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Leadership Lessons Ripped from the Headlines

Through his work as an executive coach, leadership strategist, speaker and author, Scott Eblin has become known as a thought leader in identifying the behaviors that executives need to pick up and let go as they transition into new and larger roles. President of the leadership development and strategy firm The Eblin Group Inc., Scott is a former Fortune 500 executive, with a coaching client list that runs the gamut from Astra Zeneca to the U.S. Navy. He is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success which Business Book Review calls a “fascinating read” that “is full of potentially career-saving advice.”

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Dutchboy Any executive who has ever been charged with leading a turnaround has to empathize at some level with President Obama. How would you like to be accountable for two wars, a shaky economy, fixing the health care system and dealing with Iran and North Korea – all at once?  If you’ve led a turnaround, you know that the flood of issues can overwhelm you and make you more than a little frantic. The image I have in mind is the little Dutch boy trying to plug his fingers into all the holes leaking water from the dike.

Regular readers know that I’m an Obama supporter, but I’m beginning to worry (as is Colin Powell) that he’s trying to plug too many holes at once. As he travelled to Russia, Italy and Ghana last week, Obama needed to take time out to walk back comments from Vice President Biden on the economy and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel on health care reform. You just get the sense of someone who is trying to keep too many plates spinning.

Rmacnamara1 As a 48 year old, I am too young to have a first hand recollection of the role that former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara played in shaping the Vietnam War.  As a student of leadership and history, I’ve been fascinated to read the many different obituaries, articles and editorials that have been written about the man since he died earlier this week. They range from sympathetic (as an example, see this interview with George McGovern on Politico ) to reflective (for instance, David Ignatius’ column in the Washington Post to angry (Bob Herbert’s column in the New York Times is one example).

Of all the articles I’ve read on McNamara, the most comprehensive is the front page piece by Thomas Lippman in the Washington Post. With respect and acknowledgment to those who experienced Vietnam as young adults, here are a few lessons that I’ve picked up from the life of Robert McNamara that I think leaders should keep in mind.

The latest Leadership Lessons podcast interview is guaranteed to go well with your grande Caramel Macchiato. My guest is Howard Behar, the former president of Starbucks Coffee Company. His book, It's Not About the Coffee  is out in paperback with a new preface on leading in hard times and is available on Amazon.com.

Howard brings a unique perspective on leadership to our conversation. He joined Starbucks in 1989 as its VP of sales and operations when the company had 28 stores in the Pacific Northwest.  When he retired as president in 2003, Starbucks was a ubiquitous global brand. He continued to play a role in the company’s strategy as a member of the board of directors until 2008. 

Tshirts1 I’m spending a lot of time this week talking with high potential leaders in our group coaching program about the next level strengths and opportunities that are showing up in their 360 degree feedback results. The goal is to get the focus down to improving one or two behaviors that will make the biggest difference in how effective they are as a leader over the next year. One thing I’ve learned in coaching busy leaders is that there’s a much greater chance of success if you focus your attention on one or two opportunities that could make a big difference than it is to spread your attention across 5 or 6 or even more things. My rule of thumb is if you can’t remember what you’re working on,  then you’re probably not going to get much better.

That’s where the T shirt comes in.

By now, pretty much everyone has heard of the elevator speech.  You know the drill, describe what you’re working on, why it matters and what the other person can do to help in 60 seconds or less.  I’ve read lately that the Tweet is the new elevator speech.  Can you describe what you’re working and why it’s important in 140 characters or less?  It’s all about the idea behind the famous line from T.S. Eliot, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”  It takes time and effort to boil down the essence of what you’re trying to do to a short and memorable idea.

Tiger2 Regular readers of this blog and anyone who’s heard me deliver a presentation lately  know that I am a huge fan of Tiger Woods.  His level of focus and commitment to continuous improvement are great examples for leaders.  So, I was mildly bummed when Tiger wasn’t able to overcome an 11 shot deficit and ended up finishing four shots behind the winner of the U.S. Open this past weekend.

You’re not tuning into this blog for a sports report, however, so it’s fair to ask, “What’s the point on leadership?”  Well, sometimes we can learn as much from less than perfect examples as we can from the perfect ones.  Tiger provided us with a couple of those at Bethpage Black last weekend.

