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Leaders we need, with "minds afire"

John McGuire
John B. McGuire is a senior faculty member at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership and co-author of Transforming Your Leadership Culture.

Our country is at a crossroads of immense importance. High unemployment, the threat of terrorist attacks, and other major challenges continue to plague us. But a much bigger crisis underlies these woes: Our political leaders are overwhelmed by the increasing complexity and ambiguity of today's challenges.

This crisis of political leadership is not just about the quality of our individual leaders. Some of them, on both sides of the aisle, are brilliant thinkers, energetic public servants and skilled policy makers. But there's a deep flaw in their collective leadership mindset. Stuck in a quagmire of either-or, ideologically driven thinking, leaders in Washington have failed our citizens. From the economic stimulus bill that passed a year ago to the recent unraveling of health-care reform, it is clear that neither Democrats nor Republicans, stuck in yesterday's leadership paradigm, know how to lead effectively in tomorrow's rapidly unfolding world.

To face the challenges of the future, our ailing government and political system needs to be transformed. At CCL, our research and work with corporate executives and government officials has revealed some fundamental facts about how change can happen in organizations -- and that work offers a roadmap for our nation's political leaders.

Transformation in organizations begins when leaders embrace ambiguity and uncertainty rather than hiding from it or dismissing it with a well-rehearsed ideological response. Instead of trying to master uncertainty and avoid complexity through tactics, procedures, and the 24-hour news cycle, leaders need to work together strategically and across the layers and boundaries of the political infrastructure.

Next, leaders who want their organizations to change and adapt realize that they must change themselves first. They need to grow bigger minds to deal with big issues. They must stop looking outside for someone or something else to change and take a hard look at their existing beliefs. Politicians, too, should examine their own beliefs, rules, and assumptions to spot what no longer works and replace them with better ideas.

Finally, these leaders embrace a breakthrough approach to leadership to continuously reframe dilemmas, reinterpret options, and reform operations. They pursue a new leadership culture, one that enacts (not just pays lip service to) collaboration, flexibility, and boundary spanning.

Lou Gerstner leveraged all three steps in transforming IBM from a producer of hardware systems into an authority on business solutions. As the company's chairman and CEO, he embraced the ambiguity of turning everything IBM had been for decades on its head. Next, he listened carefully to his clients and to his own people. In doing so, he shed his own pre-conceived beliefs about what IBM could be and inspired others to take the risks of creating a new future for the company.

He said his "mind was afire" as he discovered the enormous mental shift the change required in IBM's culture and especially in himself. Ultimately, he nurtured a new corporate culture focused on customers, innovation and teamwork -- a culture capable of cutting executive entitlements and thoroughly re-engineering business processes. He later said: "I came to see in my time at IBM that culture wasn't just one aspect of the game -- it is the game."

Transformation at the political level is possible; we've done it before. Our nation began as a dependent culture -- a group of colonies under the authoritarian rule of the king. Rebelling against this oppression, colonists developed more independent minds. Together, against tremendous odds, they created a new form of government that changed the world.

Our Independent phase has served us well. That pioneer spirit, with its bent toward local government and pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps beliefs, became our cultural cornerstone. We also valued innovation and technical expertise that ultimately helped propel us to superpower status. But our rich heritage of independence now veers too far toward mere self-interest.

Our nation needs to break the political logjam with a Declaration of Interdependence -- a bigger, bolder leadership mindset that's committed to learning, flexibility, collaboration and crossing boundaries. We need a new kind of leadership itself--one that is more concerned about solving big challenges for all our futures than winning the next political battle that the other guy loses.

As a leadership culture moves from dependence to independence to interdependence, people become more capable of dealing with complexity and uncertainty. Collaboration moves beyond compromise in which everyone loses something in hopes of gaining a little. Collaborative work uses dialogue, not debate, to deeply understand the problems we face. Then it generates multiple options, integrating the best ones into sustainable solutions. Compromise gives us incremental progress, and there is a role for that. But collaboration fosters a creative process that combines and integrates perspectives into something new. Interdependent-collaborative leadership gave us, for example, the ingenuity and unity to win wars in Europe and the Pacific at the same time and establish leadership for a free world. If we did it in a crisis, we can develop it as a matter of course for our future.

That is the kind of shift that is required of our national leadership culture. It is a shift that takes time out for learning, rather than proving why the other guy is wrong. It is a shift that returns political leadership to problem solving and creating valuable institutions, rather than an I win, you lose agenda. It is a shift that takes away the thrill of blame and one-upmanship and, instead, demands that the collective leadership take full responsibility for all outcomes.

Can you imagine Senators discussing (and agreeing on) desired outcomes and goals before drafting bills and haggling over details? What if our Representatives placed a priority on securing votes based on good policy rather than cutting deals? What if our president (at any time, of any party) unequivocally demanded bi-partisanship by refusing to sign any bill that did not have at least one-third of those voting for it representing the "other" party?

Serious change demands serious people, including leaders who are committed to getting results for the country instead of producing a patchwork of policies, programs, and regulations. Sustainable change in American politics will require the kind of game-changing breakthrough we experienced more than two hundred years ago.

Now is the time for Congress and the Executive branch to turn off the partisan politicking and step up -- together -- to lead our country. Here's how this can start: a handful of principled leaders from both the Republican and Democratic parties pledge to meet every week. They talk honestly, share ideas, develop solutions and build an interdependent coalition on behalf of the entire country, rather than merely their parties. Who will have the vision and courage to do it?

By John B. McGuire

 |  January 27, 2010; 6:38 AM ET |  Category:  Change management Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Unselfish leaders? Collaborative knowledge-sharing? Working for the common good? My heart leaps for joy with thoughts of this kind of real CHANGE.
Please, dear Mr. Obama, these strategies articulated by McGuire might just help to make it happen. This message is critical for our collective future.
Carol Carpenter
School Administrator
Curitiba, Brazil

Posted by: carolinsantafe | January 29, 2010 10:59 AM

Before cooperation and interdependence is possible, our leaders must first come to grips with the fact that their own selfishness is a primary cause for the problems that our nation faces. They must take stock of themselves at a deeply personal level and question why it is that they accept gifts from lobbyists, vote themselves pay raises without increasing the minimum wage and have no trouble passing legislation that grants them unbelievable health care and retirement benefits in perpetuity regardless of the cost to tax payers who often end up sacrificing those same benefits to make ends meet.

Until leadership positions in government are viewed as a means of service to one's fellow man and not as a means of garnering personal wealth, power and influence the changes we need will never happen. Until those who hold office first seek to do what is best for others, even at cost to themselves, true collaboration is impossible. It is not enough to reach across the aisle as a leadership strategy, change must start from within.

Posted by: NedKeitt-Pride | January 28, 2010 2:24 PM

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