On Leadership
Video | PostLeadership | FedCoach | | Books | About |
Exploring Leadership in the News with Steven Pearlstein and Raju Narisetti

Alan M. Webber

Alan M. Webber

Alan Webber, a founding editor of Fast Company magazine, is an award-winning editor, author, and columnist. His most recent book is Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Yourself.

One nuclear bomb can ruin a whole presidency

Q: This week's nuclear summit presents one of those difficult leadership challenge: focusing attention and resources on a low-probability problem that would be disastrous if it occurred. Global warming, 100-year floods, financial meltdowns are other examples. How can a leader fight the natural tendency among followers to put off dealing with what seem like such abstract and complicated threats?

Remember the old bumper sticker? It said, "Just one nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day."

There are some things that come with being president of the United States: the nuclear launch codes and the ever-present suitcase is one of those things. It has to be a constant reminder that while many things can go wrong on your watch, there's one big thing that, if it goes wrong, ends everybody's watch.

Maybe that's why nuclear weapons don't fit neatly into any leadership category. It seems to me that this may be one place where any attempt to compare being a CEO of a company, a non-profit, a sports franchise, anything you can think of, just comes up empty. Yes, you can go out of business to a financial meltdown; you can lose your land or your home to a flood. The end of much of the world as we know it in a nuclear holocaust is a different order of magnitude.

But here's something you can, perhaps compare: there are some things only the leader can be responsible for. Doing the due diligence to protect your charges from the worst imaginable disaster is one of those things. That requires a leader to think the unthinkable--and then to act to prevent it. It's not about return on investment or time well spent, it's about making sure that as the leader, you do the one thing that only you can do.

You can do a lot of little things right and be an adequate leader, but fail to do the one big thing and you are a total failure as a leader. It's not good enough to get 70 percent of your calls right, if, in the 30 percent you get wrong is a nuclear exchange: the math doesn't work. This is one case where it is truly a zero-sum game. That's why just one nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day.

By Alan M. Webber

 |  April 12, 2010; 3:53 PM ET
Category:  Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: 'Set the azimuth' on al-Qaeda | Next: Inspiration in the face of apocalypse


Please report offensive comments below.

"You can do a lot of little things right and be an adequate leader, but fail to do the one big thing and you are a total failure as a leader."

So George W. Bush was a total failure? I agree with you, but there are a few million neo-cons who don't.

Posted by: arancia12 | April 13, 2010 9:22 AM
Report Offensive Comment

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company