Fenty: The danger of going with your gut
Rare is it that we get a portrait in leadership failure as illustrative as Adrian Fenty's primary loss last night. Nikita Stewart's and Paul Schwartzman's instructive account of how the aloof and overconfident mayor lost his seat is a fascinating study of how leadership style can undermine power. The lessons for leaders are too many to count: Fenty is a textbook case for the risks not only of using brash tactics, but having an insular staff, lacking a sense of urgency and thumbing your nose at traditional practice.
But there's no bigger takeaway from Fenty's loss than the danger of going with your gut. While there's always a time and place for instinct, if it gets in the way of listening to the people you lead, it becomes a very real and all too perilous problem.
And for Fenty, it was his downfall. As Stewart and Schwartzman report, in the past Fenty's gut got him far. "His instinct told him he could win a D.C. Council seat in 2000, even against a veteran incumbent. He was right. In 2006, he ignored the doubters who said he was too young at 35 and unaccomplished to capture the mayoralty. He was right then, too."
But what got him that far also brought him down. He refused to commission polls. He grudgingly agreed to focus groups. And when those focus groups recommended that he apologize, he staunchly refused his own chief political strategist's advice to send out a one-page letter to voters. "I've never polled," he told the Post. "It's a decision I made 12 years ago. It's always worked, so why change?"
Fenty's belief in his instincts even meant that he didn't release campaign schedules to the media--why bother publicizing your efforts to reach out to the community when your record is apparently so strong--and held infrequent strategy meetings as election day neared. His administration was so insular that even his stepbrother criticized it.
Read the leadership literature, and you'll find countless references to the power of going with your gut. Leading people is such an intuitive process, the thinking goes, that natural born leaders should banish the consultants, the advisers and the data, and go with what feels right. The business bookshelves are overflowing with guides to instinctual leadership, from Head, Heart and Guts: How the world's best companies develop complete leaders to Trust Your Gut: How the power of intuition can grow your business.
That thinking, however, assumes that the person in charge already has a gut worth trusting. If the leader is already too self-important, too set in their old ways or too disconnected with their people, their gut won't take them very far.
Yes, too many consultants' PowerPoints and focus groups can cloud leaders' thinking, especially when they're finely tuned in to their job and the people they lead. The gut can be an invaluable aid for decision-making when the data doesn't offer a clear answer. But when it gets in the way of overwhelming evidence, or when it isn't listening to sound advice or constituents' complaints, that internal compass is pointing down a losing path. Adrian Fenty learned that the hard way.
September 15, 2010; 10:04 AM ET |
Federal government leadership
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