How Not to Lead: 5 Lessons from the Supercommittee

The U.S. Congress’s Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction — hereafter referred to as “the Super Committee” or “Supercommittee” — ended its “work” this week. It failed to come to an agreement on spending cuts and, as a result, sequestration will take place as of January, 2013.

Immediately upon hearing the Supercommittee’s announcement on Monday, world stock markets reacted as expected to the Supercommittee’s inability to agree. The Dow, for instance, fell 350 points not long after the announcement and ended that day down more than 250.

To me, the only surprise is that the markets reacted as if they didn’t know beforehand that this was a fait accompli. (Tell me – do Mr. Murdoch’s executives believe in Santa Claus, too?) If the twelve supercommittee members did absolutely nothing, budget cuts were still guaranteed to take effect. Furthermore, each member could claim good intentions while pointing the finger of blame at members who belonged to (what else?) the other party.

By not acting resolutely and forcefully and in a bipartisan manner, the Supercommittee showed that it, too, could be part of the problem. They showed us how not to lead in a crisis, a lesson something that those of us in business must take to heart. Among the supercommittee’s many shortcomings, what stands out in my mind are the:

  • Failure to take responsibility. The supercommittee was arguably rigged so its members weren’t required to take personal responsibility. That doesn’t absolve them from their moral and ethical responsibilities as members of Congress (e.g., to pay the debts of the U.S. Government). If yours is a sole proprietorship, you have no choice but to bear all the responsibilities. As your company grows, responsibilities have to be delegated and made clear. Invariably, some responsibilities are not assigned or made explicit — it’s a fact of life — but does someone’s omission ever absolve us from our responsibility to do what is good and just?
  • Failure to cooperate. Supercommittee members came into the fray with their minds made up. It was never anyone’s intent to sway from the party line that “it’s not us – it’s them”. The prevailing mindset — not just in Congress but in business and other arenas — is confrontational, rather than cooperative. In order to cooperate, we have to give up the notion that there can only be one way (my way, not yours) and consider the greater good that unites us. It’s also called “alignment”. This directly leads us to the…

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result every time.”
(Anon.)

  • Failure to consider alternatives. When there are conflicts of opinion within a group, it is not a given that one and only one must prevail. Opinions being what they are, all of them can be wrong. Are our opinions ever valid substitutes for the facts? We have to consider that, sometimes, the “facts” are simply our opinions and are not absolute knowledge. Closing one’s mind to other possibilities means assuming an enormous amount of risk (risking alienation of customers, stakeholders; risking missed opportunities; etc.). Is that a risk any of us wants — or can afford — to take?
  • Failure to put politics aside. Nothing ruins a government — or a business — faster or with more deadly certainty than politics. Conflicting interest groups (accounting, IT, and sales, for example) competing for power and leadership within a company is suicidal, yet we see this happening all the time. How is it that different parts of the same company — ostensibly working toward a common set of goals — ever compete for control and not see that they could not exist without the others? That brings us to the ultimate failure, and that is the…
  • Failure to lead. Everyone wants to be the leader because it pays well, not because they crave the responsibilities of leadership. Sound familiar? Not around your office, of course (no one wants to risk losing her job, after all), but maybe you’ve heard it about other companies. The single deadliest sin is the failure of our leaders, whether in government or business, to understand and accept the responsibilities of leadership.

If we lead our businesses like our politicians lead our countries, we are dooming ourselves to failure.

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Posted in Leadership, Policy development

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