Harvard Leadership and the Presidency Debrief

May 15, 2008  

The other day I attended an event at Harvard about “Leadership and the Next President.”  There were some big names in the audience and on stage.  Today I am going to blog about one of the panel discussions which focused specifically on leadership skills necessary to be President.  Not surprisingly, these are the same skills that make a good organizational leader…and enabler of innovation.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, author and Harvard Professor, felt three attributes were necessary for the President:

  1. Accountability – Avoid “spin” and oversimplification.  She felt that the President needs to lay the facts on the table as they are without sugar coating.  And that s/he must take full responsibility for any results, rather than blaming others.
  2. Collaboration – Don’t just turn to your superstars.  This is about inclusiveness.  She said that “bifurcated thinking is the enemy of change.”  Recognize that not everyone will support you.  In fact, she felt in most situations, 1/3 will be for, 1/3 will be against, and 1/3 will be on the fence.  It’s that last third that makes the most difference.
  3. Initiative – They key is to not feel helpless.  Instead, empower at a grass roots level.  She felt that innovation was the answer, and that there are already solutions out there to most of our problems.  We just need to find them.

Patrick Lencioni, author of “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” felt that team building was most important.  Instead of committees, he felt that teams are needed.  His four tips were:

  1. Humanity/Vulnerability – Admit when you don’t know or when you made a mistake.  Ask for help.  This builds trust.
  2. Avoid Fear of Conflict – You need trust to gain productive conflict.  Avoid yes men.
  3. Help Team Members be Accountable – Yes, you want people to be accountable for results.  But often, accountability for behaviors is more important.
  4. Check Your Ego at the Door – He suggested that an obsession for results is quite often driven by ego.

Max Bazerman, author and Harvard Professor, talked about the relationship between sacrifice and gains.  He felt that in general, the President should strive for small sacrifices for large gains.  He then asked the following question (paraphrased), “Would you like a 90% chance of getting a heart transplant if needed, in exchange for donating yours when you die?”  He said that most people strongly say yes.  But in the US, only 45% of people are organ donors.  He said in other countries the percentage is as high as 90%.  The reason?  In most countries you have to opt-OUT of being an organ donor.  He suggested that if we create defaults that create the best outcome (e.g., organ donor as default) – but still give everyone a large number of options (e.g., the ability to easily opt-out), we might get better results with little effort.

There was much more said, and maybe I’ll blog about it in the future.  Admittedly, much of what was said were generic sound bites.  The issues facing the next President are much more complicated than any of those suggested above.  Then again, the challenges facing any leader – in business or politics – are always more difficult in reality than in theory.

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One Response to “Harvard Leadership and the Presidency Debrief”

  1. Dave Undis on May 17th, 2008 7:51 am

    You actually can increase your chances of getting an organ transplant by agreeing to donate your organs when you die. All you have to do is join LifeSharers at http://www.lifesharers.org. Its’ free to join.

    LifeSharers is a 501(c)(3) non-profit network of organ donors. Members agree to offer their organs first to fellow members. So if you join you’ll get preferred access to the organs of other members.

    Check it out at http://www.lifesharers.org. Parents can enroll their minor children, nnd no one is excluded due to any pre-existing medical condition.