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Obama: A leader for the ‘we’ generation

Leaders can learn a lot from President-elect Barack Obama about power that comes from the bottom up, not just from the top down.
/ Source: Business Week

The sweeping victory of Barack Obama ushers in a new era of leadership that will affect every aspect of American institutions and that sounds a death knell for the top-down, power-oriented leadership prevalent in the 20th century.

A new style of "bottom-up, empowering" leadership focusing on collaboration will sweep the country. A new wave of 21st century authentic leaders will take oversee U.S. institutions of every type: business, education, health care, religion and nonprofits. These new leaders recognize that an organization of empowered leaders at every level will outperform "command-and-control" organizations every time.

The 20th century leaders focused on money, fame and power, earning the title of the "me" generation. Their leadership destroyed many great institutions, as evidenced by the failures of Enron, WorldCom and dozens of companies like them. The recent fiascos on Wall Street can be traced to the failure of "me" leaders who put themselves ahead of their institutions.

Failed policies
Unfortunately, the top-down style didn't stop with business. It bled into K-12 education, which focused more on administrators than on teachers and students, and into health care, with health plans and hospitals so caught up in billing procedures and regulations that they denigrated the vital patient-physician relationship.

In the nonprofit world, even the venerable American Red Cross had such dysfunctional governance that it couldn't deliver the massive contributions the poured in after Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina to people desperately in need. Mainline places of worship have steadily lost membership to newer ones, largely because their priests, rabbis and preachers did not engage their congregants.

The worst example of top-down leadership is the administration of President Bush, whose "I am the decider" attitude and centralized White House decision-making turned knowledgeable government leaders into mere implementers of failed policies.

The leadership style of President-elect Barack Obama promises to usher in the "we" generation. The best evidence is not in his campaign promises, but in the remarkable way he ran his campaign. In sharp contrast to the "Washington-centric, top-down" organizations of Sens. McCain and Clinton, Obama's organization was derived from his formative experiences as a community organizer. Lessons learned in Chicago's streets translated into history's most successful campaign organization.

Let's examine his organization to see what leadership lessons can be learned:

  • Obama created a grassroots movement by building an ever-expanding organization of empowered leaders, who in turn engaged people from their social networks like Facebook.
  • The entire organization was aligned around a single goal — electing Obama as president — and operated with common values ("Offer messages of hope, don't denigrate our opponents, refuse to make deals").
  • Campaign leaders subordinated their egos and personal ambitions to the greater goal. Those who deviated quickly exited.
  • Obama set a clear, consistent tone from the top ("No Drama Obama"), and never wavered, even when things weren't going well.
  • Obama's greater mission transcended internal goals, such as fundraising, endorsements, and campaign events, but each of these areas had goals tied to the greater mission.
  • The campaign team used the most modern Internet tools to communicate, motivate and inspire people and to guide their actions. Each day, 5 million people received personal messages from campaign headquarters or even Obama himself. This organization collaborated across a wide range of geographies and campaign functions, all tightly integrated nationally and executed locally.

In the corporate world, progressive business leaders are adopting this new style and achieving great success. Look at the remarkable results of Google in harnessing the Internet for vital information and of Genentech in creating life-saving drugs.

Well-established American icons like IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Avon and Procter & Gamble have shifted steadily to the collaborative, empowered organization style and have results that prove it works. IBM's Sam Palmisano has converted his 344,000-employee organization from a silo mentality to an integrated global network, focused on leading by values. J&J's Bill Weldon uses the J&J credo and a decentralized organization to keep J&J growing as competitors stagnated.

Spreading the gospel
Avon's Andrea Jung has quadrupled her organization of 6 million "empowered women" to sustain Avon's growth for a decade. A. G. Lafley has transformed P&G into a global powerhouse by empowering people throughout the world.

These examples aren't limited to business. In religion, the most rapidly growing churches are Rick Warren's Saddleback and Bill Hybels' Willow Creek. Both organizations build around small groups of empowered people who are dedicated to serving people as far away as Rwanda and Zimbabwe. In education, Wendy Kopp's Teach For America created a corps of committed teachers achieving great success in inner city classrooms.

In health care, the Mayo Clinic's well-established collaborative model is being adopted by major systems like Allina Health System to fulfill its healing mission. Among nonprofits, the Gates Foundation is working with local, "on the ground" organizations such as Carolina for Kibera that recently received a major grant to help people in the Kenyan slum.

These trends portend massive changes in the 21st century leadership of American institutions, led by the Obama government itself. The most successful leaders will be those who can align people around common goals of serving people and empower them with a collaborative style. Their organizations will be the winners in restoring the U.S. to global greatness.