Monday, December 21, 2009

Leadership IS Making Sausage

Sure, it was pretty ugly watching the Senate Democrats lurch their way to the 60 votes necessary to pass a health care bill this week. But Paul Krugman is sooooo wrong when he self-righteously derides the process as dysfunctional in his Monday NY Times column.

Krugman's definition of a functional legislature is one that passes bills he likes.

In his rant against the filibuster, he fails to understand that if fewer than 60 votes were required, as he proposes, the last handful would have been just as tough to get, whether the necessary number was 51 or 53 or whatever.

The very visible process of horse-trading and negotiation that we have witnessed illustrates both (1) the essence of legislating in a representative democracy and (2) the agonies of adaptive leadership.

The Essence of Representative Democracy. If Krugman had spent a little more time the real world and less in academia, he would better understand that no issue, health care or climate change or Afghanistan is discrete. Everything is connected to everything else. (I am not defending the Republicans, who apparently made a conscious choice to opt out, despite the President's apparent willingness to make it worthwhile for them, at least some of them, to get in the game. I was disappointed to see that Senator Snowe did not hang in there and swallow the Rube Goldberg machine that emerged in the Senate.)

Despite Krugman's perspective, there are good, decent Members of Congress who care about other priorities more than they do about covering the uninsured. They are not sinners; they just have other, often just as noble, higher priorities. So they see their responsibility in the health care battle to let others worry about the details, while they figure out how they can use health care and their role in it to advance causes they care more deeply about, like, for example, making sure that no taxpayer funds pay for abortions or getting funding for folks who have been poisoned in Montana or even picking up points on the Republican side by voting "no" in order to keep the lines of communication open in order to get some Republican support for some issues like the climate change bill or the financial regulation reform bill, which may not have the necessary 60 Democratic votes.

The Agonies of Adaptive Leadership. Adaptation, making progress, moving forward to a new reality, is difficult because it requires people to choose between what is of the essence and must be preserved, and what is expendable and can be left behind. Every Member of the Senate cared about some potential piece of the package more than others. But all the Democrats, or the vast majority of them, cared numero uno about insuring the 30 million uninsured. For those, like Senator Nelson, who cared about making certain that no taxpayer funds were spent for abortion more than he cared about insuring the uninsured, it was easy for him to hold out until he had pushed the drafters on his numero uno as far as they could go without losing left-leaning Senators. And for those left-leaners, Senator Sanders and his ilk, they had to go through the difficult process of deciding what they cared about the most, and then sacrificing other priorities in its behalf.

It was a perfectly functional, if painful and messy journey. The final bill embodied a fair conglomeration of the most treasured values of the 60 Members needed for passage.

Prioritizing what you care about, disappointing some constituencies - no one likes to go through that process, which, if you are writing a column for the NY Times and teaching at Princeton, you rarely have to do.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Economists Meet Machiavelli on Leadership

Leadership requires relentless optimism that you can change the world and hard-nosed realism about who and what you are dealing with and what it will take to make progress.

The brilliant economists who never saw the economic crisis coming have been appropriately humbled by their failure to understand how people really behave. They weave their elegant theories based on how they think people should behave rather than how they do. They assume we are always thoughtful and rational in making decisions.

Finally, the economists are acknowledging that their elegant theories and proofs miss human realism, the role emotions play in decision making and the extent to which individual situations and circumstances affect how we understand the options before us. See Paul Krugman's somewhat inscrutable mea culpa in the New York Times. For a less dense version, read Ross Gittins' piece in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Those politicians the economists are so quick to disdain have taught them something about human behavior. We humans are not robots or efficiency machines. We do not always make decisions that some outside observer thinks are the "right" decisions.

The political literature, starting with Machiavelli (perhaps the godfather of today's new school of behavioral economists), has long recognized human realism. One of my all-time favorite books is "The Art of Political Manipulation" written by political scientist William Riker and published back in 1986. Buy it on Amazon. It's a great read. Riker understood, as most politicians do and most people who exercise leadership successfully do, that understanding human nature with all its quirks, ALL its quirks, is essential to success in mobilizing people on behalf of purpose.

These new behavioral economists are trying to apply their formidable intellects and analytic skills to better understanding human nature as it is, not as they wished it were. Their work may help you exercise leadership more effectively by systematizing what we might call non-rational human tendencies.

