Sunday, February 20, 2011

President Washington

George Washington, Father of Our Country, is often recognized as being central to our winning our independence, and his role as the first president – and first precedence setter – is also recognized – at least by historians. But, in large part he has fallen into a limbo of ancient symbol, but not a man who is respected as essential figure of our nation's finding, and arguably, as the single irreplaceable man of the last three centuries. And there is no place where this forgotten role is more pronounced then in his role as the President of the Constitutional Convention.

The fact is that leadership – that is, those positions where an individual has real authority over others – is often written about. But in most cases those who right about it have had little or no first-hand experience with actual leadership, that is they have rarely had authority over other, they have rarely held power. This lack of a frame of reference has led to there being little in the way of leadership discussions in which the debilitating nature of power is discussed, or to any discussion which reflects the real difficulties faced by those who have held power and managed to – somehow – behave in a truly superior, exemplary manner, one which can be used as a precedent for future generations, nor finally the very real difficulty of leading exceptional people, particularly when the direction chosen is truly uncharted territory.

It is in this final situation that our young nation found itself following our victory in Revolutionary War. We had our independence, but the Articles of Confederation left us with little in the way of an effective government and the need to form a new government was recognized by the leaders of the day. Central to the very idea that a new government could be formed was the notion that George Washington would be available in some way to lend his support to that new government. And Washington wrote and spoke of the need for a strong executive, one that had been avoided in the Articles of Confederation. In fact, it is fair to say that the Constitutional Convention that met in Philadelphia would probably not have met at all if the participants did not include Washington. And while one might have eventually met, it would have been far different in fact.

What exactly transpired at the convention on a day-to-day basis has never been known, as the members kept private most specific word-for-word, day-to-day discussions – intentionally. Madison provided daily notes on the proceedings, and many of the members provided summations after the fact, and these provide a great deal of insight into the vigorous debates by the members. What is of particular note is that Washington's words were only noted once, in reference to representation in Congress and how to assign Congressman by census – an important point but not earth shattering.

But what is missed by most historians is what is not there: the convention did not come apart at the seams. This seems, at this date more than 220 years later, as a foregone conclusion. These were some of the greatest men who ever lived, and the names are a list of some of the truly most exceptional political thinkers – and leaders – of any era: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton – the list goes on.

But I look at the list of figures from a different perspective. Having been in the position of leading groups of very bright and very talented people (not to imply that anyone has ever had any other group as bright and as talented as those at the Constitutional Convention), particularly when we had to institute real change – where success would be difficult to define but failure would be easily identified, I submit that that can be as difficult a leadership task as one can imagine.

All of the men at the Constitutional Convention were brilliant, opinionated, strong-willed, and dynamic figures. All had in one way or another demonstrated that they could lead. All had very real concerns about where the young nation was headed and very real concerns about the laws, the foundation, on which it was to be built. All were aware that they were charting a course into 'seas' that had, in the previous 2500 years failed to produce any nation that had lasted more than a few generations. We have heard that leading is sometimes like 'herding cats.' But Washington was not herding cats. He was, if anything herding a room full of tigers.

And from this came the single most remarkable political document ever drafted, the model for virtually every constitution drafted since, and the foundation of the greatest nation in history.

I cannot but wonder what would have happened if George Washington had not been sitting with them, listening, providing the firm hand and fatherly guidance, the stern face and, rarely, the sharp word in private, that would have been absolutely essential to bring these brilliant men together. Yet there is in that behavior the very thing that would have prevented any of these men from writing about it. There own dignity, and Washington's, and their respect for Washington, would have forbidden any recognition of it. It was enough for them all to simply remember that Washington had been there, that in the end they had performed well and received his approval.

Washington performed in three truly remarkable leadership rolls: as the General who brought victory over the British, as the President of the Constitutional Convention, and as the first – and most important – President of this nation. The first and third are, at least, remembered in passing, though we forget just how 'close run a thing' both the war and the first few decades really were. But we have all but forgotten his role as the man who presided over the Constitutional Convention, an act of leadership that I submit rivals the other two.