Questions1 My goal this morning is to leave you with some food for thought over the next few days.  This has been a week when I’ve had the opportunity to coach leaders in a number of different situations and settings.  I’ve been impressed and humbled in each instance by the conscious nature of leadership that I’ve seen.  My main contribution has been to frame up some questions and create some space for the leaders to observe themselves and determine what their next moves should be.  I thought I’d share some of those questions with you today.

Rockclimber A couple of days ago, I put out a question to my LinkedIn network on the best conferences for plugging in to fresh thinking on innovation and leadership.  The answers are still coming in, but so far the overwhelming favorite is the series of conferences known as TED. If you’re not familiar with TED, the good news is that the organizers have a very robust web site with dozens of videos of their best speakers online.

I’ve been spending some time browsing the site and one of my favorites is a four and a half minute clip of advertising exec and expert rock climber Matthew Childs talking about nine lessons he’s learned from rock climbing.  I’m not a rock climber myself (although I’m very proud of the fact that I’ve scaled the 40 foot high rock climbing wall at a local sporting goods store.  Kind of like staying at a Holiday Inn Express last night.), but I appreciated the applicability of Childs’ lessons to leadership in general.

Here are five of my favorites from Childs’ TED talk:

Rhee_time Sunday’s Washington Post ran a front page feature article reviewing the first two years of Michelle Rhee’s tenure as the chancellor of Washington, D.C.’s public school system.  Thanks in part to extensive national coverage like the Time magazine cover to the right, Rhee has become the face of education reform in the United States.  As the article notes, what’s playing well nationally isn’t playing so well at home.  In fact, it begins by recounting the story of D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray asking Rhee when the Time cover came out, "Michelle, why would you agree to be photographed with a broom on the cover of Time magazine?" He had a couple of follow up questions for her including "What does it get you, to constantly bash those you're trying to get to help you?" and "Why did you let the picture be taken in the first place?”

Those are some pretty good questions the Chairman asked. Rhee herself acknowledges that she has made some missteps in her first two years in the job and that the grade for the DC public school system thus far is an incomplete at best. Reporter Bill Turque does a nice job of summarizing Rhee’s lessons learned thus far as:

Lesson 1: Fame Can Backfire – Rhee’s national celebrity has alienated some of her key constituencies like DC teachers and parents.

Lesson 2: Money Doesn't Always Talk – A potential 61% increase in base pay for teachers won’t get you very far if they don’t trust you.

Lesson 3: Politics Matters – As Willy Loman’s wife, Linda, said in Death of a Salesman, “Attention must be paid.”  If you’re working in a political environment as Rhee is, you have to pay attention to the politicians.

Lesson 4: Beware Unintended Consequences – It’s called a school system for a reason.  As is the case with any system, when you change one variable (e.g. closing schools, reducing central staff, adjusting pay plans), the entire system changes, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Being a smart and talented person,  Rhee has adjusted her approach in some ways perhaps most notably in paying more attention to the City Council and teachers’ unions. Still, in reading between the lines of Turque’s article, I think I see some indicators of potential future trouble for Rhee.  These add up to caveats for any leader charged with securing radically different results. Not that she’s asked, but here’s my advice for Rhee and leaders in comparable situations:

Cashman_book1 Years ago, when I was a corporate executive myself, I read and re-read Kevin Cashman’s Leadership from the Inside Out.  (A second edition has recently been released which I encourage you to buy.)  With its emphasis on the leader as a whole person, Kevin’s book really helped me get up on the balcony and look at the bigger picture of what I was trying to do, what really mattered and how I need to show up to make all of that more likely.  The time I spent with Leadership from the Inside Out had a lot to do with why I became an executive coach eight and a half years ago.  As Kevin would say, coaching is my “sweet spot.”

So, being such a fan of Kevin’s work, you can imagine how happy I was to hear him deliver the keynote presentation last week at the annual meeting of the Washington, DC chapter of the International Coach Federation.  He did not disappoint.  In his talk, Kevin shared 11 things he’s learned in 30 years of coaching leaders.  It was all good, but here are a few of his points that hit home with me that I want to share with you:

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