakeholders than to introduce change without an understanding of the impact on the organization. Obviously, if there are some early wins that most stakeholders approve of, then the new CEO should undertake them immediately. But these actions will have the best impact if they are consistent with the CEO’s long-term strategic plan and vision.

2. Communications

Most commentators agree that it is critical for the new executive to take control of communications, but to balance listening with revealing his or her own vision and priorities. The executive must be seen as a leader, but also as someone who understands the organization’s needs. Particularly for executives hired from the outside, it is critical that the new leader not come across as arrogant and dismissive of the company’s past.

Building relationships with those in the organization is essential. That requires an open dialogue in which the new executive really listens to the stakeholders and also reveals his or her own intentions and beliefs. The incoming CEO will have his or her preferred communications style, but must also adapt to the needs of the organization. Also, it is important to set realistic expectations on what will and will not change and how fast change will come.

So, on these two points, how is President Trump doing?

Each of us will have our own answer to this question. In my opinion, President Trump gets decidedly mixed results.

He has had some short-term successes (the confirmation of Justice Gorsuch, the limited strike on Syria) and some failures (the travel ban, the failure of the House health care reform proposal). But I don’t believe he has defined his vision of long-term success clearly enough. We don’t yet know what he hopes to accomplish in four years, which campaign promises he means to keep and which he does not . . . and maybe also how he has changed since taking office. Without this clarity, it is hard to decide if he is focused on the long term.

On the communications front, his core audience still seems supportive of the President, but he does not appear to be expanding his reach beyond his base. People who didn’t like candidate Trump tweeting now find tweets by President Trump are even scarier. Maybe he doesn’t care about broadening his appeal, but I think it would be wise if he did. And to broaden his appeal, he will have to communicate in more than 140 characters. He will have to appear to listen as well as to speak and to speak at length and with heart.

As with any change, some people will show patience toward President Trump, others will have no patience. Some will be skeptical, but silent. Others will be vocally displeased. Much like what happens in any organization when a new executive enters the scene.

What do you think of President Trump’s first one hundred days?

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Historical Patterns of Party Power


wsj-graphic-1-21-17

As I have watched and read about the events of the last week unfold, from the confirmation hearings to the inauguration to the marches around our nation, I was most struck by one graphic in The Wall Street Journal, published on p. A5 of the U.S. edition on January 21, 2017. This graphic shows the distribution of power between Republicans and Democrats in the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives from the Eisenhower era to the present—essentially, for my entire life.

I’ve pasted a copy of this graphic above. Here is a link to a PDF of the graphic, if you need better resolution to view it. The information in this graphic really deserves some time and thought—and better commentary than I am able to give.

We are a nation of divided power, and have been for most of the last forty years. Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter could count on Democrats in the legislature to back them (and vice versa—Congress could count on a President of the same party to sign their bills). But since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980—now 36 years ago—here is the sum total of the periods in which we have had a Presidency united with both houses of Congress:

  • Bill Clinton got two years, 1993-1995
  • George W. Bush got six years, 2001-2007 (if you count the Vice-President breaking the tie)
  • Barack Obama got two years, 2009-2011

Only ten of the past thirty-six years have seen our executive and legislative branches united. Four of those years have had Democrat leadership, and six have had Republican.

And now Donald Trump in 2017 . . . for how long?

Another fact jumped out at me from this visual. Congress was a Democrat institution from the 1950s until the 1990s. I knew this intellectually, but seeing it in red and blue in this graphic hit me in the face. No wonder there was a steady trend toward more liberal policies through that forty-year era.

I remember watching the election returns in November 1980 with some conservative coworkers (who were more conservative than I was at the time). As it became apparent that the Republicans would take the Senate, they became increasingly elated—something was happening that most of them had not seen in their adult lives. They were giddy with the possibilities.

The shift toward Republicans began in the Senate with Reagan in 1980, but it didn’t infiltrate the House until Bill Clinton’s administration. The Democrats took Congress back in 2007, and kept it through the first two years of Barack Obama’s administration. Given their forty-year history of control, they must have felt they were taking back their birthright (though, of course, it never was that). But our memories are not so short that we forget that Democratic hubris during the passage of the Affordable Care Act led to the loss of first the House and then the Senate.

