Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Reset Partisanship and Anger.....

Lots of anger out there. In the past days, I have received missives from four good friends of different ages, backgrounds, experience and communities (although all US citizens). They are all liberal Democrats and early Obama supporters, and all four of them sent angry, even furious diatribes against right-wing politicians, commentators, and George W. Bush.

Even the always cool Barack Obama is angry.

Less surprisingly, there is anger on the right as well, labeling Obama as "socialist". Yahoo has been documenting it. And the New York Times had a front page story Monday on Glen Beck, the new post-Lou Dobbs mouthpiece of angry conservative populism.

Nearly everyone's in a bad mood. You, too? I am especially curious about anger from the left because I would have thought that my liberal friends still would be euphoric over Obama's victory and exulting in his commitment to press forward on an ambitious domestic agenda on education, energy, and health care, even in the face of the current economic turmoil. My guess is that their anger is the tip of some iceberg and I wonder what is under the surface.

I have two theories The first was triggered by a conversation with my wife, Lynn Staley, and an e-mail from my friend Z.from Toronto. Perhaps my correspondents are disappointed in Obama, because he has not lived up to all the expectations they put on him. They cannot acknowledge that he is human after all, and they will not criticize him for fear that they will further undermine his popular support. So they have focused their frustration on the old familiar targets: Rush Limbaugh, W, Dick Cheney, and their fellow travelers.

But it was inevitable that Obama would let people down. They put him on the pedestal with many mutually exclusive expectations. They assumed naively that the Congress would stop being representative and would fall in line.

This explanation fits well with my favorite definition of leadership: leadership is about disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb. See, for example, Obama on Afghanistan, as a specific case in point.

A second and related idea is that people are anxious and worried about their own futures, their shrinking retirement accounts, their job loss, their depleted available cash supply, and the general uncertainty that we all face, and have focused their anxiety on those same old and easy targets.

Of course, those on the right have the same personal worries, but they have an easier target in Obama and his Administration, and then there's the Congress, the historical target of choice for anyone, any time.

There is nothing wrong with anger. It is a normal human emotion. Question, of course, is what to do with it. Sudhir Venkatesh's provocative op-ed in the Sunday New York Times News of the Week in Review suggested that the the populist rage has not been more focused, constructively or destructively, because we angry people are also embarrassed about our contributions to the mess, our years of overextending our debt and consumption.

So what would constructive harnessing of our anger look like? On the left, it is about supporting Obama, realizing that he is only human, that he is trying lots of experiments and that he and Geithner are only guessing, and then hoping that he will have the courage to keep trying different approaches until he gets it right. Be patient. Give him time. Forget wanting to be able to say "I told you so," a la Paul Krugman as seen on ABC's Sunday news program. With friends like Krugman in an economy that depends for its recovery on a psychological confidence, who needs enemies?

For Republicans, it is about creating and pushing alternatives, and holding Obama's feet to the fire, not calling him names and, worst of all, not hoping he fails. For a look at what that might mean substantively, read Carlos Watson's clever take-off on the AIG resignation letter published on the Huffington Post imagining Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal's resignation letter to the Republican Party or Hendrik Hertzberg's essay advocating temporarily suspending payroll taxes (a tax cut!) in a recent Talk of the Town piece in the New Yorker.

Look, I love politics. I am a junkie. But this is no time for politics as we know it. We are in a moment of fundamental change and opportunity. Take that anger and that anxiety and channel it into activity that will help change yourself and change the world.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Barack and Harvey: Hands on the Thermostat

I just saw "Milk". Pretty good movie, I thought. But also a pretty good leadership lesson.

The good news is that for the most part, in the movie at least, Harvey Milk was able to get off the dance floor and onto the balcony, take a distanced view, and realize that the movement was not about him, but about gay rights, the value that he represented and cared about. The bad news is that in the movie, at two crucial moments he was too anchored on the dance floor and lost that perspective.

People who are out in front, like Harvey Milk thirty-one years ago, or Barack Obama today, with constituents and followers, are expected to regulate the temperature in the system and in a position to do so, as if they had a hand on the thermostat.

Of course, when you are in that role, you are never acting completely autonomously. In organizational life, your most ardent supporters usually want you to turn the heat down, keep things calm. In social movement life, your most ardent supporters usually want you to turn the heat up, on others, of course. And often, in both cases, what is required is just the opposite.

