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.


Anonymous said...

The suggestion that somehow Harvey Milk made a tactical mistake as a leader by not saving Dan White and San Francisco cops from the "humiliation" of having to recognize the equal rights of gay people is a little disturbing; or that somehow the fact that he was assassinated by an unstable loon was his own failure of leadership for failing to "turn down the heat."

Harvey Milk gave his life to advance the dignity and equality of gay people, and he knew when he was doing his work that it probably would. Gay rights, especially at that time, were never going to be achieved by "regulating the heat" or "getting on the balcony." I think we have to be careful not to think that these ideas, which are useful in many organizations but hardly universally applicable, apply in everywhere and in all cases.

Harvey Milk's leadership did, in fact, change the world, despite the fact that he didn't always follow the Heifitz/Linsky model. And I, for one, will be forever grateful for, and respectful of, what it cost him. His death, as the movie illustrates in its one overly "operatic" moment (I thought the film was pitch perfect until this scene), was all too predictable, almost Shakespearean in its inevitability. But that does not make it a failure of leadership.

What Obama has in front of him - ugh, totally different story in my opinion. But I'm happy to be shown where I'm wrong.

Peter O'Connor

Rodrigo Silva Ortúzar said...


The bad news are that I guess it's hard to use and to control the tool (keeping the temperature in a productive range) whe you don´t really know how to manage it.
I believe that's why managers or polititians don't use it as often as it is required.

Good news are, as you said, that any of us can use it.


richard grenell said...

obama is still too new and young to be a leader....i just watched 60 minutes where he had a chance to ignore cheney's criticism and rise above the banter and he couldn't. he stayed on the dance floor and had to win the dance-off competition.

milk (at least in the movie, i'm not sure about the reality)had moments where he was in the balcony...but i am uncomfortable with making milk a great icon so fast. i think much of what we are seeing is a re-write of history. the movie didn't explore any of the baggage that milk had for so long - - i think if we were just judging milk's life on a 120 minute hollywood version that he was a hero...but this isn't the full story.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Richard, leaders have baggage. The fact that this one's baggage is icky to you because it's gay baggage doesn't diminish what he did as a leader. How do you know it's a rewrite of history? Were you there? Was your life directly affected by Harvey Milk's leadership or the advances of the gay rights movement?

Peter O'Connor

Politicswatcher said...

Raising the temperature and using anger is only one emotional tactic used by politicians to keep in front. LGB used to advise that a good politician knows when and when not to shed a tear or two. Bill Clinton also was always able to lead on the basis of connecting and sharing feelings, not simply by the force of his argument.

Raj Chawla said...

Marty, I've been thinking about your blog for the last few days.

A lot of us may be working with leaders on the how, when, and why of using the thermostat. What often seems to be missing from my experience is the result. Not so much the result leaders may be seeking when they control the thermostat but rather the overall result that is driving the organization.

Just creating alignment around a result so that others own it is a huge adaptive challenge. So, I want to ask you, how do you work with leaders re results? What do you do to get leaders to speak of results in simple language? How have you seen leaders use the thermostat to get people to pay attention to the result?


Jim said...

Obama's press conference Tuesday evening was all about him being in control and cooling things down. From today's NY Times: "At a time of anger and anxiety in the country, Mr. Obama showed little emotion. He rarely cracked a joke or raised his voice. Even when he declared himself upset over the $165 million in bonuses paid this month by the American International Group despite its taxpayer bailout, his voice sounded calm and unbothered. 'I’m as angry as anybody about those bonuses,' he said, adding that executives needed to learn that 'enriching themselves on the taxpayers’ dime is inexcusable.' To a certain extent, Mr. Obama’s demeanor could have been calculated — an effort, aides said, to lower the temperature after a supercharged week and nudge the country toward what Mr. Obama considers the more pressing issues of fixing the banking system and reviving the economy. Even after excoriating the A.I.G. executives, he cautioned that 'the rest of us can’t afford to demonize every investor or entrepreneur who seeks to make a profit.'" ( But in listening to him, I do think his own internal temperature is still quite hot, but he (and his advisors) seem to recognize when he needs to hold it in.

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