Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Why 'Brilliant' Leaders Fail

“He’s Brilliant.” I heard it again several times last week. I won’t say who exactly received these compliments, I’m afraid their egos are large enough already.

Every corporation, every organization, has at least one, a figure that that many people point to as ‘brilliant.’ Larger organizations often have many. In fact, large organizations that are having trouble often have large numbers of them.

Why is this a matter of leadership? Because what isn’t easily explained is why this or that corporation or organization is having so many problems. The boss is ‘brilliant.’ The vice president is ‘brilliant.’ The COO is ‘brilliant.’ The CFO is ‘brilliant.’ The CTO is ‘brilliant.’ (CTOs are often ‘truly brilliant.’) And, as with Garrison Keillor’s fictional town, all the workers are of above average intelligence.

So why is it that things often don’t work quite so well in these organizations?

The answer is leadership. More accurately, lack of leadership.

First, there are many different kinds of ‘smarts.’ Beethoven was a genius. So was Ben Franklin. So was Einstein. So was Bismarck. So were Stalin and Hitler – evil geniuses. They weren’t the same kind of geniuses. Yitzhak Perlman is a genius. I’d be willing to listen to an argument that says that Wolfgang Puck, Bobby Orr, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods are all geniuses, but of different kinds.

So, let us accept that there are different kinds of ‘genius.’ Inevitably, people get ‘tagged’ with the particular label ‘brilliant’ relatively early in their careers. And so, a whiz kid in XYZ Corporation solves a particularly nagging problem. He is labeled as ‘brilliant.’ Promotions follow. He rises and continues to show flashes of his old ‘brilliance.’

But, is his old brilliance in fact what is needed? As he is promoted he is moving further and further afield of his old – and true - area of expertise. Nowhere is this more true then in the revolving door of the military – industrial complex. Lieutenant Commander Jones is an excellent staff planner. He is promoted and continues to work hard and provide thoughtful analysis. He is promoted to Captain and then Admiral based more on staff work and his analytic skills then anything else, and finally one day he is an admiral who may not really know how to lead. Nevertheless he is placed in charge of some large organization with a great deal of bureaucratic inertia and he abides there for two years.

He reorganizes when he arrives, because that is what he has learned, and, as happened after the last reorganization at this command, there is a spike in productivity, as people, in response to some element of the ‘Hawthorne Effect’ respond to the new organization. But, of course, that is all a mirage, as was demonstrated by the original study at the Hawthorne plant: productivity increases as a result of being watched, or because the workers perceived an increase in attention from the front office. But, there is no way to really measure productivity at most of these organizations, and besides, it would take several years. But, by then the ‘brilliant man’ has moved on to some other job. Back at agency X or Corporation Y the people have settled back to whatever was wrong in the first place.

The ‘brilliant’ leader now retires and is hired by some large corporation that does a great deal of business with the government and he makes a great deal of money opening doors and generating business. Then he is named to head a large agency in the government and he reenters government. He becomes the secretary of this or that department and works there for an average of two to three years. And the department struggles through another reorganization and another poor leader who is ‘brilliant.’

What happened?

First, in a very real sense, it’s not their fault. Good leaders are the product of both experience and introspection. You need both. Simple experience means nothing. The Bat Boy has the same experience as the Manager – they both stood on the sidelines and watched 162 games. It is the introspection that turns the experience into understanding. Most people, in industry, in the military, in government, in any field of endeavor, do not spend enough time thinking deeply about what they did, and what they should have done and constructing a ‘lessons learned’ from it. Most people spend a great deal of time ‘doing’ and never think about it.

Second, there is a great deal of time required to do this well. Most people on the ‘fast track’ do not spend enough time both gaining adequate experience or engaging in that introspection to build a foundation of knowledge to draw on. Rather, once ‘identified’ as a ‘fast tracker’ they are moved from one job to another, so that they can, at least on paper, gain the requisite experience. But, in most cases they don’t spend enough time to garner the necessary experience (you must be in a job long enough that your decisions – good and bad – have time enough to mature and you can learn and adjust; if you move to quickly, and too quickly is certainly less than 18 months and often more on the order of 2 and ½ years or more, you will only see the beginning of the Hawthorne effect, but you will miss the real outcome of your decisions – unless you fail miserably). Further, they are rarely, if ever, given the opportunity to think about their mistakes. There is ‘no time to sharpen the ax.’ Everyone is simply ‘too busy.’

