November 12, 2008

Leaders Can Learn A Lot From Obama

The sweeping victory of Barack Obama ushers in a new era of leadership that will impact every aspect of American institutions and sounds the death knell of top-down, power-oriented leadership prevalent in the 20th century. 

A new style of “bottom-up, empowering” leadership focusing on collaboration will sweep the country. A new wave of 21st century authentic leaders will take over U.S. institutions of every type: business, education, health care, religion, and nonprofits. These new leaders recognize that an organization of empowered leaders at every level will outperform “command-and-control” organizations every time. 

The 20th century leaders focused on money, fame, and power, earning the title of the “me” generation.  Their leadership destroyed many great institutions, as evidenced by the failures of Enron, WorldCom, and dozens of companies like them. The recent fiascos on Wall Street can be traced to the failure of “me” leaders who put themselves ahead of their institutions. 

Unfortunately, the top-down style didn´t stop with business. It bled into K-12 education, which focused more on administrators than on teachers and students, and into health care, with health plans and hospitals so caught up in billing procedures and regulations that they denigrated the vital patient-physician relationship.   

In the nonprofit world, even as venerable an institution as the American Red Cross had such dysfunctional governance that it couldn´t deliver the massive contributions the poured in after September 11 and Hurricane Katrina to people desperately in need. Mainline places of worship have steadily lost membership to newer ones, largely because their priests, rabbis and preachers did not engage their congregants. 

The worst example of top-down leadership is the administration of President Bush, whose “I am the decider” attitude and centralized White House decision-making turned knowledgeable government leaders into mere implementers of failed policies.   

The leadership style of President-elect Barack Obama promises to usher in the “we” generation.  The best evidence is not in his campaign promises, but in the remarkable way he ran his campaign.  In sharp contrast to the “Washington-centric, tops down” organizations of Senators McCain and Clinton, Obama´s organization was derived from his formative experiences as a community organizer. Lessons learned in Chicago´s streets translated into history´s most successful campaign organization.            

Let´s examine his organization to see what leadership lessons can be learned:

In the corporate world, progressive business leaders are adopting this new style and achieving great success.  Look at the remarkable results of Google in harnessing the Internet for vital information and of Genentech in creating life-saving drugs.   

Well-established American icons like IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Avon, and Procter & Gamble have shifted steadily to the collaborative, empowered organization style and have results that prove it works.  IBM´s Sam Palmisano has converted his 344,000-employee organization from a silo mentality to an integrated global network, focused on leading by values. J&J´s Bill Weldon uses the J&J Credo and a decentralized organization to keep J&J growing as compeititors stagnated.   

Avon´s Andrea Jung has quadrupled her organization of six million “empowered women” to sustain Avon´s growth for a decade.  A. G. Lafley has transformed P&G into a global powerhouse by empowering people throughout the world.  

These examples aren´t limited to business.  In religion, the most rapidly growing churches are Rick Warren´s Saddleback and Bill Hybels´ Willow Creek.  Both organizations build around small groups of empowered people who are dedicated to serving people as far away as Rwanda and Zimbabwe.  In education, Wendy Kopp´s Teach For America created a corps of committed teachers achieving great success in inner city classrooms.  

In health care Mayo Clinic´s well-established collaborative model is being adopted by major systems like Allina Health System to fulfill its healing mission. Among non-profits, Gates Foundation is working with local, “on the ground” organizations such as Carolina for Kibera to help people in the Kenyan slum.  

These trends portend massive changes in the 21st century leadership of American institutions, led by the Obama government itself.  The most successful leaders will be those who can align people around common goals of serving people and empower them with a collaborative style.  Their organizations will be the winners in restoring the U.S. to global greatness.