In our minds' eye we might see them, brilliant, pointed debate moving around the room, sometimes rancorous, sometimes threatening to stall on this or that point, whether from legal interpretation or regional predilection, but always moving forward, producing a document that would not only be approved by the separate states, but would also produce a nation that has survived longer then any other true democracy in history, and has proven that government of, by and for the people is possible. And at the head table sits Washington, the silent conductor of the convention.

February 22nd is the 279th anniversary of George Washington.  Happy Birthday Mr. President.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Fundamentals - Goals and Vision Part 2

In the previous article I said that every major company today faces failure of their vision in the long run. To understand the reason for that, let’s look at the start of a vision:

One of the great curiosities about vision is that, with very few exceptions, the great visions are almost always the “children” of older men. I have mentioned a few exceptions – Microsoft, Apple, Ford – but most of the great visions are from people in their 50’s.

Why? Because a vision must have substance before it can be accepted by anyone other than its creator. Because it takes time to integrate the various issues and possibilities until they come together and offer a new reality. What you will often find is that many of these visions are really the “children” of several parents. Thus, while the Wright Brothers saw the way to make powered, heavier than air flight, a host of people had spoken of the idea for, literally, centuries, and in their own time quite a few inventors, to include Cayley, Lilienthal, Langley, Chanute, and Maxim had pursued a host of engineering solutions to the problem. The Wright’s had the engineering vision to produce the solution, but, arguably, the vision of flight existed well before them and they adopted that great vision as theirs. The vision of flight had arguably been ‘maturing’ for thousands of years. (The legend of Daedalus and Icarus is 2500 years old.) In the case of McDonalds, how old was Ray Kroc when he bought the hamburger stand in 1961? -- 52 (Died in 1984 at 82)

And take a look at their competitor of the early 1960’s: Howard Johnson’s: Howard Johnson's had been started in 1925 in Massachusetts by Howard Johnson, and by the mid-1960s its sales exceeded Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald's combined. There would eventually be more than 1,000 Howard Johnson restaurants and 500 motor lodges. But, after Johnson's death in 1972, the company lost its raison d'etre. The restaurants became obsolete; the food quality deteriorated.

Meanwhile, Ray Kroc's obsession on Quality, Service, Cleanliness and Value — the fixed criteria of control of McDonald's--was gathering momentum. Kroc identified a real trend in the US, a nation where people wanted to eat out, not at home. He also saw an opportunity for change away from old restaurants and he created that new way to eat – the fast food restaurant where you ate with your hands, with inexpensive food, served quickly by friendly people.

Kroc gave people what he ‘knew’ they really wanted. He said, "The definition of salesmanship is the gentle art of letting the customer have it your way." He was McDonald’s real lead salesman and Public Relations officer, and was the chairman from 1968 until 1984.

Another Ray Kroc quote is instructive: "I was 52 years old. I had diabetes and incipient arthritis. I had lost my gall bladder and most of my thyroid gland in earlier campaigns, but I was convinced that the best was ahead of me." Obviously, as he paid $2.7 million to the McDonalds Brothers in 1961. Two years later he opened his 500th restaurant.

Now, Ray Kroc died in 1984, and while the company is still doing well in a number of countries, McDonald's being found in over 100 countries, arguably it has gone through a number of struggles. Part of that reason, I would suggest, is just what happened with Howard Johnson’s – the guy with the real vision is no longer there to keep the vision alive, to tweak it, to refresh it, to keep it fresh and real. They have had good managers and the company has a great deal of assets and an excellent market position. But, will it survive without a real vision? That will be dependent on the development and refinement of a new vision, one with real substance. (I would, by the way, recommend you read about Ray Kroc, because he was a fascinating guy who did address many of the issues we face today in business leadership or any leadership. I suggest you read an article about Kroc by the chef Jacques Pepin for Time Magazine, it’s a good place to start.)

To make that point again, take a look at how many aircraft production and aircraft engine production companies existed in the 1930’s and 1940’s. How many remain today? These were huge firms, but they lost their way when leadership changed.

There are a few exceptions to this, but they are remarkable mostly because there are so few. We all know that interesting statistic that there is only one company – GE – that has been on the DJIA since the average began. All those other ‘great companies’ have folded or been absorbed, etc.

