This year’s State of the Union address holds many lessons for all leaders. Here are three, and the actions I suggest for you.
- Know your Strengths and Weaknesses
- Know your Strategy
- Negotiate Dispassionately
Know your Strengths and Weaknesses
Peter Drucker said performance can only be built on strengths, and weaknesses need to be identified and worked around. The wise executive knows herself well enough to do these things.
Whether President Obama has this self-awareness is beside the point — you must have yours.
How can you get more aware of your strengths and weaknesses? Ask your spouse, ex-spouse, and closest friends — and make it clear you want the truth.
You can also listen (judiciously) to your opponents, if you have enough stature to have attracted any.
Your Opponents will Tell you the Truth
A useful tip from politics — and it’s true in the rest of life — is that your allies are reluctant to tell you your flaws to your face, while your opponents are happy to recite them. Unfortunately your opponents may also cast your strengths as weaknesses, so listen with careful ears.
Focus on Strengths
The effective executive is focused on her own strengths — and those of her team. I’m strong at strategy generation, and helping executives self-reflect and achieve insights and breakthroughs — so it behooves me to focus my energies there.
The President is good at rallying his base, at managing the media, and at wrong-footing Republicans, among other things. He appropriately focuses on those activities. What are your strengths? Are you spending the majority of your time on those tasks?
When you find yourself struggling with some task, or you see the evidence of struggle among your team, you absolutely must reassign the work. I for years kept trying to be my own bookkeeper, causing late nights and stress each quarter. The President failed to backfill his weakness with hands-on management of complex projects — the implementation of the Affordable Care Act — causing great harm to the nation.
Where are you seeing signs of struggle? Create a system or reassign the work as necessary. Just be sure you are self-aware of your weakness, without bravado or shame.
Advisors for Blind Spots
Blind spots and weaknesses are different. When your blind spot occludes a weakness, you can get into huge trouble. My blind spot involves completing projects the final 5% — I prefer to get “mostly done” and move on to something exciting, shiny and new. The President was blind to the incompetent management of the ACA implementation — that’s why it went so badly, for so long without correction.
Regardless of whether you have a personal weakness in your blind spot or not, your best defense is an advisor. I’ve recruited someone who actually feels physically ill when any project is done less than 100% — and is happy to say it.
Recruit for Weaknesses and Blind Spots
Self awareness is just the first step — you then need to recruit. Any strength missing from your senior team must be found and wooed. Your major blind spots need to be guarded — by a member of your trusted senior team, or by an advisor selected for that exact role.
Know Your Strategy
Strategy is the art of focusing scarce resources on key initiatives, with keen awareness of the environment.
It’s unknowable whether President Obama is unable to work with Congress, or just unwilling. Whether you believe it’s the President’s fault for being divisive, or the House Republicans’ fault for being obstructionist, the cold reality is that this President and this Congress haven’t been able to cooperate very much, and that fact is unlikely to change.
The wise executive accepts what is, and focuses where action is possible. The President did that by stressing a course that involves unilateral Executive Branch action that doesn’t require the help of Congress.
What aspects of your environment are difficult, and are you beating your head against them — or working around them?
Finally, the effective executive knows how to negotiate for results.
Here’s my preferred approach:
- List your needs and desires, in priority order
- List your negotiation partner’s priorities
- Figure out which of your top priorities are least important to your negotiation partner
- Figure out which of your negotiation partner’s priorities are least important to you
- Create several tentative offers that give you what you most want, at the least cost to you — and that give your negotiation partner at least some of what they want, at reduced cost to them
Even staunch enemies can create win-win deals using this approach — some of the time.
For example, you may need work scheduling flexibility, and your workers may have prioritized health benefits. It’s entirely possible you might save enough money via greater flexibility that you could afford to offer improved benefits, and have money left over.
For President Obama, as for any other leader, you can accurately guess his priorities by seeing what he will and won’t negotiate over.
And when there is no negotiating, don’t. Here, the President is an acknowledged master.