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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.

By Jena McGregor

 |  September 15, 2010; 10:04 AM ET |  Category:  Bad leadership , Federal government leadership , Government leadership , Public leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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So your gut told you to take a bowel movement on the WP website?

My instinctive response is to tell you that we *really* didn't need that.

Posted by: tokenwhitemale | September 16, 2010 1:32 AM

This is why you and many other "leadership leaders" that peddle smart-sounding easy answers add so little value to anyone: "Go with your gut! Except in those times when you shouldn't."

What the heck is a person supposed to do with advice like that?

So don't trust your gut when your too arrogant or self-important. But who ever realizes they are arrogant or self-important? In fact, the more arrogant and self-important one is, the LESS the chance they'll recognize what a buffoon they are.

Never mind all that. Have you told your editors yet that the WaPost spent too much time talking about Terry Jones? Because that would actually show leadership on your part.

Posted by: Buddydog | September 15, 2010 3:09 PM

HaHaHa. As a conservative, I have to laugh at the fools in the District for electing another Barry. They can kiss statehood goodbye and rightly so!

Posted by: steveiev | September 15, 2010 2:58 PM

Gray won? I did not realize he is riding on the Tea Party Express! Fenty may have had a brash style and arrogance, but he got results, and that is what matters most to INTELLIGENT people. Gray WILL be a return to Barry style politics. Not only can a mayor be wrong about his gut feeling but so too can the electorate, they just decided to throw out the good of Fenty with the bad and vote their gut for Gray instead of voting with their brain. It's gonna be a bad 4yrs, all the crappy teachers will be rehired, all the people who want a job but are not qualified will get one, if you work for the city and don't perform...who cares cause I know if I keep you then I'll get reelected. Yep here comes the Barry years part 3.

Posted by: ohski65 | September 15, 2010 2:52 PM

2010 is shaping up as the year of "throw them out; we'll inquire about bum status later."

Posted by: WmarkW | September 15, 2010 1:29 PM

The District of Columbia does not have a vote in Congress, but it is still has democratic elections. This city is not run like the old Soviet Union where the bosses do what they think was best for the people regardless of what the people think or feel. Fenty's administration was high on arrogance. Ms Rhee who was not elected by the people was out giving interviews all of the country and engaging in election year politics to promote her boss. She forgot that she works for the citizens of the District of Columbia which includes the citizens who live East of the river. Her arrogance was only matched by Mr Fenty and Mr. Nicoles. They all forgot that they are accountable to the citizens of the District of Columbia. God Bless America!!!

Posted by: kevltrlaw | September 15, 2010 12:50 PM

Its unfortunate, the district spoke last night and voted to return to the Marion Barry style of District politics. For a brief moment, Mayor Williams and Mayor Fenty allowed the clouds to part and now that opportunity is lost.

Posted by: tyree230 | September 15, 2010 12:42 PM

Jena McGregor's post here may be the most dreadful essay on leadership in a long time. Her piece is as much a failure to understand the subject of leadership as Fenty's failure to get the nomination is the culmination of his cumulative inability to manage the distress caused by pacing change too rapidly.

Fenty's failure was in not creating an environment in the District in which people could adjust to the need to change a large number of self-destructive behaviors and cultures. Fenty (and many others) correctly diagnosed the many changes that were (are) needed. His misdiagnosed how much loss was likely as a result and the amount of adjustment people would need. His administration failed to help people adjust to a new future that would require many to give up old ways. And Fenty failed to embody the changes his administration was asking others to make.

Can we please have a more thoughtful discourse on leadership than this "gut" nonsense?

Posted by: ikubc | September 15, 2010 12:38 PM

The only danger of "going with your gut" exposed in the election yesterday occurred when the majority of the electorate used their gut and not their brain to vote out our flawed but successful mayoral incumbent.

Posted by: washingtonian6 | September 15, 2010 12:03 PM

I think you are missing something

Fenty enabled Rhee's outrageous behavior. Her comments to the press about DC teachers were simply not appropriate for someone in a leadership role of that type. 26,000 or so votes cast, 3,000 or so teachers who she has been disrespectful and unprofessional towards. Do the math, Fenty never had a chance.

Posted by: mamoore1 | September 15, 2010 11:43 AM

...have you polled DC residents to see why they voted for Gray over Fenty?

Or is this entire article something that you just pulled out of your "gut"?

Posted by: tokenwhitemale | September 15, 2010 11:38 AM

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