Thirdly, ‘brilliance’ in one field, even if it does exist, doesn’t mean competence in another. A brilliant stock analyst is not necessarily a good manager. He may be a wiz kid on the trading floor, but the corporation would fall apart if he were in charge.

And so, people with wonderful resumes arrive at an important job, either in business or government, and yet they are not really equipped to lead. It may look like that on paper, but it isn’t the truth.

These people often are very smart. But, they were smart in something that got them noticed 10 or 15 years ago, sometimes even longer. But, what got them ‘here’ is not what they are required to do. It is as if we took Yitzhak Perlman’s instrument away and told him to work on our monetary policy. Why not give Alan Greenspan a violin?

In the end, good leadership takes a long time to develop. There are few truly brilliant leaders, and even fewer of them that are young. What there are plenty of is men and women who are intelligent, with some experiences, often not enough, and usually little time spent to think about their successes and failures. They rise through the ranks of this or that organization often benefiting from a single trait – the motivational speaker who has a keen memory for numbers, for example. But, in fact, few are actually brilliant and even fewer are good leaders.

The result is they eventually arrive at the top of some large organization without the real tools necessary to handle the role of leader. If they are unfortunate enough to remain in place for more than a couple of years their shortfalls catch up to them and they fall from grace. Much is then written about what decision led to their downfall. But, in most cases, the poor decision was the one that put the individual in that position in the first place.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Response to Mr. Russell Re Leadership vs Luck at Midway

Mr. Russell: Thank you for your comments.

You have pointed out one of the more interesting moments in the engagement, when CAG McClusky, already at the end of his fuel ladder, spotted the Japanese destroyer and acted on that information. I would suggest though that the leadership, and the preparation demanded by the leaders, 'armed' McCluskey with the necessary information to make the right decision when an opportunity was presented. Without that clarity of thought and the decision to act, the opportunity would have been missed. Arguably, opportunities present themselves to everyone every day, but it is the issue of whether we act that makes the event appear fortuitous or not.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Leadership vs Luck: a Lesson from Midway

How many times have you heard the line ‘It’s better to be lucky than be good?’ Well, it’s nonsense. This thought occurred to me today as I read an article about the Battle of Midway.

For those of you not up on your Navy history, the Battle of Midway was fought from 04 to 06 June, 1942 over and north of the island of Midway, more than 1000 miles west north west of Hawaii. During the course of the battle US Navy aircraft, flying off of three carriers, sank four Japanese aircraft carriers while losing only one carrier (the USS Yorktown). All four of the Japanese carriers had participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December. The Japanese losses, in material and in men, particularly the pilots and aircrew, were never to be made up and the battle is rightly considered one of the turning points of World War II and one of the great naval battles of history.

What has that got to do with luck? Well, it is common to consider that the US was remarkably lucky in the sequence of events that led to the successful attacks on the Japanese carriers. In fact, three of the Japanese carriers were destroyed in a matter of less than an hour in what has been called a ‘miracle.’ Writers are fond of pointing to one unusual event after another and remarking that if anything had gone wrong, if the ‘breaks’ hadn’t gone our way at just the right moment, the US might have lost.


The US won that battle because of superior leadership. Period. Start with Admiral Nimitz recognizing both the superiority of his intelligence and the logic, as seen by Japanese planners, of attacking Midway (over concerns and objections from Washington); Halsey’s selection of Spruance to replace him as commander of the carrier strike force while Halsey was in the hospital; Spruance’s careful planning and communication to his staff and subordinate commanders; and finish with the clear understanding by every officer and sailor of the importance of the mission and a clear understanding of their individual role in the mission.

