Friday, July 31, 2009

Rule #19: Memo to leaders: Focus on the signal to noise ratio

The Beer Summit Meets Rules of Thumb
I picked up the paper this morning and there was a photo of President Obama, Vice-President Biden, Henry Gates, and James Crowley having a beer together, eating some pretzels, and talking things over. To the media, it was "the beer summit." To me, it was another example of how this President gets the essential act of leadership. By bringing together the principles in a national story about police and race in America, and demonstrating that there is more to learn than what happened that night in Cambridge, Massachusetts, President Obama is focusing all of our attention on the signal and not the noise. Imagine if he had done otherwise; imagine if he had simply let things stand with a comment that the police in Cambridge acted "stupidly"--or he had said and done nothing at all. The noise would continue to rage. Radio talk shows would generate great heat and little light. The Daily Show would generate great laughs and little teaching. As President and leader, President Obama used the bully pulpit to make a larger point--and to add more signal and less noise. That one photo of the four men sitting together, two black, two white, showed that the ugly event in Cambridge could find a more peaceful and understanding resolution. The signal that President Obama sent said that we can and should always be able to sit down together and reason about things, that it's not over until we do that, in fact. If all we do is retreat to opposite corners and insist that we were right and the other person wrong--or that we were wronged and our rights abused--then we have nothing positive to show for the emotions that were spent. But by bring signal to the noise, President Obama has demonstrated at least two important lessons: he's showed us what real leadership looks like, and he's found a way to bring something constructive out of an otherwise unhappy moment. And he's illustrated how a rule of thumb can serve as a guide in even the most difficult situation.

All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb