Aug 30 2004

Political versus Corporate Leadership, Part I: Realist or Idealist?

It’s election season, the GOP convention is literally in my backyard, and while this is not a political blog, I can’t help myself. As we as Americans grapple with the question of who we want to be our next leader (or at least those people who live in the 11 annointed swing states do), I have had a lot of thoughts lately about the question of what makes a good leader, and what the differences are between successful leadership in politics and successful leadership in business.

James O’Toole’s article on President Bush on page 31 of the September issue of Fast Company (no link available yet) brings up a really interesting point in comparing Bush to former president Ronald Reagan. He asserts that “what made Reagan effective and respected was that his actions followed consistently from a positive worldview.” (I’d also argue that the positive worldview as a starting point had something to do with it, but that’s beside the point.) He goes on to say that Bush has an “implementation problem” in that he “has vacillated between contradictory approaches to leadership: realism and idealism.” His central thesis is stated very clearly that

“Realists and idealists can both be effective leaders. But one cannot be both at once…The leadership lesson for GW – and for any leader – is simple: Followers don’t much care if leaders are realists or idealists, but they distrust inconsistency.”

This may or may not be true in the political arena, but I know it’s not true in business. Jim Collins’ watershed books Built to Last and Good to Great — both must reads! — describe the ideal CEO as someone who can simultaneously be optimistic and idealistic about the future of the company while simultaneously recognizing and dealing with the realities of the short-term situation. Ironically for this posting, Collins calls this the Stockdale paradox, after retired Admiral James Stockdale, a military leader and erstwhile vice presidential candidate of Ross Perot in the 1992 election.

As CEO, I have to constantly be selling the vision of the company — what we’re trying to become and how we’re going to get there — in broad strokes to my investors, board, management team, employees, and even customers. It’s that vision that keeps the whole machine running and keeps everyone focused and excited and working hard towards our long-term goals. But I have to be equally vigilant about the mundane realities of the current quarter, making our numbers, containing costs, and running the machine. If I did either one without the other, I think the whole system would break down.

Is Bush’s problem, as O’Toole asserts, that he articulated two different types of reasons for the war in Iraq — one rooted in Realism (WMD) and one rooted in Idealism (freedom and democracy)? Same goes for his states reasons for the tax cut — Realism on the one hand (to stimulate the economy) and Idealism on the other hand (shrink government). I agree that the Bush Administration has occasional implementation problems and doesn’t have nearly the “following” that Reagan and other more successful leaders in the past have, but I don’t think they’re caused by combining Realism and Idealism in the President’s leadership style. I think the leader of the free world has to do both well, each at its appropriate time, in order to be effective at his job.

Next up in this series: Admitting Mistakes.