The men of the torpedo bombers didn’t press their attack (and die in great numbers) because they were (un)lucky, they pressed their attack because they understood what needed to be done and what would happen if they failed. When the wing commanders pressed their search for the carriers even as they approached the limits of their range due to fuel, they understood their mission and the goals, and the cost of not succeeding. There are, in fact, hundreds of points throughout the battle that individuals pressed ahead and ‘luckily’ succeeded.

But luck had nothing to do with it. The success rested with a clear understanding of the mission of the task force, beginning with the overall commander – Admiral Nimitz – and working all the way down to the individual sailors and Marines and soldiers on the ships and on the islands.

Success also depended upon the intellect of those involved: whether the intellect of Joe Rochefort and Ed Layton who figured out the Japanese plan, or of Spruance and his (and Halsey’s) staff that developed a working plan to find and attack the Japanese fleet, and to the intellect of the aircrew that developed and executed the actual attacks.

US success also rested on the failure of the Japanese plan, which violated basic principals (splitting forces) and was short on the basics of reconnaissance, sound intelligence and operational security, and was arguably too complex.

Success rested on the communication of the mission to the crews of these ships. Communication is more than talk; from Nimitz to Spruance to the squadron commanders to the average sailor there was a deep and thorough understanding of the importance of what was unfolding around them and the reality of their mission. They didn’t simply know what the mission was; the communication from the chain of command was enough to make them all believers: they heard, they understood, they believed and they committed to it.

Success depended on moral courage: Spruance understood the potential risks and weighed them against the goals and pressed on, despite some great costs, including the loss of an aircraft carrier, a destroyer, 132 aircraft and 307 men. When the mission was successfully executed he withdrew, without risking his forces and without grabbing for greater glory.

And finally, success depended on decision-making, again from the admirals down to the pilots and aircrew, who continued to make hard decisions, based on their understanding of the mission and the need to accept risk.

This is not to say that the Japanese leadership – Admiral Yamamoto and Admiral Nagumo – were not superb leaders; they were. But they were ‘out-led’ by Nimitz and Spruance.

The point here is that it was the fundamentals of leadership: clarity of vision, intellect, communication, moral courage, decision-making; evident in Nimitz and his key officers, that was the real reason for the success at Midway. It is the real reason for success in any endeavor – military, political, public or private.

Again, luck had nothing to do with it. It never does.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Leadership and Muddling Through: Why Leadership Always Counts