As I perused this chart, I wondered if there wasn’t more moderation in both parties when the Democrats could count on holding Congress. There was certainly more breadth to both Democrat and Republican legislators in that pre-Clinton era. Now that both parties can see the possibility of having the majority in the legislative branch, they pander more to their bases. As each takes power from the other, they try to capitalize as much as possible on enacting their goals in the short-term, because they cannot count on the long-term. And they do everything they can to blame the other party, in the hopes of swaying voters to give them back (or let them keep) the reins.

Perhaps we need to consider how parliamentarian systems transfer power without total lurches from one extreme to the other. Or how to deal with those lurches when they happen. The U.S. does not have any institutional memory on how to cope with total shifts in power.

Of course, Donald Trump comes to his term in office as an outsider, with few connections to the Republican Congress that will serve with him. I wonder how his populist strategy will fit with the Washington insiders. Will he reap the benefit of a compatible legislature, or will he distance himself from the Republicans in Congress he will need to implement the changes he says he wants?

Those are my major takeaways as I look at this historical picture of our nation’s distribution of power.

What thoughts to you have about this graphical history of U.S. politics?

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After the Election, Let’s Hope for Reconciliation, Not Gridlock


Well, the election last Tuesday didn’t produce gridlock, as I had hoped for two weeks ago. Frankly, when I wrote that post about gridlock, I fully anticipated a Clinton victory. I wasn’t eagerly awaiting that outcome, but that was what I thought would happen. I hoped for gridlock to contain the continued Democratic excesses I think have occurred in the last eight years.

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Donald Trump, photo by Gage Skidmore on Flickr

Now that the President-elect is Donald Trump, do I still hope for gridlock? No. I am no more of a fan of Donald Trump’s than I was before the election, but I now hope for reconciliation.

I hope Republicans can develop a reasonable agenda. Not an agenda that pushes too far right. Not a wacky foreign policy that abandons our nation’s position in the world. But an agenda that earnestly works to improve the economic standing of all Americans.

I hope Republicans preserve the freedoms they value—religious freedom, gun rights, and a broad interpretation of the First Amendment—while also preserving freedoms for Americans who do not typically vote Republican—Muslim Americans, African Americans, Hispanics, non-Christian minorities, the LGBT community, and others who feel marginalized by the election results.

I also hope the Republican majorities in Congress will reach across the aisle to pull in Democrats’ ideas on solutions to the thorny problems facing our nation. Many Trump supporters only have to remember how they felt after the excesses of the Obama Administration to understand how Clinton supporters feel now. I hope Republicans learned a lesson from how they felt in 2008-2010, when a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate permitted Democrats to enact laws (including Obamacare) without any input from Republicans.

“Turn about is fair play” is not a good governing strategy for Republicans now.

I’m not optimistic. Not about the Republicans’ ability to work together within their party, nor about their ability to compromise with Democrats. I still would not be surprised to see gridlock. Perhaps not in the traditional sense of placing the Presidency and Congress in the hands of different parties. But Democrats in the Senate are likely to use filibusters and other procedural rules to retain a minority check on Republicans. And the Republicans will probably have difficulty uniting around an agenda. Gridlock is still quite possible.

Still, I hope I’m as wrong in my pessimism as I was about Hillary Clinton becoming the 45th President.

What is your hope for our nation in the next four years?

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The Best We Can Hope for Is Gridlock


vote-stars1In some states, voting has been underway for weeks. For the rest of us, we have to endure this presidential election campaign for another eight days. A truly ghoulish proposition this Halloween.

For almost all of us, it has been a miserable year. We have two of the least liked candidates for President in our nation’s history. Both have flaws as candidates, with the flaws evident in their personal traits, in their histories in public life, and in their positions on issues. New evidence of their flaws surfaces almost daily, with the latest being the FBI’s announcement on October 28 of its renewed investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails.

I’ve written before about the difficulty of choosing between two bad options. I keep remembering the quote from Thomas Merton I included in that earlier post: “an evil choice can never have wholly good consequences.”

The more we have learned about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump over the last year, the more difficult the choice has become. I’ve made my decision. I’ve considered the four candidates on every state’s ballot. I’ve considered not voting in the presidential race (but I’ve rejected not voting at all, for reasons described below). I’m not going to disclose here how I’ll cast my vote in the presidential race, because this year in particular there is no good decision, and I do not fault anyone for reaching a different conclusion than I do.

