This is Electoral College week.
As I write these words, we still doesn’t know who won the presidential election. We do, however, know who lost.
Both Bush and Gore ought to feel embarrassed over the virtually perfect lack of leadership they’ve each shown since the election. Maybe not as embarrassed as John Ashcroft of Missouri, who lost to a dead guy (although to be fair, how do you say anything negative about an opponent who just died under tragic circumstances?) but embarrassed nonetheless. They’ve forgotten one of the most basic leadership rules there is: The relationship outlives the transaction. Their scorched-earth post-election strategies will make it much harder for either to succeed once taking office.
Bush and Gore have already blown it. They’ve achieved the extraordinary — they’ve made Bill Clinton seem like a man of character. But how about the leadership team one or the other will install?
They’ll also have challenges — the same challenges you or I would face when hired to take over an existing department. Fortunately for them, we’ve been talking about that exact problem in this column. You’ll recall last week we started with the first rule for taking over a department, which is: Fermez la bouche. Take time to size up the situation, figure out who you can trust and under what circumstances, what needs to be changed and what needs to not change, and so on. Every member of our new president’s leadership team would do well to remember this rule, because it will be hard for them to have all the answers when they don’t even know the questions.
If Dubyah is the winner, his team faces the harder challenge. Throughout his campaign, Dubyah slammed federal employees as “the bureaucrats in Washington” who aren’t to be trusted. Now they report to his leadership team.
This situation is common in the business world as well. Many managers find it convenient to foster competition with and distrust of other departments as a team-building technique. When promoted or transferred to a new role in which the departments they’d disparaged now report to them, their chickens come home to roost — the natural tendency to give a new leader a honeymoon period is replaced by a sullen do-the-minimum mentality. “You don’t trust me, why should I trust you?” is the natural reaction of employees who have been on the receiving end of us-vs-them politics.
If you’ve made this mistake, how should you recover? My opinion: Don’t even discuss it. Your focus needs to be on how you and the team are going to work together, not on what’s gone before. Even if directly confronted, say, “What’s important is that we’re on the same team now, so let’s talk about how we’re going to succeed together from this point forward.”
Figure it this way — nothing you could say now can undo what you said then. It’s how you act from this point forward that will determine your ability to lead your new team.