Having the expectation on you that you will control the heat is a great resource for exercising leadership. You need to know when to turn it up in order to put enough pressure into the system to get people to face up to difficult realities they would just as soon avoid, and when to turn it down because the pressure cooker you have created is about to blow up.

That's what Obama is dealing with right now, and what the movie portrays Harvey Milk having dealt with in the 1970s.

Here's where in the movie Milk failed to get on the balcony and therefore misread how close he was to blowing up the system. First, his fellow San Francisco supervisor (and soon after his assassin), Dan White, confronted him about feeling humiliated by being the lone vote against the gay rights ordinance. White represented all those people who felt at sea because the world they knew was passing them by, but Milk didn't need them to pass his ordinance so he was deaf to their concerns. Then, soon after, there is a scene where Mayor George Moscone told Milk he wanted to re-appoint White to the Board and Milk threatened Moscone with political retaliation. Moscone represented all those people, including many who agreed with Milk and, as suggested by the film, many policemen, but who did not want to see the other side humiliated.

Shortly after Moscone told White that he would not be re-appointed, White assassinated both Milk and Moscone. The system blew.

Last week, Obama faced rising populist anger and frustration. I received four e-mails from friends, left of center Democrats, full of fury, disproportionate particularly considering they had helped elect an African-American President who was trying to advance a domestic agenda they supported. I think that their fury at the bonus babies and the conservative commentators was a reflection of their frustration with Obama himself, not at his policies, but with his unwillingness to share and mirror their rage, to take revenge on the hated Bushies, and to respond viscerally to the injustices in the current situation.

Obama's uncharacteristic response last week, showing a flash of anger whether he felt it or not, and in spite of the reality that his Administration had more or less already signed off on the bonuses, was a way of calming down his own constituents, who were screaming for blood, before they did something foolish and undermined the whole mission. By railing against the bonus babies, he raised the heat, pacifying his angry constituents who were lusting for revenge and buying some time to address the substantive issues. The downside, of course, is that he legitimized and exacerbated the public humiliation of all the people who worked at AIG and other financial firms, whatever their role in the reckless risk-taking, and accelerated Congress' tendency to be easily diverted from the more troubling issues and tough choices around how to get out of this mess and focus on the outrage of the day. Not surprising that he has backed off from supporting the Congressional proposals which responded to his public anger.

Controlling the heat, keeping the temperature in a productive range, is an important tool of leadership for you as well as for Obama. My sense of Obama is that he understands the tool, but is not predisposed to use it. His coolness under fire has become, and maybe always was, part of his self-identity, and like any of one's own special gifts, it is also a vulnerability.

My sense is that this experience will reinforce his tendency default to his cerebral reflexes and he will have trouble in the future recognizing when to raise the heat when that is what is needed. I hope I'm wrong. Otherwise, he will never get us to face the trough choices we have to make to reset the system rather than live in the illusion that we can restore it to the status quo.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Crime and Punishment

Watching Madoff being taken away in handcuffs last week, I was thinking about crime and punishment, and whether those who recklessly led us into the current financial mess ought to share more of the pain, whether or not they committed a crime.

My son and my son-in-law, the former operating from his analytic side and the latter operating viscerally, have been arguing with me for months about society's need for some kind of "justice" for those people, particularly in the financial and mortgage industries who may never have broken any laws, or who never intended to hurt anyone, but who acted recklessly with other people's money and security and should have known better.

We do that already.

Remember O.J.? He was not convicted of a crime, but he received a judgment against him for $33.5 million (most of which he has not paid) to go to the families of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman in a wrongful death civil suit.

And if you drive down a crowded downtown street at 60 mph, you can be convicted of a crime of driving to endanger, even though you technically did not intend to hurt anyone. The law says that being that reckless amounts to the same thing as having the intent to do harm.

At the very least, people in the mortgage business or the financial services business who are certified professionals ought not to be able to enjoy the fruits of their recklessness while so many of their clients are suffering. They have not only caused an enormous amount of pain, but they have undermined public confidence in two industries which are essential to economic growth and depend on a significant level of trust.

My law degree is gathering dust somewhere, but there are lots of brilliant minds out there who could be put to figuring out how society can hold these folks accountable, if not by putting them in jail, at least by taking away their ill-gotten gains.

Which brings me to two unsettling realities that cut the other way.