It is always comforting to think that we shall, somehow, muddle through, as if we are a bunch of children and before we actually set the house on fire, mom or dad will come in and set things right. It is a pleasant thought. It is also dangerous. With the exception of the occasional cases of Divine Intervention, which remain difficult to document, mankind has never ‘muddled through.’ Either someone comes along with a plan to ‘get us out of this mess’ that works, or the situation deteriorates and there is catastrophe.
People, individuals, determined to survive, dragged their nation or their people through the crisis. It has been a close run thing from time to time. And sometimes they fail and civilizations crumble. Those who stood and watched King Priam refuse to deal with the Greeks, and then fled as Troy burned, didn’t feel like they were ‘muddling through.’ Shortly before the Vandals sacked Rome there were those who stood and said it would be fine; for many it wasn’t. When the Mongols swept into China, then Persia and then India, those civilizations, and the many city states, didn’t muddle through – many of them ceased to exist.
When the Founding Fathers declared Independence it was not a forgone conclusion that the United States would succeed. It was not a case of simply muddling through. When slavery tore this country apart we didn’t muddle through. When this nation entered World War I and World War II it did not muddle through. Though it is somehow consoling to think that ‘it will work out,’ the fact is that, in many cases in history it has not worked out, not for those involved.
The fact is that the one item in common with the examples above, and thousands of others, is that it has been the decisions of individuals who have driven the events. The Greeks didn’t simply ‘show up’ in front of Troy, they were led by just a few men, who convinced the leaders of dozens of city-states to fight Troy. Nor did Troy simply and passively suffer the consequences. Negotiations and offers were refused. In the end, Priam of Troy proved to be a leader who destroyed his people.
When the Mongols swept off the steppes it wasn’t a natural event, determined by social and demographic pressures, it was the result of an electrifying figure who was able to unite and lead one of the most disparate groups in history. And despite being often outnumbered and for many years poorer than those they fought, Genghis Khan’s leadership was able to trump any and all of those that he faced.
The same is true in any field: it can be argued that someone was going to develop the light bulb. That is certainly true if the someone is Thomas Edison. The Wright Brothers made the first heavier than air powered flight. Certainly their success benefited from the work of others, but that list of others is remarkable short. Lilienthal, Maxim, and perhaps two dozen others, over a course of several centuries, had made serious effort to solve the problem of powered flight. It was the work of these individuals, not some tide of history, that resulted in flight.
Would the world have survived without Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Ray Kroc? Most likely. But it would be a different world, perhaps substantially different, and not necessarily better. In whatever place we find ourselves, we can choose to ‘go with the flow,’ assuming that the world around us will somehow muddle through, but we are really going with someone else’s flow. As I said, Genghis Khan’s army didn’t just show up, it was led. The cities that failed to organize and resist his army, and were thereby consumed, failed not because of some ‘tide of history,’ theirs was a failure of leadership. Their inability to produce a leader who could unite enough cities to resist the Khan’s army resulted in the death of their cities and their cultures. They didn’t ‘muddle through.’
It is convenient, and comforting, to assume away both the worst the world can throw at us and to rationalize our own inaction. But, it isn’t correct. We survive and thrive, or we fail and starve, on our own initiatives. Mankind will not be here in 100 years if we ‘let it muddle through.’ Certainly, western civilization will not be here if we simply hope it will muddle through. Hope is not a plan. Individuals have to decide to act, stand up and lead, whether as national figures or in their own little corner of the world. Leadership is always a precious commodity, particularly on the side of right.
It has been pointed out before that of the twelve corporations that made up the original Dow Jones Industrials in 1896, only one remains. In fact, every industry is littered with the ‘corpses’ of once great companies. The aviation industry is a great example: Republic Aircraft? Vought? McDonnell-Douglas? All once great, all now gone. They didn’t collapse nor were they bought up because of some cosmic force of history. They failed because their leadership failed to act in time, they failed to adapt, they made poor decisions. They failed because their leadership failed.
Every day, every organization – every company, every corporation, every city, every state, every nation, every civilization – has a choice: do we move forward, do we defeat the problems in our path, do we conquer our foes, or do we sit here and hope to muddle through? That choice is made by the individuals in the lead and by the people they motivate to move forward with them. Or not. If they move forward they may still fail. But if they choose to not move forward they are already dieing.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Leadership, Not Change, Part 2

11 February 2008
By Peter A. O’Brien

We seek a leader. In seeking a leader it is a good idea to follow the injunction offered by Hippocrates: first do no wrong. As we cull through leaders, whether to run the VFW Hall, our city or town, our business, or our nation, it is always a good idea that we narrow our pool to those who won’t make egregious mistakes. In practical terms, that first sorting is, or should be, those who already have some lesser management and leadership experience.
While this is intended to be more a discussion of leadership then an opportunity to climb onto a political soapbox, the current primary ‘wrestling match’ provides fertile ground for analysis of leadership capabilities.
This is not to say that there is no leadership experience among the candidates for President. But, perhaps there is less than the ads suggest.

