Obama, Sandy, business leadership and a confession

A week before the US presidential election, probably the most important decision for the future of the planet over the next four years and the incumbent, President Obama, is not campaigning. He’s not even talking about the election (except to say he’s not talking about the election).
No, what he’s doing is very obviously taking care of the crisis brought on by Hurricane Sandy. Now, there’s a lesson in leadership that businessmen would do well to remember.
From the Whitehouse website

It's personal (warning bad language on the way)
It brings to mind a personal story (former colleagues will remember this), please bear with me. It goes back to the time when the London tube network was attacked by a group of suicide bombers in July 2005. I was editing a magazine at the time and though the transport infrastructure and mobile phone network came to a grinding halt during morning rush hour I managed to get to work. What I did on arrival, the very first thing I did, was set my team to work on finding out whether there were angles we should be covering - what were the stories we should be writing then and there. As dazed as they looked, I demanded they hit the phones, start writing and posting online.
I thought this was our primary role. All I could see were the stories we should be writing, the narrative we should be crafting. I was driven, blinkered, and I thought my team should be too. I even called one of them at home to interview him about his experience of being terrifyingly close to one of the bombs. I was high on adrenaline, excited. I thought I was heroic.  
The next day, back at work, I overheard one of my team describing me as “a c**t.” This, as it turned out, was because I had failed to ask how any of the individuals in my team were. In all honesty, in the rush to do the story, I didn’t even give it a thought. I was caught up in the excitement, the rush. But on reflection the comment was quite right and I more than likely deserved such an epithet. Even now, some years on, the thought of my behaviour that day sends a shudder of embarrassment down my spine.

Obama and wellbeing
So what’s this got to do with Obama and business managers? In short you cannot afford to ignore the wellbeing of your people. They are the most important element to what you do. Without them, their goodwill and support, you will struggle to achieve your aims. Obama recognises this, I hope I do now, and business people need to keep it front of mind.
Senior business leaders all too often get caught up in their strategic objectives, the spreadsheets, the client meetings, boardroom intrigues, P&L predictions. Their people, their needs, especially in relation to how they do their jobs can come depressingly low on the priority list. Leadership should get your head out of those things to be concerned about the people who are delivering the products and services you sell.
Moreover Obama has been careful to be seen to do something else - ensuring that all the people that matter in dealing with the crisis are getting the support they need to do their jobs. This is not my observation but Eric McNulty in the Harvard Business Review. Obama is taking great care not to seem omnipotent. He can only control what he can control. McBulty's point is that it's taken a while for the President to understand that he used to over-estimate his ability to control things. He must therefore support others in their effort to deal with the disaster. He has not guaranteed that everything will be alright. He can’t. But if he supports well he will “share” in the credit (that’s already happening and could prove to be an election game changer). Others have written he has misunderstood America’s “can-do” approach to life. But to back-off and assume individuals can take care of themselves, even in such a crisis, is just bizarre.
Business leaders would do well to learn from this. Support your people well, pay attention to their needs,  and they may well deliver more reliably than if you are calling the shots from on high.

Even more personal
Personally, I forgot the support and I forgot that it wasn’t just about my intentions. I should have apologised to the team member who thought I was a “c**t”. If you're reading (I hope you are, I need the traffic) you got me bang to rights. Some might claim that I’ve never learned that lesson - they’re entitled to their opinion. I like to think I remember more often than not. Which is an improvement.


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