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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Assessing Leadership Deficits

There are many people in leadership positions in politics who are very ineffective.

I'd like to profile a few so that it's easy to think about solutions, and potential mistakes you can make when dealing with them.

One common trait is that these people stymie people who try anything new. They suffocate innovation and creativity, and push good people out. As Warren Buffett says, when a good manager meets a bad organization, the organization always wins. In this case, these people create an organizational culture that pushes good people out.

The tempting thing is to instigate a coup against people. Coups often work, but also often come at unpredictable costs. You can lose donors, entire segments of your political base, among other problems. Coups can be messy, prolonged and unstable. As well, when you run a coup of some sort, you're asking people to be duplicitous and conniving, traits that those people often can't turn off later. It's hard to trust a coworker who just dethroned someone. Also, more often than not, coups fail. Most people prefer stability over progress, the devil they know instead of the unstable revolution.

That said, these personality types are clingers who are unlikely to ever give up their positions of authority. As such, they remain and enforce a strict rule of mediocrity over their campaigns and organizations.

In many cases, it's simply not worth fighting the existing leadership for control or to push new ideas. Most leaders are unwilling to change. But in the hopes that every flailing campaign or organization can be turned around, let's consider some potential problem leaders and potential solutions.

So with that in mind, let's consider several leadership deficit archetypes:

Joe - Joe is an older fellow involved with a local political group. He's in the communications industry and tries hard to be 'hip' but is also insecure enough that he hates being the 'bad guy' so he tries to get other people to do what he wants without having to tell them what to do. Joe is in a leadership position and likes it. He wants to keep it by not making any mistakes. He won't allow anything new in 'his' organization, so he has a dozen side outlets for his mediocre creativity. He's worked in middle-management corporate life for so long that he thinks that mindset is the same in politics: run things quietly and be unassuming and, in time, things will just work out. Joe's leadership atrophies the grassroots, and kills any effective actions before they begin. Joe always has a reason to say no to new ideas.

Joe is the antithesis of creativity. He also doesn't trust himself to do anything risky.

Solution: Business types can be very hard to change or displace. They're going to have a common refrain of either "that's not how we do things around here" or something like "that's not how it's done in the business world" to shoot down any innovation. The easiest and best option is probably to walk away from this situation and not try to reform it, it's likely a lost cause. Your time and effort is better spent elsewhere. It may be wise to sit and wait for Joe to leave the organization so you can, then, turn it around.

Mary - Mary is late middle-aged divorced woman. She's highly insecure and tries to rule by consensus. When that doesn't work, she acts petty and catty with those around her who try to do anything new. Her involvement in politics is part personal, so she makes any political problem or issue into something much larger and disproportionate to reality. She might be a former low-level politician. She's also insecure, and so she never feels comfortable making a decision without excessive consensus and discussion even though she wants to be the final word. She wants the final word, but wants it to seem like consensus so she's not perceived as heavy-handed. She wants to have a group come to her guided consensus, not exert any active leadership.

Mary likes new ideas and new people, but she wants to talk and not act. She wants a huge crowd of people before she'd be willing to act, and even then she'd never be willing to be edgy or confrontational.

Solution: What Mary needs is someone of high-status to her to come in and displace her. Former leaders are hard to demote, so they often have to be pushed aside. But she'll never acquiesce to anyone she doesn't feel intimidated by. She'll also never allow someone from below her to displace her.

Betty - Betty is an older woman who was involved since the founding of the organization. She's a mountain of organizational history and knowledge. However, she's also a micromanager. Nothing happens without her involvement, and the staff she oversees don't know how to act without her prior approval and so, as a result, do almost nothing unless she demands it. The organization is thus poorly run and highly dysfunctional. There's a climate of fear because no one knows how to keep her happy and to adequately do what she wants. She's very communicative, but often gives conflicting statements. Betty is likely wooed by consultants and vendors much more than she ought to be, due in part to the fact that she can't trust her staff to do what she could otherwise have them do for cheaper, if she'd just trust them to do it in the first place.

Betty is tired and frustrated with the pace of the organization. She wants something new, but doesn't realize how she stands in the way of progress. She has the clout to shoot down any new idea.

Solution: Betty needs an outside consultant with status to impress her into a dramatic turnaround of her organization from top to bottom.

These are just three examples, and there are many more, but it's a starting point to really profile and assess the situations you find yourself in, and the internal politics of the campaigns you encounter.

Fixing broken organizations is a thankless job, and is often unsuccessful, but you can often succeed in time. 

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