If you want a good introduction to the practical aspects of what the behavioral economists are learning, here are two easy to digest books that I have read on my "working" vacation: Predictable Irrationality by Dan Ariely and Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.

Sunstein, not so incidentally, was just appointed Obama's regulatory czar, endorsed by Forbes Magazine, and attacked by the rightwing bloggers, so you will soon see some of the insights from the book turned into real White House policy proposals.

Obama's recent recommendations to stimulate more savings were right out of the Thaler-Sunstein playbook, acknowledging that most human beings fear loss more than they value gain and prefer the status quo to an uncertain future.

If you want to get the gist of their insights without wading through less accessible literature check out the entry under behavioral economists in Wikipedia. You might also check out the work being done by Jennifer Lerner, a psychologist and professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, and her Emotion and Decision Making Group at Harvard.

In our work helping people exercise leadership more successfully than they have in the past, we often encounter well-intentioned people who are not successful because they find it hard to embrace human realism, choosing instead to operate from naivete or cynicism.

What a wonderful consequence of the economic crisis it would be if those behavioral economists could redeem themselves by generating some systematic insights that would help all of us exercise more leadership on behalf of what we care most deeply about.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Leadership as the Distribution of Loss

This is a big week for Obama. Vacation's over and so is the honeymoon. A lot is riding on his big health care speech to the Congress this week, not just about health care, but about the kind of President Obama will be.

He promised to be different, to deliver hard truths as well as inspirational homilies. On health care he's been heavy on the inspiration, not so on the perspiration. It is as if he has forgotten about the hard truths, or worse, has assumed that the righteousness of the cause would be enough to carry the day and that health care reform, whatever its shape, would somehow be good for everybody.

Naivete? Lack of courage? Anyone's guess.

He has failed to be convincing because his rhetoric doesn't sound real.

Intuitively, you and I know that there should not be health care reform on coverage without health care reform on costs, and there cannot be health care reform on costs without a lot of pain. That pain will have to come from some combination of: lower profits, different value propositions, and new ways of doing business for health care providers, medical equipment manufacturers, and drug companies; less lucrative practices for medical malpractice lawyers; higher taxes for the middle class; more personal responsibility for individual and family health; loss of individual freedom in the wake of governmental regulations influencing diet and exercise; and, yes, less access to free or nearly free high end medical services than many people, particularly the very ill and very elderly, now "enjoy", if that's the proper word when you are dying of cancer.

The inspiration part is easy and right in Obama's wheelhouse. What makes leadership on health care difficult (what makes leadership for any purpose difficult), is the distribution of loss. The opposition to change in the current health care system comes from people, organizations, interests and industries for whom the current reality, flawed as is, seems to them (and they may be right for themselves)a lot better than an unknown future.

The AARP is a good example of the link between leadership and loss. Sixty thousand AARP members have quit because of AARP's support for health care reform. To its credit, AARP understands that in the long term, the current realities, including particularly the costs of end-of-life care, are not sustainable for senior citizens or for the country, and will be even less so as the baby boomers, now in their 50s and early 60s start to face the inevitable breakdown of their bodies.

Read Jane Brody's column on the subject and ponder the statistics she cites. No more than 10% of those over 70 who are resuscitated survive. Thirty percent of all Medicare dollars are spent in the last year of life, 15% in the last 60 days.

This is getting to be a very personal issue for me. I am writing this as my 95-year old mother is going to he airport to fly to Italy to be with us. I have had more fun with her in the past fifteen years than in the 30 before that. I don't want her to die, of course, but she maintains that she has hidden away something to end her life during that window of time when she is aware enough to know the end is near but still capable of self-administering whatever it is she has hidden away. I hope she uses it.