Senator Clinton has been in Washington since 1993 – 15 years. She has been in politics since college, yet the only public office she has held has been her Senate seat, a position that, by definition, entails no real leadership. Credit for legislative successes are often said to be based on senator or congressman’s ability to compromise. There is often value in that ability, but great leaders don’t compromise on issues of import. Further, legislators never have to implement their legislation. The executive branch is left trying to make something concrete out of the words. The fact is that Senator Clinton has never had a management or executive position, and has never had to implement any decision. She has no leadership experience. The only leadership she can claim is that she has wrestled with various issues either on the floor or in committee. It is difficult to see how that qualifies anyone to be President.
More to the point, Senator Clinton does not have a broad vision for America, except a few catch all phrases that can be applied to nearly any candidate: improve America’s image abroad, bring more jobs to America, etc. Only in her call for universal health care is she clear and definitive. But, that would hardly qualify as a great, motivating goal.
Senator Obama likewise has a short ‘leadership’ resume. Like Senator Clinton he is a lawyer. Lawyers have a mixed legacy in leadership positions: most have been very poor; Lincoln is a glaring exception to the rule (as he is a glaring exception to many rules; but we aren’t likely to find another Lincoln any time soon). The very thing that makes for a good lawyer normally makes for a poor leader: the ability to see both sides of an argument, the ability to ‘split hairs’ for your client; this is not meant to be pejorative – these are necessary, even vital (if sometimes irritating) skills in a civilized society. Further, good lawyers are ‘action officers,’ they don’t provide guidance and delegate, they lead the actual work – they act. In a very real sense, it is the opposite of leading. Senator Obama also has extensive legislative experience: mostly in Illinois and now for a bit more than a year, in Washington. Nevertheless, that is what he has: legislative experience. Again, to suggest that somehow this represents leadership experience is silly.
Now, is this to discount anyone who has not had experience? No. Great leaders have sprung up with little or no earlier or lesser experience, but they are few and far between. Some will point to President Kennedy, but I will suggest below that they are incorrect.
Senator Obama is a great speaker and communicator, and, over time his vision for America may become more concrete. But, experience in leadership positions provides the seasoning that allows a leader to craft a vision that is achievable. Take away that experience and you have leaders with vague or impossible visions.
As for the other Democrats, Governor Richardson and Dennis Kucinich were the only Democratic Candidates with real leadership experience, the Governor as obviously the governor of New Mexico as well as the Secretary of Energy and Emissary from the President to any number of key leaders around the world. In fact, I would submit that Governor Richardson has a remarkable resume of leadership, clearly the best among the Democrat’s field this year. Congressman Kucinich as both the Mayor of Cleveland and as the President of a marketing firm likewise had an exemplary executive resume. You may like or dislike their particular political positions, but this does represent real leadership.
Of the four major Republican candidates (now down to just two) there is, in fact a wide range of experience.
Governor Huckabee was, of course, the governor of Arkansas, which worked well for the last President. He performed well in that role and can rightly point to that experience, as other governors have (President Clinton was an excellent governor of Arkansas and did have a great executive resume heading into the 1992 elections). Governors may not always make great Presidents, but governors have enough experience to prevent them from making grave mistakes.
Senator McCain also has a sound executive resume. This returns us to an issue mentioned above: did President Kennedy have an executive resume worthy of consideration? I believe he did. Experience under truly extreme conditions, whether they are fairly brief or extended, and being forced to make leadership decisions under that stress, must be considered as the best possible preparation for senior executive positions. LTJG Kennedy faced those kinds of stresses. So did LT McCain. The ability to make proper decisions under that type of stress speaks volumes as to an individual’s readiness to perform in a leadership role.
Senator McCain was also the commanding officer of an A-7 squadron in the Navy and performed superbly in that position. Admittedly, this will look a bit limited to some in as much as it was 30 years ago. However, voters in the US have always weighed military experience much higher in value than might seem proportionate to an outside observer. My guess is that the average voter appreciates that there are some experiences that are simply and indelibly printed on you and one of those is serving in the military, particularly in wartime. That Senator McCain served so well in wartime, his experience carries more weight than it otherwise might. He has served well in the Congress since 1982, but his real leadership experience comes from his service while in uniform.
Governor Romney, now out of the race, also has an extensive leadership resume as governor of Massachusetts, president of a successful corporation and director of the Salt Lake Olympics. As with Governor Richardson on the Democrat’s side, Governor Romney has the best executive resume of the Republican candidates, and arguably the best of any of the candidates.
Mayor Giuliani, also out of the race, likewise has a superb executive resume, and anyone who has been through New York more than once over the past 20 years, and can compare before and after Rudy, will have a real appreciation for his accomplishments. His ability to manage a huge problem and turn that city around is the best possible resume he could ever have. His performance after September 11th is remarkable and we can all thank God that Giuliani was there. And I remain a Red Sox fan.
Congressman Ron Paul has performed well and honorably in Congress, but, as with Senators Clinton and Obama, has no executive experience to speak of. He has the additional fact of being a physician to contend with. Physicians, like lawyers, are very much ‘action’ oriented, though they have some experience in delegation and in acting under extreme pressure.

