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John Baldoni
Leadership author

John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online. His most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

Go against the grain

Q: New Jersey's new Republican governor, Chris Christie, has forced cutbacks in pay for teachers and superintendents, capped local property taxes, cut pension benefits for state workers, canceled popular public works projects and closed a $11 billion state budget deficit. Yet in spite of these highly controversial initiatives and a blunt speaking style, his popularity in a heavily Democratic state is rising. What is the lesson here for other political leaders?

Leadership is not a popularity contest. Those leaders who make popularity a prime intention are those leaders who may not be doing what is necessary for the organization to succeed. The mark of a good leader is how he leads against the odds or even against popular convention.

Case in point. When Anne Mulcahy took over Xerox as CEO in 2001, she gained a job that it seemed no one else wanted. After all, she was a former senior executive in human resources and lacked fundamentals in finance, a fact that did not endear her to the financial community. Since Xerox was doing poorly, the financial community wanted her to asset strip the company and sell it in pieces.

Mulcahy, a Xerox lifer, said no; she knew the culture of organization and knew what it was capable of doing. So she and her team, notably Ursula Burns who is now CEO, created a bold transformational plan that did call for job cuts but not the wholesale trimming of divisions. Mulcahy was proven right, and when she stepped down last year she was heralded as a truly capable CEO and one who had left the company in better shape than when she found it.

One executive who has bucked public opinion and in the process made enemies is Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the DC schools. Her mission is to make education of children the prime directive of the school system. To fulfill her mission she has taken on the entrenched bureaucracy as well as the teacher's union in order to instill accountability into the system.

Her firing of more than 200 teachers this past summer has been controversial and may have contributed to the defeat of the Mayor Adrian Fenty who appointed her. Her own future as DC chancellor is in doubt, but there can be no doubt of her commitment to seeking to heal a broken system so that it can serve the needs of its constituents: children.

As much as we admire leaders for exerting leadership against the odds, there are times when a leader who goes against the grain is doomed to failure. We see this happening often with CEOs. They are so eager to put their stamp on the organization (which is good) that they do not give the organization time to digest new directives (which is not good). So here are three questions leaders going against the odds need to ask themselves.

"What am I doing?" Leaders need to support the mission of the organization. So their strategic direction need to support what the organization is in business to do. Or change the mission. Lou Gerstner did that as CEO of IBM when he shifted the company's focus from selling hardware and software to providing integrated IT solutions and services.

"Why am I doing it?" Yes, put the organization first! Leaders have personal agendas but those agendas need to support the aims of the organization. If not, the leader gets too far out ahead or is seen as a lone wolf. More specifically, people are not eager to support someone whom they perceive is only working for him or herself. That makes the process of getting rid of the lone wolf all the more pleasurable.

"Is it worth it?" This question can be tough to answer. Sometimes it may be wise to hold the status quo. Other times the organization needs to be pushed, sometimes kicking and screaming, into a new era. Alan Mulally at Ford has done this with his leadership by pushing a leaner company with a sharper focus on a few core brands.

These questions demand more than cookie-cutter responses; they challenge the leader to examine what the organization needs and what his or her motives are for pushing for change.

Popularity is not a bad thing. It always makes it easier to gain support for your ideas when people like you. But ultimately the mark of a leader is respect. It is not given by title; it is earned by example. It also echoes in the legacy of the leader, and those who leave the organization in a better place are those leaders deserving of our praise.

By John Baldoni

 |  October 12, 2010; 9:38 AM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , CEOs , Corporate leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Against big government? It's no surprise he's popular | Next: Popularity is easy when troubles run deep

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