Instead, the purpose of this post is to urge voters to make independent and thoughtful decisions when they select their choices for all races on the ballot. This is not a year to blindly vote a straight party ticket to avoid making choices in down-ballot races. Whatever the reasons a voter has for choosing a presidential candidate—or for not choosing anyone in that race—there are separate reasons to consider Congressional, state and local races.

Our Constitution deliberately sets up checks and balances on each branch of the federal government. The framers must have considered the potential for unsavory candidates for President. Frankly, having Congress and the Supreme Court as checks on the presidential candidates we have before us this year sounds like a good plan to me.

We’ve had gridlock in Washington for the past six years since Republicans gained the majority in the House of Representatives in 2010. The split deepened in 2014 when Republicans took control of the Senate as well. And it hasn’t been all bad. A lot of people fume about nothing getting done in Washington. But getting nothing done is certainly better than getting the wrong things done. Witness the problems with Obamacare and Dodd-Frank after unfettered Democratic actions between 2008 and 2010.

Those of us who were extremely frustrated at the lack of any effective conservative voice in opposition to President Obama between 2008 and 2010 were happy to see gridlock for the remainder of his presidency. Yes, there are important issues that have been kicked down the road for future leaders. That isn’t good, but again, it is better than resolving these issues in the wrong way.

At this point, the best outcome I see for the next four years is continued gridlock. Because I do not trust either of the individuals likely to be our next President to act wisely (meaning, usually in accordance with my beliefs), I hope that Congress and the Supreme Court will continue to check actions that do not appeal to the majority of our nation or that go beyond the Constitutional powers granted to the President.

I might hope for compromise between divided branches of government, and perhaps that is possible. But I would be satisfied with gridlock, given the alternative.

So choose your candidates for the House and Senate with care. If you don’t have a good option for President, perhaps you have reasonable men and women to vote for in these other federal races. And choose your candidates for state and local races thoughtfully also—these elected officials have a tremendous impact on your daily life, and we can hope that the best of them will be our next national leaders as well. Choose people who will represent you better than the presidential candidates we have.

Whatever you believe, vote on or before November 8. Make your choices thoughtfully and deliberately in every race on the ballot.

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My Political Quandary: How Do I Choose the Good?


american-politics party imagesLike many Americans, I find myself in a quandary, now that it appears that the two main presumptive Presidential candidates are Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. I find myself wanting neither of the above.

I do not see Mr. Trump as an acceptable Presidential personality, I do not think he has sufficient political experience, and I do not trust that his positions will match most of my own. I do not find his bullying braggadocio attractive, and I do not want to listen to it for the next six months, let alone four (or eight) years after that.

I have disagreed with most of Mrs. Clinton’s positions for more than two decades, I do not think she is a trustworthy candidate, and I despised her husband’s peccadilloes in office and don’t want him anywhere near the White House again. Although she has a good political pedigree, she is as paranoid as Richard Nixon and about as charismatic.

I don’t typically write about religion in this blog, but I find myself reflecting on a bit from Thomas Merton this week:

“We find ourselves more and more backed into a corner in which there seems to be no choice but that of a ‘lesser evil’ . . . . But an evil choice can never have wholly good consequences. When one chooses to do good irrespective of the consequences, it is a paradox that the consequences will ultimately be good.”

Merton continues:

We must recover our inner faith not only in God but in the good . . . In the power of the good to take care of itself and us as well.”

From Conjectures of a Guily Bystander, part 2.

And so I have decided that my task over the next several months is to decide what the “good” is. I will not stoop to picking the lesser of the two evils.

I don’t know yet what the “good” will be for me.

Can I find one of these candidates acceptable? Will one of the two contenders rise above “lesser of two evil” status and make me think he or she will be a good President?

Will a third option become appealing? Who are the other candidates, and what do they have to offer?

Should I choose not to vote in this election? I can’t allow my dissatisfaction with the top of the ticket to harm other candidates for state and local races, but I can choose to leave the first spot on the ballot empty. That may be the “good” this year.

I have until November 8 to decide. Whatever I decide, however, I will remember that I do not need to choose the lesser evil. If I do, it will not have wholly good consequences.

When have you faced only unfortunate choices?

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