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Ronald Heifetz
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Ronald Heifetz

Ronald Heifetz, the founding director of the Center for Public Leadership, is the King Hussein bin Talal Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School and a Principal at Cambridge Leadership Associates.

The Case Against Public Hangings

President Obama has done an amazing job of sustaining an FDR-like "100 Days" high pitch of activity and presence in the midst of our crises. Like daily activism and presence, delivering public executions and providing other outlets for public outrage (like blasting AIG) is a way to regulate and channel the general distress.

Is it productive? The level of social disequilibrium has to be regulated and kept within a productive range. Panic is destructive. But public executions will become scapegoating, and therefore distract attention and displace responsibility, if all the blameworthy publics avoid their responsibility for the adaptive failures in Detroit by watching Wagoner go. Wagoner is not alone in failing to mobilize adaptive change. The adaptive failures in the auto industry have many "parents" throughout management and labor within GM and the investment, political, and consuming communities that fed into GM from outside.

But chief executives matter, too. From a distance, it appears that Wagoner deserves to be fired, along with the heads of the involved unions. Firing Wagoner and forcing GM and many of its stakeholders to feel the real pinch of reality in a looming bankruptcy appears to be the only politically feasible and potentially worthwhile last-ditch experiment to run from Washington to force painful trade-offs and generate adaptive change at GM.

President Obama's challenge going forward, however, is to keep parceling out the work of change to all the relevant community of interested parties. He has to do this at a rate the various stakeholding publics can stand: pacing, sequencing, framing, and using action and others to get the messages across. But first of all, he has to maintain the general urgency, and not let all the steam out of the pressure cooker.

Public expectations have to be managed to reduce the expectation that these crises will be solved within a year. That means walking on the more sober side of the razor's edge: bolstering confidence without creating milestones of progress that the President cannot readily predict he can meet. Clinton made that mistake by creating goal lines with health care reform that he could not cross. The experts surrounding the President will always be inclined to overestimate certainty, which is the temptation of experts in times of uncertainty, but that temptation, coupled with public desire for a quick return to normalcy, needs to be resisted.

Joe Biden was absolutely right to remind everyone more than a month ago of the significant odds that even if we get all the initiatives in place, our solutions will not work as we expect. Adaptive work is an experimental process. The president will need many bites of the apple, even big bites, before we've discovered how to achieve sustainable change during the next years. Biden's message is the antidote to the dangers of scapegoating Wagoner. In running a marathon; there's no quick fix. I believe the American people are ready to hear a more realistic message about the trial and error process we are in. Biden needs to be embraced for representing that faith and message.

By Ronald Heifetz

 |  March 31, 2009; 3:39 PM ET
Category:  Economic crisis Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Now It's Obama's Responsibility | Next: Designing a New GM Leader

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