While it is not my point to get into lectures on any specific corporation, take a look at the incredible history of Boeing, how the leadership was a very narrow group of folks up until the mid-1980’s, a vision passed from one long-time believer to another; and how they have had some hard times as they have adjusted their vision since the early 1990’s. Boeing recently regained its vision as a great maker of aircraft, and is doing very well. Their survival for the next 20 years or so seems certain.

A final point about visions: they must be narrowly focused. Ronald Reagan may have seen a future world without communism, with everyone free and living in some type of western style democracy, with a great deal of private enterprise, and reduced trade barriers and low taxes, etc., etc. But, what he talked about was freedom. Henry Ford talked about cars. Ford may have bought iron mines and steel smelters, but the point was cars. Microsoft writes software. Microsoft doesn’t compete with Intel and try to make ships, Intel doesn’t write software, Dell doesn’t make either software or chips. The vision is necked down because you can manage a narrow vision. If your company is trying to do 5 things at once, you will, almost to a certainty, do most of them poorly. Your core will probably continue to perform well, but the rest will not.

In conclusion, focus on your vision. Work on it, massage it, and remember to let it mature, like wine. Also, don’t be afraid to ‘steal’ your vision. Perhaps the greatest icon of leadership in the ancient world – Alexander the Great – ‘stole’ his vision of a world empire based with leadership based on merit from his tutor. That his tutor happened to Aristotle and encouraged him in this ‘theft’ was beneficial. For those of us who can’t have the benefit of one of the perhaps ten great minds of all time as a tutor and mentor, we can get around that by reading and listening; the ideas are out there already. “All” you need to do is find the right idea, the right goal and redirect it.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Fundamentals - Goals and Vision Part 1

We have mentioned that the goal is the first and most important element of all leadership. The goal, which is really a restatement of the vision of the leader into a specific aim point, is central, and all else flows from the goal. And the goal, the specific ‘aim-point,’ is the child of the leader’s vision. The two – the vision and the goal – must be viewed as opposite sides of the same thing. Remember, we are not talking about insipid ‘vision’ statements that use obscure and high-sounding but meaningless terms that confuse the members of the organization and leave to everyone wondering what’s next. The vision is just that, the image of the organization – in the future - that the leader has created. The goal (or goals) is (are) a specific mark that the leader has developed that represents a concrete element of his vision.

All real leaders have a vision. The vision can be fairly simple, but it has to be significant, it must point to a new reality. This is the problem with the so-called mission and vision statements that everyone has drawn up: they are often either not a vision of a new reality, or they simply aren’t significant. Don’t misunderstand me: this isn’t easy.

What is Vision?

So, what do we mean when we call for vision? Simply, it is when someone “sees” a future, a real picture – inside his head – of how the world, or, at least his corner of it, should look. Now, we all have images in our heads of how we would like things to look, we see ourselves on a large sailboat or in a castle in the south of France, even in the White House. But, a real vision isn’t about us, it’s about a new world around us. It’s about a better way of living, whether it’s a new way for people to move around – think of Henry Ford and the idea that everyone is going to own automobiles, or the guys at both Apple and Microsoft and the idea that everyone will have a computer. They “see” a new reality, and then they go about creating it.

Now, what is interesting is that these visions are usually marked by one of two boundaries: either bounded in scope or in scale. By that I mean that, whether it was the automobile or the personal computer, or any other specific vision, the leader, the visionary, didn’t try to control the vision. Ford didn’t try to see, and hence form, the vision much beyond the idea that everyone owns a car. He didn’t attempt to formulate or influence the oil industry or the gasoline distribution infrastructure, he didn’t try to create an interstate freeway system, he didn’t try to form any of the secondary industries that were the offspring of the automobile (motels, fast-food restaurants, the suburbs, etc., etc.), and arguably his vision was adjusted when GM became the first car company to offer financing, thus ensuring a continuous flow of money and assuring long term flows of money. Certainly, as those industries developed he was aware, took note of and adjusted his vision. In a similar way, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and all those guys, did not try to drive a vision that included E-Bay or the internet or real estate on line or medical records being passed from hospital to hospital by computer and thus saving lives, or all of the ‘dot Coms.’ They have both adjusted their product lines as these various industries have developed, but they focused on their own specific vision, and let the rest of the new reality develop around them.

