Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Change-Leadership Puzzle

How is a column like a train wreck?
I found myself asking that question after puzzling over Judith Warner's opening piece in this morning's New York Times Magazine.
In "The Way We Live Now," Ms. Warner finds herself wondering in print about the lessons to be learned from Michelle Rhee's tenure as school superintendent in Washington, DC. The defeat of Mayor Adrian Fenty at the polls has signaled the end of Ms. Rhee's contentious effort to deliver real change to the public schools of our Nation's Capitol, which, everyone agrees, are desperately in need of real change.
Except, according to Ms. Warner, you're not supposed to say that.
Americans are angry, upset, worried about the future, and dis-spirited about the present. They want leaders who can promise real change--you might call it the audacity of hope.
They just don't want leaders who indict them for the failures that they're so upset about. Or who make them feel bad. Or who seem to suggest that they should be leaders because they're smarter than they are. So apparently what Americans are hungry for are leaders who are as angry as they are--but not upset with them. They want leaders who can help them express their outrage--and feel like ordinary people as they do it.
Can you say "Tea Party"?
What Ms. Warner seems to be suggesting is that Americans don't like elitist leaders.
Fair enough.
But what her column doesn't come to terms with is what kind of leadership it takes to produce real, important change in a system that is failing.
That system could be a public school system, a city, a company, a country.
In fact, almost every where I go, I find two topics intertwined, like a DNA strand: Change and Leadership.
And in almost every case the same pattern emerges. We--the people involved, regardless of the entity or enterprise--know that what we're doing isn't working. Or if it is working, it can't and won't continue to work indefinitely.
Think of America's energy policy, think of urban sprawl, think of large, publicly traded companies that worry about their stock prices but don't make strategic decisions that can carry them into the future, think of the Washington, DC public school system, for that matter.
We know that what we're doing can't continue indefinitely--and yet we can't seem to bring about real, serious, systemic change.
Why not?
There are all kinds of theories. Some suggest that it goes back to the earliest humans and the evolution of the human brain--we don't have a brain that helps us imagine consequences out into the future. Lizard brains don't work that way. Some suggest it's all about MBA-trained financial calculations: what's the net present value of doing what you're doing versus taking the risk of change. Or human nature: Change is hard, the status quo is easy. The list goes on.
What most people ultimately suggest is that it takes some form of leadership to get the rest of us to agree that the status quo is unsustainable and change, hard and uncomfortable as it is, makes much more sense. (By the way, the same issue of the Times magazine has a long profile of Glen Beck that takes him back to his "moment of truth" as a drunk--the moment when his status quo was unsustainable and change was the only viable option, if he wanted to live, which suggests that the concept of "if" is an important, moment of truth proposition.)
So what kind of leader can make unwilling ordinary Americans recognize that we need to do the hard work of real change--and not just rant about it on TV or sell books calling for it in the abstract?
In companies, the model that gets praised the most is the tough-minded, non-egotistical, fact-facing leader who puts the good of the organization ahead of his/her own wealth and fame. (Jim Collins writes about this with clarity and insight in "Good to Great.")
Or it's the equally tough-minded leader who shows little concern for consensus building but holds the whole organization to high standards and adopts a my-way-or-the-highway attitude. (Successful coaches are often praised for this kind of laser-like focus; business leaders like Steve Jobs come to mind, as well.)
What about leaders in politics? Leaders of social change movements? Leaders who want to make serious and important change happen, who feel the urgency of the moment, but--God forbid!--recognize that they can't come off as elitists?
Ms. Warner is right: Nobody likes someone who keeps telling you how much smarter they are than you.
On the other hand, if we're going to solve most of these huge, complicated, swirling systems problems, we probably need some people who actually are smarter than the rest of us.
Say, Barack Obama, not George Bush.
So it is all about style, and not substance?
Is it about tone, not policy?
Or are we all going to have to take a deep breath and admit that we've gotten ourselves in a mess of our own making (see Glen Beck's moment of clarity!) and that now we do have to listen to leaders who have more experience, more insight, and more hands-on knowledge about how to fix things than we have?
After all, as Glen Beck knows, the first step in any 12-step program is to admit that we are powerless, and to turn our lives over to a Higher Power.
Couldn't Michelle Rhee be a higher power?
Next question: How is a blog posting like a train wreck?
Just wondering in print here.

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