And I am 69, loving my wonderful wife, three children, and friends and other family, working as hard and enjoying professional challenges as much as I ever have, feeling very lucky to be able to go for a 50-minute run this morning and cope with the pain in my leg from the stenosis in my back, tolerating the (I hope) temporary loss of hearing in one ear as well as various other aches that come and go. I love my life and don't want it to end. I want to stay around long enough to see my kids grow into their 50s, to enjoy our house in Italy, to make sure that we have socked away enough resources for my wife to continue to live her life well for whatever time she has left after I go, and, political junkie that I am, to see something of the other side of the global sea change we are now experiencing. But I know in my gut, that if the United States is going to catch up to the rest of the industrialized world and provide universal health care that I am not going to be able to be kept alive with very expensive, highly advanced medical care unless I am willing to pay for it all myself and erode our family savings. I need our President to inspire me to sacrifice some of what I might have had in terms of late in life health care, by acknowledging my loss, empathizing with it, and then but only then, moving me to do this for a greater good.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Am I A Racist?

How do you answer that question?

Have been thinking a lot about it since the explosion of stories about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. at his home in Cambridge on July 16.

So, here's my personal data.

I grew up in Massachusetts, spent my early years in politics there, a volatile combination for developing an acute sense of ethnic, racial, and tribal identities.

My hometown, Brookline, was roughly half Jewish, a quarter Catholic (overwhelmingly Irish, some Italian), and a quarter White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (aka WASPS). I can remember well as a very young child driving with my parents in the town at night during the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas and noticing "who was" and "who wasn't" by whether there was a lighted Christmas tree in the living room window. I can remember sitting with my father watching football games on tv and, as players were, being introduced asking each other whether this one or that one "might be Jewish."

I never knew a black person, except for Tom, who used to come once a week to clean our apartment (until my parents discovered that he had been raiding the liquor cabinet) and the janitor of the apartment building next door.

I went to Williams College where there were two blacks in my class, both much wealthier than me, and a dozen Jews out of a class of 250. (Surprise, surprise, two of the other 11 were assigned as my roommates.) On my first night at college, we had a party in our entry and in my beer-induced haze a I remember a fellow freshman from up state New York sitting down next to me and asking, "Are you really Jewish? The only Jew I hve ever met was a Canadian who came down to our town, opened a discount store and drove all the other stores out of business?" "Oh, that's intersting, I said."

In law school in the 1960s I decided not to spend my summer registering black voters in the South after my law school dean saw my name on the sign-up sheet and called me into his office to tell me that "it would be bad for my career."

In Brookline, after law school, I served as a tester, trying to rent apartments which had been refused to blacks to see if they had been turned down because of race. A close friend and I started a local foundation to provide initial loans and subsidies to assist blacks moving into town.

I voted for all the civil rights legislation that came before me when I was in the legislature and before that was a key staff person in the drafting of the so-called racial imbalance law which led to forced integration of the Boston schools by busing.

I took those racsim tests online, the one that came out of Project Implicit at Harvard and another by The Institute for Interracial Harmony. The former said I had a "moderate" preference for European Americans over African Americans and the latter, a much more straightforward almost self-assessment, said I was a wonderful person who loved everyone.

I have been accused in my classrooms of being sexist. And when I worked for Governor Bill Weld and fired an underperforming employee, I was accused by her and her supporters of being racist.

I am as racially and ethnically conscious a person as anyopne I know.

Am I a racist?

Are you?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Obama has not Closed the Deal on Health Care

Sorry, but for me, Obama has not closed the deal on health care.

Real health care reform means both universal coverage and cost control. More people being covered is going to put more pressure on costs. And health care costs in the US are already way out of whack with the rest of the world.

When Obama talks about reducing costs, I feel like I am on a used car lot. As my colleague Jeff Lawrence says, "There's no such thing as a dysfunctional system because every system is perfectly aligned to produce the result it is currently getting." And the current reality is working well enough for medical malpractice lawyers, for people with private coverage (like me), for drug companies, for insurance companies, and for folks on Medicare and Medicaid. None of us well-situated folks want to take any real losses.

There's no real cost reform Obamacare.

Where is the requirement for service consolidation and elimination of overlap, where are the generic substitutes, where is the cap on malpractice suits, where is the middle class tax increase, where is the employer mandate, where is the ban on unnecessary procedures, where is the effort to shift services more toward younger people and prevention and, yes, away from people my age well into their AARP years?

Obama has not distributed enough pain to have any meaningful reform on the cost side. The evidence? There aren't enough of the right people people whining.

