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02.18.09

How Not to Succeed in Business

The new administration just broke three cardinal rules of leadership.

It used to be that you heard the lament, "If only government could be more like business…."

Those days are over—and how.

But if last week in Washington is any indication, government doesn't yet have a lock on the kind of effective leadership that characterizes business at its best. Consider just a few key events: The Treasury Department bemoaned the complexity of the problem it was supposed to be solving. The vice president announced that every government plan has a 30% chance of failure. And the president tried to thread the needle between lambasting the past, like a candidate on the campaign trail, and heralding the future, like an elected leader with a vision.

Politics as usual? Absolutely.

But an example of how to build confidence and motivate people? Not exactly. In fact, the behavior in Washington last week could be organized into three lessons of how not to succeed in business.

• First, business leaders gain nothing by showing uncertainty and indecision.

Look, every leader grapples with a monster of a challenge at some point or another. And every leader in such a predicament feels unsure of direction and overwhelmed by complexity. That's only normal.

What's not normal—or what shouldn't be in business situations—is taking those feelings public. As a leader, your job is to steer and inspire. That's why when a difficulty arises, the first thing you need to do is to huddle with your trusted advisers and wrestle the challenge to the ground. Probe it. Debate it. Work it over for everything it's worth, and when you've gone as far as you can with the available information, formulate the best plan to move the business forward.

Then—and only then—should you speak out. Then and only then will you have the ability to communicate as a leader must, with the message: "Here's what we're going to do and why. Here's what's in it for you, and here's what we're going to look like when we get to the other side."

Such an approach isn't hiding anything, by the way. Your people know perfectly well how complicated the situation is; they don't need or want you to tell them. They need and want you to do your job, by finding the solution, explaining it, and energizing everyone to execute it successfully.

• Second, business leaders undermine success by talking about the risk of failure.

There was a stunning moment in Katie Couric's interview last week with Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger III, the pilot who landed Flight 1549 in the Hudson River. Asked if he was afraid at any point of "not making it," Sullenberger simply replied: "No, I knew I could do it."

Obviously, with all his years of experience, Sullenberger knew the enormous risk of a water landing. And yet he showed the best kind of leadership by putting himself in a can-do mindset. Business leaders also know that any strategy they adopt holds the risk of failure. But why go there? You're only practicing "CYA management" by harping on the chances things won't work out. Equivocating enervates everyone. Your team won't give its all if it senses you're prepared to say, "Well, I told you it might not work out." They know you can't win unless the leader believes you can.

• Finally, business leaders cannot indulge bureaucratic data dumpers.

Part of a leader's job, of course, is to act as a sounding board for direct reports. But if you want to build leadership in your ranks, make sure your managers don't bring you stacks of PowerPoint slides describing their problems in bone-crushing detail. Demand that they sort through the data with their team and deliver a decision with their rationale for it in unambiguous terms.

The reason is simple. If you've got a manager working for you who is paralyzed by information, options, and obstacles, you can be sure his people are confused and demoralized. And the only way to break that cycle is by not tolerating leaders who obfuscate with data to avoid taking action.

Our purpose is not to haul out the old "if only government were more like business" line. Rather, our message is for leaders who, with the new business-is-out mentality, might be thinking about taking their cues from government. Given recent events, we can only advise: Vote no.

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