First, as pointed out by the ever-interesting Joe Nocera in his painful-to-read March 14 New York Times column, Madoff's victims were also his accomplices, not asking the hard questions, and taking his non-answers as satisfactory as long as the paper profits continued to roll in. Some of them actually enjoyed the benefits of Ponzi scheme, by taking some of their money out of his funds, others only by spending as if their paper profits were piled up under their pillows. But they had the power to bring him down and they did not because they were benefiting, or so they believed, by whatever he was doing. So our sympathy for them is mitigated. And we were all accomplices in some way.

Second, as pointed out by Andrew Ross Sorkin in Tuesday's New York Times, in an equally painful and unsettling column to read, there are two good reasons for the government not to squash the AIG bonuses, outrageous as the bonuses seem.

One, those bonuses were part of the employment contracts and invalidating those contracts would further erode trust in the commercial system. Second, for better or worse, we all have an interest in AIG having the best possible people in their seats helping AIG get out of the mess they helped it get into. Criminals understand the system better than those hwo have not tested it. Maybe some of those folks who are getting the big bonuses are who we need the most to be at AIG and who could most easily walk away from AIG and get other high-paying jobs? (But much of that argument was destroyed by the devastating front page story in Wednesday's Times, pointing out, among other atrocities, that many of those who got the bonuses have left AIG.)

Saying all that, it is simply not OK that those mortgage and bank folks who encouraged the risks, knowing that they would not be held accountable if the borrowers and investors lost everything, and knowing that they themselves would not be taking the same risks as they were encouraging their customers to take, can enjoy their lavish lifestyles without any pain other than the guilt they might be feeling as they have that second martini on the porch overlooking the ocean.

If nothing else, they have destroyed faith in the system which will hamper and delay the economic recovery and have negative consequences for years to come.

If the smart lawyers cannot figure out a way to get them to divest their ill-gotten gains, perhaps someone from that category will step up and start the ball rolling by voluntarily returning the bonus at AIG, or unilaterally changing the terms of some of those underwater mortgages, or in some other tangible way sharing the pain and divesting themselves. AIG CEO Ed Liddy has asked those bonus babies to give back 1/2. Too Liddle, too late?

This question came up this week on the Washington Post's On Leadership blog, where I and the rest of the panel were asked whether big-time basketball coaches and other highly paid people in organizations going through tough times should voluntarily give up some of their compensation. Take a look. This was after Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun said he would give "not a dime back". Watch it on You Tube. Interesting range of views in the Post. What do you think?

Finally, a couple of people have written to suggest both that the idea of Reset is really resonating, but that they missed the earlier blogs on the subject which laid out the idea in more detail. Rather than having you scroll through them all, here are a couple of URLs that might help: the first Reset post and the second.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Reset = Tough Choices

Reset requires figuring out what of all that you say value is really important and must be preserved, and what of all that you value you must leave behind in order to adapt to a fundamental new reality.

Doing that work is not a lot of fun. It forces you or your organization to modify your self-identity, change who you are, and take a loss of something that was important to your sense of self.

Those are tough choices. We want it all.

A good example of these tough Reset choices is the issue facing the non-profit and foundation community, around the stimulus bill and the Obama budget proposals.

Understandably, the non-profits cannot wait to get their hands on the stimulus money that might flow to their suddenly thin coffers. They are mission-driven organizations and they are facing shrinking resources and increasing demand. The stimulus bill includes about $574 million in various pots for non-profits to continue their good works.

They also say they love the Obama commitment to health care and education in his budget bill, which is consistent with their espoused values of fairness and equal access to those two of the most basic elements of a decent life.

But the non-profits do not like Obama's proposal to pay for universal health care coverage and quality education in part by capping the deductions for charitable contributions. A cover article in the current issue of The Jewish Week, a New York City-oriented publication, reports that United Jewish Communities (UJC), the voice of local Jewish Federations all around the country, is applauding the budget proposals on health care and education while busy on Capitol Hill fighting the plan to cap the contributions deduction.

Who do they think is going to pay for the health care and education proposals, the people who now have no health insurance and lousy educations?

It is not an easy choice. The non-profit or third sector is a unique characteristic of American life, different from anywhere else in the world, commented on by Alexis de Tocqueville 134 years ago. And no question but that the generous deductions for charitable contributions have helped non-profits do their good works. And many commentators have argued that capping those deductions for wealthy people will hurt the non-profits. On that dimension, at the margins at least, they are probably right. The deduction provides an incentive, although we would like to believe that we donate to charities out of the goodness of our hearts and not because of the tax break. But because of the tax break, our charitable gift actually comes partially from us and partially from the Government.

