Listen to the crowd
Q:Today Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is riding high, judging from his press clippings, while a year ago the same pundits wondered if he'd be forced to step down. Many leaders face these wild swings of perception: one moment a genius, the next a dolt. Should leaders pay attention to their own popularity - or lack of it?
There's a scene in the movie Norma Rae where actress Sally Field stops her machine in a textile plant and all the other employees then stop theirs, pleas from the bosses to keep working notwithstanding. That scene illustrates a powerful truth: If someone doesn't have followers, he or she is, by definition, not a leader, and followership is always something granted by others. In that sense, Tim Geithner and everyone else in a leadership position must be concerned about their level of support.
But whose support and why it is being granted or withheld matters a lot. For Geithner to do his job as Treasury Secretary effectively, he needs the support and trust of his boss, President Obama, the confidence of his peers in government, and for his subordinates to believe he is an effective leader who provides insightful, intelligent oversight and guidance. It is not clear that American public opinion, notoriously fickle--witness how support or opposition to various health-care reforms depend importantly on how the question is phrased--provides a useful gyroscope for navigating the complex issues facing the Treasury department.
Moreover, support waxes and wanes depending on a person's perceived power and success. That's because people like to associate with winners and distance themselves from losers--the "basking in reflected glory" effect illustrated by social psychologist Bob Cialdini's study showing that university students were more likely to wear clothing with university identification on it the Monday following a football victory compared to Mondays following a defeat. In that sense, public support--and for that matter, the support of other presumed "friends"--more likely reflect Geithner's influence than determine it.
When I once ran Stanford business school's executive education program and when an associate dean told me that some of my colleagues didn't approve of some of my decisions, I replied that if I wanted an opinion poll I would hire Gallup or another polling firm. But I did take the statement as an indication that I needed to do a better job of explaining the data I was seeing and the logic behind what I was doing. Public sentiment can indicate an unfinished communication task in which leaders need to explain to those around them the logic and facts behind their actions. But opinion often favors the status quo, which means that following that opinion would render substantive change impossible.
Leaders need to do what is required for them and their organizations to be successful. If they achieve success, approval will follow. If they don't achieve results, approval will rapidly melt away, regardless of whether the leader seems to have complied with current sentiments about what to do.
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