October 13, 2010

Must Leaders Disappoint?

"The thanes fly from me!" cries Macbeth as he finds himself abandoned by supporters towards the end of his reign. President Obama might be forgiven for uttering a similar cry right now. His chief of staff is off, as is his national security adviser and a host of senior economists. Rumors continue to circulate about the plans of other key White House figures.

In the run-up to difficult mid-term elections, and after two exhausting years in office, it is not surprising to see talented individuals making big career moves. Refreshing the top team might be a good idea. But what is striking, and impossible to ignore, is that let-down feeling: the difference between the euphoria of election night 2008 and the weariness of election season 2010.

We have seen this before, of course. New Democrats nodded their heads gleefully to Fleetwood Mac's "Don't stop thinkin' about tomorrow" in 1992, just as Tony Blair's British fans sang "Things can only get better!" in 1997. But both the Clinton and Blair administrations left their supporters at least partially dissatisfied. Expectations were raised that could not be met. Current poll numbers - over 60% say the U.S. is on the wrong track, according to DemocracyCorps and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, with a disapproval rating for the President of 52% — suggest a similar story is now unfolding.

Must leaders always disappoint? That depends on where you are starting from and what promises you have made to your supporters. For chief executives of public companies, the challenges are similar. Easier, in that not everyone thinks they know how to run Boeing or Microsoft or McDonald's. But harder, in that the equivalent of mid-term elections fall every three months, when Wall Street and the media pronounce their judgments on you, your numbers, and your leadership team.

Avoiding the arc of disappointment requires setting out clear but realizable objectives. Quick wins matter, because they raise morale and give colleagues a sense that progress is being made. But too much management time and energy should not be devoted to the short term — even if the next analysts' meeting is only days away. Lasting, meaningful change takes time. It requires relentless attention to detail.

On the question of managing change, the CEO has an easier time of it than the politician, who faces a harsh daily referendum in the media. It takes character and a cool temperament to withstand those attacks — and even then, as we can see with President Obama, that may not be enough to retain support. You need luck too and, critics will add, good decision making.

The former Governor of New York state, Mario Cuomo, famously summed up the leader's dilemma in these words (he should really receive a royalty): "You campaign in poetry, and you govern in prose".

For business leaders, we have to adapt this zinger just a little. Set out your ambitions on reaching the top job, poetically if you must, but also in pragmatic terms. Be bold but realistic about what you can achieve. Offer regular progress reports, preferably with signs of genuine progress in them. And never lose sight of the big goal, the reason you are in business, and the reason why you need people to come back into work day after day.

No leader can guarantee success. Sometimes the competition may simply be too good. But over-promising and under-delivering is the sure way to subject yourself to a heavy dose of that sinking feeling.

Stefan Stern is the director of strategy in the UK for Edelman and was the management columnist for the FT for four years prior to that. He is a visiting professor at Cass Business School in London.

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