I have had the privilege of meeting many intelligent people. One of them was a Rhodes Scholar and a political leader. He has the ability to inspire, and by and large, he means well. But he has a critical flaw, one that is shared by many political leaders and intelligent men and women. He lacks decisiveness and prefers to delay making important decisions. He always wants more information and more analysis.
No leader possesses the skills and intelligence to master every issue. S/he must delegate and rely on the recommendations of the advisers. Unfortunately, since most issues are quite complex and without obvious solutions, the advisers rarely reach a consensus. Thus the leader must inevitably make the decision.
All decisions, except the obvious, entail uncertainty and risks. No one can be fully informed at all times. The world does not stop. A decision maker will be dead before s/he ever gets all the information s/he wants. Mistakes are made – this is to be expected – and for this reason, contingencies must be planned, and leaders must be prepared to acknowledge mistakes.
When I have been asked by CEOs how they should determine which ones of their senior management team should be fired, my answer is quite simple: Fire anyone who has never made a mistake because they likely have never made a decision.
So where I am going? Tom Friedman, in discussing, in Sunday’s New York Times, the problems ailing the U.S. system of government, stated that the standard answer to the question “how can the U.S. Government avoid making sub-optimal decisions” is that we need better leaders. Friedman disagrees, and suggests that the “real answer is that we need better citizens.”
I disagree! We need real leaders, people who not only can provide a vision, and a road map to get us from here to there, but also can convince us that we need to get to there, and are willing to make the difficult decisions. We need leaders who move public opinion polls, rather than follow them. We need leaders who move well beyond elegant rhetoric. They need to act and be consistent in their actions and words.
Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality. Lead and most citizens will follow. Joe Namath once said: “To be a leader, you have to make people want to follow you, and nobody wants to follow someone who doesn’t know where he is going.”
The problem thus far with President Obama is that, in several important areas, he has not clearly enunciated his policies – the roadmap – for getting the U.S. from here to there, and more often than not, he has not spelled out what “there” should like. Like other intelligent academics, Obama prefers to study an issue to death before being compelled to make a decision. However, leadership is not about deferring decisions through endless analysis and debates. It is about showing determination and courage to make decisions, and then following through, even if at a later date one has to admit that s/he made a mistake. Leaders cannot be driven by a fear of failure.