The protesters are middle class folks who are scared that either their coverage will go down, their costs will go up, or their taxes will rise. They have good reason to be fearful. The drug companies are all for Obamacare. That's a very bad sign.

If we are going to have universal coverage, with or without a public option, someone has to pay for it. Obama's feelgood administration is falling into the leadership failure traps of, gulp, his predecessor, failing to deliver bad news, failing to take the heat from his own constituencies, failing to try inspiring all of us to take a short-term hit for some larger, longer term goal.

Pain-free health care cost reform is an oxymoron.

Do you agree?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Leadership as a Subversive Activity

When I edited a weekly alternative newspaper, called The Real Paper, I learned how hard it was to put out a single issue of a weekly publication with consistent high quality. That's why I am so in awe of how frequently The New Yorker meets that test.

The most recent example was dated May 11, and called "The Innovators Issue." I could go on and on about all the interesting stuff in there (see the pieces by Adam Gopnik on scarcity or surplus as a driver of innovation, Douglas McGray on a charter school crusader, and John Colapinto on the frontiers of neuroscience), but the piece that really grabbed me was Malcolm Gladwell's essay called "How David Beats Goliath".

Gladwell's ostensible purpose was to explore why underdogs sometimes win. He isolated two factors: (1)endurance and (2)changing the implicit rules of the game.

These are both critical elements of exercising leadership.

Look at endurance. My Kennedy School colleague and fellow part-time Italy resident Frank Hartman calls it relentlessness. Whatever the framing, the quality is about playing harder, or longer, than you are supposed to. A dear friend and mentor of mine was able to exercise leadership successfully without great authority on many matters that he cared about the tough bureaucratic infighting at the Kennedy School by making it clear to whoever was involved in the issue that he was willing to stay on the playing field as long as it took to get what he wanted. As soon as he announced his relentlessness, people started backing off, unwilling to match his effort.

Marathon runners understand this. Most of them - I used to be one, but never again - do not expect to win. The game is about finishing, completing those 26.2 miles. But if that is your goal, it is simple. All you have to do is to keep going and you will succeed. Endurance. Relentlessness.

How many times have you backed away from your purpose when you realized that you were dealing with someone or someones who were committed for the long haul, and were going to stay in the game no matter how long it went on?

Gladwell's other insight is about bending the rules, or interpreting the rules and norms in a way that also changes the game and gives you an advantage. His has several examples. There is the biblical David, perhaps history's most famous successful underdog, who eschewed armor and traditional weapons in favor of a sling shot, which would play to his strengths. And Gladwell profiles a young not-so-skilled girls basketball team who were trained for endurance and coached to incessantly press the other team trying to get the ball over the half-court in ten seconds. They generated confusion and turnovers...and unlikely victories. Both David and the girls were accused of not playing fair. They had not broken any technical rules, but they had violated the norms of play, under which they could not have hoped to be successful.

Leadership requires challenging, not meeting, the expectations of the other people in the game. That's what makes it risky. People don't like it when you fail to meet their expectations. But doing so is, pardon the cliche, a game-changer, experienced as subversive, not fair, not playing by the rules.

How many times have you sacrificed your objectives by playing by the informal and implicit rules that were designed to serve someone's interest and purpose other than your own.

Leadership requires the courage and skill to stay in the game for as long as it takes to achieve your purpose and to sustain the disapproval of those who like the game the way it is currently played, because it suits their purposes, whether or not it is in the interests of the organization or community as a whole.

So, let's hear some of your stories.

Why is it so hard to be relentless on behalf of what you care deeply about?

Why is it so hard to sustain the disdain of your colleagues when you adapt the rules to your own purposes?

And, please, send us a question for Leadership House Call, our column in the Washington Post. This week's question was about how to break down the silo mentality and get people to collaborate across boundaries.

Finally, take a look at The Stimulist. It is the best place to find out what those Gen Y Millenials are thinking (who are the world's most accomplished drunks?) and doing (rent-a-friend if you're lonely) and talking about (why you shouldn't go to law school).

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Empathy in Judging and Leading

Judging is not the same as leading. They are different roles and require different sets of skills. So it has been interesting to watch the use of the word "empathy" connecting to the work of judging.

President Obama declared that empathy would be an "essential ingredient" in his choice of a successor to the retiring, in both senses of the word Supreme Court Justice David Souter. And from everything we know, his selection of Judge Sonia Sotomayor honors that commitment.