But if what those folks in the non-profit are all about is creating a more humane and just society, isn't it about time we made good on our espoused commitment to make decent health care and a good education the life experience of everyone who lives in this country?

Are they more interested in the preservation of their institutions and their particular mission than in the welfare of the people they and other organizations serve?

It is understandable but unseemly for them to want to have it both ways. We all want to have it both ways. We all want to honor all the values we care about and not have to choose among them.

Reset is about having the courage to make those choices.

The Reset Watch. The indomitable Jim Rosenberg has found another Reset reference. In her page one New York Times piece on Monday, about the rich cutting back writer Shaila Dewan said: "If the race to have the latest fashions and gadgets was like an endless, ever-faster video game, then someone has pushed the reset button."

Another reference: in a long and informative interview in BusinessWeek, my friend, former student, former teaching assistant, and, much more relevantly, former CEO of Fannie Mae Dan Mudd said about housing policy and the Obama Administration: "And it seems to me that the opportunity here is to say: "O.K., let's hit the reset button."

And, while he had not used the language of Reset and Hunker Down, Tom Friedman's last two columns in the New York times, March 8 and March 11, are all about the likelihood that what we are experiencing is a sea change rather than a big bump in the road, where pulling back and waiting until the storm blows over will not be an adequate response.

Reset Reading.

Doug Trainer sent along an article from a newsletter called The Systems Thinker, which starts from the assumption that the current mess is systemic, and provides some practical if high-level guidance for how managers should actually do Reset.

Finally, if you are interested in the issues around gender and leadership, take a look at this week's Washing Post blog, On Leadership, for a range of perspectives on the question of whether we would be in this big of a mess if more women were in senior executive positions or on the Boards of Wall Street firms.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Reset Losses: Autonomy, Privacy, Control

Reset as a leadership behavior is a more difficult option than hunkering down because it requires taking deep losses, which none of us especially enjoy. The losses are experienced in giving up practices, behaviors, ways of being and especially the values which are part of our identity. They constitute "who we are" as if we were some immutable beings rather than constantly learning and evolving.

And it requires taking some risks, like writing this half-baked idea in a blog and hoping that you will digest, refine, and challenge it with an eye toward helping all of us engage creatively with the uncertain world around us. So, have at it.

Here's a story, an example, and a moment which captured for me the potential loss in Reset. I have a wonderful friend, J. Michael Miller, who is an acting teacher and visionary extraordinaire. He started and is the driving spirit behind The Actors Center, a place in New York City where professional and often very successful actors can continue to hone their craft.

Miller is on a mission to return the actor, rather than the director, writer, or producer, to being the central force in the theater. He is inspiring and passionate about it and wants to nurture a national movement. So I put him together with my youngest child, Max, a web-savvy journalist who is the Managing Editor of a new public affairs website. I thought Max might help him think about how to use the web to achieve his purpose.

At one point in their high energy conversation, Max was going on and on about Facebook and MySpace and Twitter and Michael, listening intently, interrupted and said with some disbelief, "But if you put something on there, anyone can read it!" Max replied, respectfully but forcefully, "Of course, that's the point."

For my generation and Michael's, especially for men, information creates power and therefore should be hoarded. For Max's generation, networks and collaboration provide power and the dissemination of information is a way to harness that power. They couldn't be further apart.

And the distance between them is not about Max's being web-savvy or about his technical knowledge. It is about their values.

I have grown up with the idea that knowledge is power and that autonomy and privacy are among the most noble values to be protected. Oh, give me back the hours spent with our attorney at our firm, Cambridge Leadership Associates, about protecting our intellectual property (Nothing personal, Fred. We love you.)

But we are living in a world where the Government and lots of other people have access to all kinds of information about you that twenty years ago you could keep to yourself: where you shop, what you read, where you make your donations, and your taste in music, sports, and food. Corporations are being forced to disclose information about their products and services which gives others a competitive advantage. And Max's generation does not see this as a loss. My old friend and colleague, the brilliant Esther Dyson, now blogging on The Huffington Post, wrote with her typical trenchant and brilliant insight in last summer's issue of Scientific American about distinguishing concrete harm from the emotional loss that accompanies a loss of a privacy.