Where does all this lead us? What is missing from most of these figures?
The answer is the sine qua non of real leadership: a vision. Leadership, real leadership, requires that the leader have a clear goal in mind, that is, a vision of the future, and enough intellect and imagination to make that vision into something concrete enough that people can ‘buy into it.’
With the exception of one candidate – Senator McCain - who keeps calling for victory, which is a concrete, definable and moving vision, the candidates have studiously avoided clearly stating what their goals are, what they want the US to look like in 5, 10 or 20 years, and what specifically they will do to make that happen. That’s not leadership.
Certainly, voters have voted for short term benefits in the past, and may well do so again (vote for a candidate who promises an entitlement program, for example), but that is neither ‘great’ nor visionary. The United States has, over the past 232 years moved from one great vision to another. We are now seemingly floundering without one. An amorphously defined ‘healthy economy’ does not suffice. Americans want a goal worthy of our heritage. The only goal, the only vision being offered right now that is both worthy of America and concrete is victory.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Leadership, Not Change, Part 1

February 9, 2008

The talk during this political sports season is all about change.
I believe I understand the average citizens’ attraction to the broad concept: there is a real desire to see our government respond more to the nation as a whole and less to the whirling confusion that sometimes seems to exist inside the beltway. Over the last 15 years, while there has been a good deal of change, most especially the Newt Gingrich led effort to control government spending, and of course the War on Terror, in many respects there has been little change in Washington, particularly in the ‘feel’ of Washington.
Mark Steyn, in a recent article in National Review (January 28th, 2008) made an excellent point – as he often does – that few people actually want change. Rather, what they often want is a change from all the backbiting and carping. He also makes the key point, and those who know me will recognize that I have made similar points, that one of the reasons President Bush has become so unpopular is that he has made choices, that he has led. And by definition, leading means that some things won’t be chosen and some people won’t be pleased and there will be frustration and anger, etc. Real change requires tough choices and that will make a lot of people unhappy.
It is worth noting that the average citizen sees official Washington as a remote, uncaring place; inhabited by remote, uncaring people. In many respects it is. Remember that despite the low ‘performance rating’ of President Bush, Congress has a rating only 2/3rds that of Bush. More to the point, the rating has been in the same range for much of the last 15 years. And, with the exception of the uniformed services, few believe that the multitude of government agencies and departments are either the height of efficiency and effectiveness, or that they are easy to get along with.
So, to the extent that a candidate wishes to change that, it is fair to say that the bulk of the citizens agree with him. But, frankly, that is fairly insignificant. This amounts to simply asking for something you already purchased. Which leads back to the central issue: What do we mean when we say ‘change’? And is that what we need?
It is important to issue a warning: let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Few people living in this great country want to eliminate, or even alter in any serious way, the Constitution. We can all talk about adding this or that amendment, or perhaps altering or rescinding an amendment, and the subject of taxation often raises this issue. But, no sane citizen wants change that harms the Constitution itself or even substantially alters it. So, in that sense, we don’t want change. We have a good (great) thing, we know it, and we want to keep it. From ‘far right’ conservative to ‘far left’ liberal, there are few people in this country who want that kind of change. We may argue like any good family, but do in fact respect and cherish the Constitution.
So, What do we want?
The answer is fairly simple: Leadership.
There is a world of difference between ‘change’ and ‘leadership,’ and the key is that change, in a practical, everyday sense is used to hide lack of progress. New bosses, be they corporate or elected officials, take charge and reorganize. New jargon is used, ‘task forces’ are created, and new departments are stood up. But, underneath the confusion and new stationery, little that is substantive takes place. And so, two, four, or even eight years later the same things grind on. And the reason for that is lack of real leadership.