But how empathetic do we want our Supreme Court Justices to be?

Not very, is my answer, even though, as Carlos Watson has pointed out in his new blog The Stimulist, Sotomayor might be the most qualified judge ever nominated for the Court.

A little more empathy on the Court might be a good thing. David Brooks tried to thread the needle on this question in a complex column in the Times at the end of May.

The danger is that empathy easily turns into sympathy and the difference between the two is crucial. Empathetic people are able to put themselves in other people's shoes. Sympathetic people are reflexively supportive of people in pain. Sotomayor's membership in the National Council of La Raza, an important and respected Hispanic rights advocacy group, while she was on the appellate court, is evidence that she has crossed that line.

The United States has always been mostly a club for white males, the dominant and, for most of US history, the majoritarian faction in the country. The rules and norms and, yes, the laws understandably have reflected that culture. So it is a challenge for the Supreme Court to apply abstract Constitutional principles to specific laws and cases, when those cases are about the impact on people from minority factions.

The Justices, however well-intentioned they may be, cannot easily ascertain the constitutionality of those laws for people whose life experiences they do not understand. The best example of this, of course, is abortion. It is difficult to decide whether a right to privacy should apply when you have never carried a fetus and cannot remember when you were one. Having had the experience of being pregnant, or being empathetic to it, does not argue for or against the decision in Roe v. Wade, but is relevant to whether you think the principles embedded in the Constitution should be understood to protect the decision of the woman or the rights of the fetus.

Look at it this way. Sympathy is on one end of a continuum and cold-bloodedness is on the other and empathy is somewhere in the middle. We should want our judges to be more toward the cold-blooded end and our legislators to be more toward the sympathetic end, but a little bit of empathy can help them understand the impact of their decisions on people and circumstances with which they cannot identify.

But if too much empathy is dangerous in judges, empathy is a quality that is critical in exercising leadership.

What Obama has shown, most recently in his Cairo speech, is his unusual capacity for empathy, for knowing how others feel, for deeply understand how the world looks to them, even and especially if it is very different from the way it looks to him. Read his speech, if you have not already done so. He is comfortable honoring mutually exclusive views of reality.

In exercising leadership, being able to have real empathy is essential. You can never move people off a story they are comfortable with that is part of their self-identity until you can relate to that story, no matter how cock-eyed you may think it is, as if it were your own.

It is hard to be empathetic when someone else's feeling and experience are so foreign to you. I remember an uncomfortable moment early in my time in the Massachusetts Legislature, over forty years ago. I had co-sponsored and debated on behalf of a bill that would have allowed minors to buy a condom without a prescription. (Yes, this was Massachusetts in the 1960s.) We lost, but we came closer than our side ever had before, and it was pretty clear that the bill would pass in the next year or two. I was feeling pretty puffed up as I strode out of the House Chamber into the so-called Reading Room, where legislators gathered to talk and relax.

Sitting on a couch was a colleague, a strong opponent of the bill, sobbing. I assumed that he was having some personal problem so in an act of naive fellowship I went over to inquire and console him. But his tears came from the debate over the condom bill, and its near success. To him, defeating that bill meant preserving values that he believed in deeply which had guided him throughout his life: sex was only purposeful for procreation, never for recreation. And the idea that he would be a member of the legislature when that value was abandoned was almost too much for him to bear.

It was a great lesson for me. I understood that other people's reality which was sometimes so different than mine, both had its own legitimacy and needed to be deeply understood - not condoned - by me if I was to accomplish my own purposes.

There are three advantages to empathy in leadership, none of which apply to judging.

First, some people will go along simply because you do understand how they feel and acknowledge the pain you are inflicting on them.

Second, if you deeply understand their world view, you will be better equipped to distinguish what element of that picture they are most committed to and what the elements are that they may be willing to sacrifice for those priorities.

And third, if you are empathetic to those most threatened by what you are trying to do, their friends and allies, who are undecided on whether to go along, will be more likely to be with you because of the way you have treated their friends who will be suffering the losses.

How empathetic are you? How willing are you to acknowledge the legitimacy of point of view which are radically different than the truths you hold dear?