We are living in a world where autonomy has given way to the reality of interdependency. And if you really internalize interdependency, you look for partnerships, collaborations, and networks that were unimaginable and even undesirable in the past. internationally, the US has gone from shunning the so-called "axis of evil" and other bad folks, like Castro and Hezbollah and Hamas to Obama telling the New York Times today that he is contemplating contact with the Taliban. The Taliban are not the first "enemies" he has contacted. See Syria and Russia. And it is not just the reaching out, he's also being transparent about it, because he knows that in the world we live in he cannot protect the information for very long anyway.

It is hard for someone in his dotage like me to lose the sense - the illusion? - of autonomy, privacy and control. But hunkering down will not do it any more. When the world comes out on the other side of the mess we are in, I would rather be part of that new reality, whatever it is, and do my little part to try and shape it, than keep my head down and hope that whatever others create will be ok for me.

ps. It's not all good news on the Reset front. As my friend Jim Rosenberg pointed out after reading Mark Landler's piece in the New York Times on Friday, context is key. Read it for a chuckle.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Reset Reading

I was disappointed to read David Brooks column this morning. The usually cool-headed centrist seems to have lost it, ranting about Obama's "transformational liberalism".

Brooks is right that The President has not chosen between his long term domestic priorities and the need to stimulate the economic recovery now. Obama is placing a big bet that the recovery will happen soon enough and steeply enough so that he can have his cake and eat it, too.

If he's wrong, policywise he will have to raise taxes on the middle class, postpone his domestic initiatives, or some of both. And politically, he is risking a Republican resurgence in the off-year elections of 2010 (see Clinton in 1994) and a one-term Presidency a la Jimmy Carter.

But Brooks falls into the trap of trying to understand Obama in conventional 20th Century liberal/conservative terms, when those labels now obscure more than they clarify.

There is the possibility that Obama's transformational politics do not fit into that old paradigm at all, that we are in a period of transformation, yes, but part of that transformation is that the rules of the game have changed on almost every dimension. Maybe Obama is just trying to catch up with what is happening in the world, rather than being out in front of it. Maybe he is just practicing Reset.

I have read two books recently (on my Kindle, which has changed my life, the Kindle not the books, but more on that at another time), which are Reset books: Fareed Zakaria's The Post-American World and Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food.

Zakaria posits a world in which the US is no longer the hegemonic power. As he says, "The tallest buildings, biggest dams, largest-selling movies, and most advanced cell phones are all being built outside the United States." As an example of the consequences, see Obama's letter to Russia trying to make a deal to enlist Russia in the effort to control Iran. And see Hillary Clinton transparently sending two enjoys to Syria Obama understands Reset. Zakaria blogs with David Ignatius on the Newsweek/Washington Post's PostGlobal.

Pollan writes about taking responsibility for what we put into our bodies, with the interrelated goals of taking care of ourselves, saving the planet, and pressuring the food industry to a higher standard of quality, transparency, and scientific credibility. But what is exciting about Pollan's Reset, is that you and I can start our own version today. If each of us started insisting on eating only -or even mostly- what Pallan calls "real food" (locally grown, in season, unadulterated by chemicals) it would not be long before the food industry would start responding.

Here's an example of what Pollan is talking about. A good friend and former colleague, Karen Lehman, runs Chicago's Fresh Taste Initiative, a non-profit organization that fosters collaboration between farmers, for-profit entities and government agencies to bring fresh, sustainable products to consumers’ tables, along the lines of the “farm-to-table” movement that’s been taking off in the last couple years. It is Reset in action.

Pollan's blog through the New York Times is called On The Table.

What's your favorite Reset idea of the day? Send it to me.

I'd love to report these ideas in the blog as we collective try to understand how to actualize the idea of Reset in the real world. Post it as a comment on the blog, on Facebook or twitter, or send me an e-mail at marty@cambridge-leadership.com.

My favorite today? Courtesy of Lynn Staley, my wife: Doctors in Maine are being trained as dentists to address the scarcity in rural parts of the state.

And again, since Reset is a leadership idea, check out the Washington Post blog On Leadership as well. This week's question was whether Obama's refusal to spell out the details of a health care plan and force the Congress to do that work was an exercise of leadership or an abdication of responsibility. What do you think?