Real leadership is NOT about being in charge, it is about a goal. Leaders define a real goal and point out the way to get to that goal. This is where the challenge starts: If the goal is not grand enough it is simply too easy for the average citizen, who is rightly consumed by the day-to-day task of work and providing for their family, to loose sight of it. Even if it is grand in scope, the average citizen has to be motivated to pursue goal. And that requires constant effort by the Leader. The leader has to communicate the goal and the importance of the goal. Great leaders understand that and as a result are constantly engaging the audience – any audience – with their vision, their goal; they take every opportunity to stay on message (Churchill, Reagan, Pope John Paul II are all superb examples of great leaders who always kept ‘on message.’)
What is it that makes a goal ‘great’ and worthy of the commitment of the bulk of the populace? In a recent forum on strategy a senior figure in the DOD commented that, in the end, everything is economics. He couldn’t be more wrong. As Maslow pointed out, survival, and providing for yourself and then your family can only motivate a person to a certain level of effort. It is only at the top of his hierarchy that we see that which motivates people to do great things. Maslow called it self-actualization, and it was there that people reached their full potential, people who believed that what they were doing was bigger then themselves, that they were making a better world.
Great goals reflect that: to rid the world of fascism, to make the world safe for democracy, to end the soviet Union and free eastern Europe, to send a man to the moon; these are great goals that can stir the heart. Great leaders have great goals that stir the heart.
President Bush had a great goal, that is, one grand in scope and nature (whether you agreed with it or not). His goal was to bring democracy to the Middle East, to replace oppressive regimes with governments selected in free and fair elections, governments that respected the rule of law and provided for the individual liberties of their people. These are grand and noble goals. The American people supported this in 2002 and 2003 and 2004. During that period Bush talked of the effort frequently and the populace remained behind him, and he had a solid margin in his re-election in 2004. But, he failed to maintain the ‘drumbeat’ in his second term, a period which probably required an increased tempo, an increased communication plan, an increased ‘sales pitch’ simply because any plan can quickly become old.
In the case of the US, and the Presidential primaries, there are a host of economic, social and cultural goals, but none 'stir the heart.' These are not the issues that will provide the ‘fulcrum’ for a great leader. A national vision of a 40 MPG SUV doesn't stir the heart; 'putting a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth' does.
The fact is that most political candidates run as 'technicians,' - they will 'fix' the tax code or 'fix' DOD or make SS solvent. OK. These are all tasks that need to be addressed. But they will be quickly reduced to an argument of ‘how’ you fix them. When you really want to energize people, you have to seek to 'self-actualize' them, and that means something that is much bigger than their corner of the world. These issues aren’t. Hence, we are back to the moon race, or the Marine PFC who joins the Marines not for medical and dental coverage, but because he will get to be a super-hero.
Most politicians miss (or avoid) this: they seek to put everything on an economic level where they actually have some capability to satisfy the need. And, in the end, it leaves people frustrated. That is why there is often such an outpouring for candidates who are, or appear, different (Jesse Ventura, Barack Obama, John McCain). Whether they are different is more or less irrelevant as far as attracting voters.
Of course, the fact is that it is relevant as far as actually getting the nation headed in a given direction.
From 1776 to the 1880s we had a major vision (dream) -- conquer and settle the west. It was primarily self-sustaining, and with the exception of land grant and homestead issues, required little active effort by anyone in Washington. In 1860 we -- finally, thank God - added universal liberty. TR added 'global power' in 1902. These became accomplished facts in the latter half of the 20th century. We added on a series of technical 'Everests' -- Flight, space flight, the moon, etc., which can capture the imagination but not the entire nation's efforts. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union we have had little to excite us as a nation. September 11th certainly did, but has since faded.
The result is an arguing over issues, while what everyone really wants is a real goal or two. That isn’t leading: leading gets out in front, identifies a goal, and points out a new direction. This makes some issues irrelevant and also generates new problems, which you accept and plow on, because the real goal is worth it to you. But that requires a leader with real, meaningful goals.