Which leads to the first rule of visions: they must be bounded by scope. Even in politics, the vision must have boundaries. President Reagan wanted to end communism, he also wanted to recast the economic dialogue in terms of supply side economics, and while the two are linked in many ways, he moved forward on both, but kept each separate. Trying to manage both as an integrated whole would not only have raised the level of complexity beyond all understanding, it would have placed both at risk.

The second rule of vision is that you must be bound by scale, or complexity. Now, what I mean by that is complexity down, not up. Don’t get too mired in detail. Vision requires that you have a long-term picture, and a faith, a confidence that smaller obstacles will be addressed in time, dealt with and passed. The small obstacles must be dealt with, the vision can be adjusted along the margins, but don’t let the problems of today change the essence of that vision.

But, let me repeat, the vision is bound down, not up. Not only will getting mired in the details kill the vision, but making the vision too small, too simple will make the vision unsustainable. To fly, to make airplanes that can carry people around the planet, or a host of other things, these are issues that can stir a heart. And, these become visions that people can easily adopt as their own and support. It is the lesser issues which, in the end, are sometimes the most difficult to promote, and which can require the most out of the leader. But, if the Wright Brothers tried to resolve the issue of eminent domain and road networks to support airports, as part of their quest for flight, they’d never have made it out of Ohio.

Let me give you a few more examples: Leading a platoon of riflemen into a fire-fight, at least in a democracy, can be, in a very real sense, easy. That is because we all know that the reason we are fighting is not to satisfy the whim of a dictator. The reason that a young Marine picks up his weapon and charges into the building full of bad-guys is that he truly believes that he is defending freedom and making the world safer for those he loves, as well as fighting for his buddies. If you want to talk about self-actualization, there it is. In fact, the average Marine rifleman joined the Marines for that very reason, irrespective of what recruiters or senior officers might say to him about health-care benefits or retirement or whatever. That young Marine is functioning at the very top end of Maslow’s hierarchy. As a result, he often needs little in the way of leadership, once he’s been trained and pointed in the right direction. And that is also why a young Marine or Soldier, after he gets out of the Marines or Army, always looks back on his time in the service with such a sense of longing: because he reached something that every member of mankind seeks his entire life—self-actualization. He peaked and he knows it, at least sub-consciously. He was working to achieve something great, something truly beyond himself. Wow! He is, in the strictest of senses, a lucky man.

Another example is a fighter pilot. He not only is defending freedom, he gets to do it while being revered as one of the most romantic figures of modern time, and he does it while getting to strap-on a $50 million dollar airplane and race around the sky. Again, Wow!

On the other hand, how do we motivate someone to help you make a better hamburger? Or, more difficult still, not to make a better hamburger - it’s not a gourmet restaurant - but how about making a McDonald’s cheeseburger? I suggest that the motivational issue there is as difficult as it gets.

Let’s take a look at that problem: by way of example, McDonalds is a great organization, and I love their food. As one gourmet chef recently said, there are some things he doesn’t try to do because he feels they have already been perfected, and pointed at McDonalds French Fries as an example of something that is about as good as it gets. I agree.

But, look at what McDonalds says about themselves: they want to be the best quick service restaurants in the world and the best employer in any community in which they operate. Those are OK visions, But… The fact is that, for the average worker, that is pretty difficult to get fired up about. One of them isn’t even about you, you’re not the employer, you’re the employee. And, as for being the best quick service restaurant, does that really motivate? So, I would suggest that, for starters, the folks like McDonalds, particularly now that they are well into a period of sustainment, sustaining market share, increasing here and there, but not being able to benefit emotionally from a period of explosive growth, are going to need to come up with a new vision if they are going to survive.

Let me repeat that: they need a new vision or they will – in the long run – fail. Not that they are alone in this regard; this is a problem faced by every major (and minor) company today – GE, Apple, AT&T, Exxon – you name it.