Gary Winters

Coach  Workshop Facilitator Author

What can you learn about being a leader in transition from Barack Obama?

barack-obama1With the election of Barack Obama this week comes a wonderful opportunity to learn about being a leader in transition.

In March, 2008 I published on this blog an article called Five Mistakes to Avoid if You’re the New Leader in Charge. It will be interesting to see if Obama avoids these mistakes. They are:

1. Thinking it’s about you, when it’s really about them.
2. Throwing your weight around before throwing your “wait” around.
3. Paying attention to the big picture and ignoring the small stuff.
4. Ignoring the power of symbolism.
5. Confusing change with transition.

Mistake #1: Thinking it’s about you, when it’s really about them.

I wrote, “As you begin your new assignment, it’s quite tempting to be seduced by the congratulations, the accolades, and the possibilities. But you must resist the idea that this important event is all about you. It’s not, at least to your new staff. It’s really about them. You can bet the house that what’s on each of the minds of those people who now report to you is WIIFM – what’s in it for me? “

It’s hard to imagine what it feels like to be elected President of the United States – arguably the most powerful position in the world. The votes and adoration of millions of people must be almost irresistible. And yet, Obama seems to have avoided this mistake so far. In his victory speech, one important moment came early on when he said, “But above all, I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to – it belongs to you.”

Of course, Obama has more than his staff (the administration) to consider. But the principle is still the same – all Americans (not to mention people around the world) are wondering exactly what’s in it for me? The simple, but powerful sentence in his speech conveyed a leader who understands that it’s really about us – not him.

Mistake #2: Throwing your weight around before throwing your “wait” around.

I wrote, “New leaders can be so enthusiastic about their new authority that they start barking out marching orders – “Do this! Do that!” because, well, they can. They have positional power. People will do what you tell them to do, because people can be motivated by fear. But not for long. My advice? Slow down to go fast.”

Much is made of our presidents’ first 100 days. And there is little doubt that Obama will move quickly to establish his leadership and set a direction for the country early in his administration. But, again, he seems to understand the importance of listening first rather than talking. Contrast his approach, during the campaign, to the financial crisis, from that of his opponent, John McCane, who “suspended” his campaign and flew to Washington to immerse himself in the delicate political process in Congress. Despite his “weight” as a presidential candidate, McCane was rebuffed and largely ineffective.

Mistake #3: Paying attention to the big picture and ignoring the small stuff.

I wrote, “As you take charge, it’s natural to sharpen your focus on the big picture – your vision, where you want to take the team, set some goals and objectives. It’s important work and cannot to be overlooked. But just as important to your team is the so-called small stuff. They want to know how you operate.”

It’s too early to see how Obama handles this issue, but already there’s intense speculation, based on his selection of Rep. Rahm Emanuel on Thursday as White House chief of staff. Already folks are taking their measure of Emanuel, hoping for clues as to how the Obama White House will actually function.

Obama is a master of big picture thinking (and communicating). His vision of a “new kind of politics” and “change we can believe in” was mesmerizing for millions of Americans. There’s no way of knowing, just yet, how he handles the day to day operations of government. Once his cabinet is selected and begins its work, we’ll know whether Obama can keep one eye on the big picture and another on the nuts and bolts of creating a productive administration.

Mistake #4: Ignoring the power of symbolism.

I wrote, “Make the power of symbolism work for you.”

There can be little doubt that Obama is already a master of this principle. One example: delivering his acceptance speech at the close of his campaign in an open-air stadium, rather than the convention hall. Another was his choice of backdrops for his speeches in Europe. While there are those who strongly criticized his campaign for this symbolism, there can be no doubt that it worked.

Even on a much smaller scale it worked. In the presidential debates, Obama looked calm, cool and collected, a sharp contrast to his opponent. Many wrote how “presidential” he looked. Clearly, his demeanor, posture, and composure was symbolic and allowed people to comfortably imagine him in the White House.

That said, I believe Obama stumbled at times with regard to symbolism. His Not Quite a Presidential Seal for his podium was over the top.

Mistake #5: Confusing change with transition.

I wrote, “William Bridges points out in Managing Transitions that change is external – it happens to you, while transitions are internal – it happens inside you. Change starts with a beginning, while transition starts by letting go of the past.”

This is a juicy principle when looking at Obama – after all, his campaign was all about bringing change to America. I suspect that he understands the difference between bringing changes, in policy, in law, in diplomacy, in how he governs, and the reshaping of the American identity. Who we are as a people and what we embody as a nation is about to undergo a tremendous transformation. Restoring our reputation and standing in the world starts with restoring our belief in ourselves, recovering our optimism, and building a government (and nation) based on hope and potential, while letting go of a culture of division rooted in fear.

If you’re a leader in transition about to take charge of a new team, department, division or organization, you can learn much from watching how President-elect Obama’s transition unfolds. Granted, there are important differences (he gets to choose his staff, you probably inherit yours, he’s about to become President of the United States, you’re about to become the new IT manager, or the Director of Engineering, or the Customer Service Supervisor, he was elected, and you were probably appointed). But the principles remain the same.

Will he lead a perfect transition? Probably not. Nonetheless, there will be lessons to learn from whatever he does that can be translated to your very real-world experience.

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