The current stalemate in Washington provides lessons on how to work with diverse opinions. We’ve all been in meetings where discussion and debate generated a better decision or solution. And we’ve all been in meetings where discussion is a charade and it’s clear opposing opinions aren’t welcomed. The fact is, diverse thinking brings out more innovative ideas and practical solutions. I don’t claim that politics is the same as business, but I do see parallels and practical insights about leadership from looking at politics. See what you think.
Steamrolling rarely produces great results. Some leaders are autocratic and push ahead with their decisions no matter what anyone else thinks. We’ve seen this in several recent presidencies, including Jimmy Carter’s misguided economic policies, George W. Bush’s first six years when he dramatically ramped up spending, and Barack Obama’s first two years when he pushed through Obamacare. In all these cases, the president’s party controlled Congress and provided the ability to steamroll policies. In business, an autocratic CEO has similar power to ramrod decisions. The result, of course, is a culture of yes-people and fear of speaking out. In such cases, the CEO never gets the benefit of his or her team’s best thinking.
Debate is productive. Contrast the results of Carter, Bush and Obama with that of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, both of whom experienced long periods when the other party controlled Congress or in which power was divided. Reagan had to work with Tip O’Neill to get out of the economic morass of the time. Clinton spent his last six years battling with Newt Gingrich to get things done. But in both cases, remarkable results were achieved. The clash of ideas, the pushback on alternatives helped make Reagan and Clinton’s results better and made each of them stronger, just as the heated primary fight has clearly better prepared Mitt Romney for the general election.
Debate is necessary. Few CEOs have the luxury or the smarts to make all the right decisions. Getting decisions right is best accomplished by surrounding yourself with the best talent you can find and creating a culture where everyone is expected to provide his or her viewpoint, hash out alternatives and identify consequences. It’s not always collegial, and sometimes it gets heated. But that’s all part of finding the right solutions and understanding a problem from all angles. Current Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook is quoted in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs as saying, "I realized very early that if you didn’t voice your opinion, (Jobs) would mow you down. He’d take contrary positions to create more discussion, because it may lead to a better result. So if you don’t feel comfortable disagreeing, then you’ll never survive."
Other examples include Jack Welch at General Electric Co., Roy Vagelos at Merck & Co. Inc., Andy Grove at Intel Corp. and Bill Gates at Microsoft Corp. All were lauded as great leaders, and each expected his direct reports to have their heads in the game.
I’m not suggesting that all effective leaders are demeaning like Jobs or as demanding as Welch. And it’s not the same as "managing by consensus," where the focus is on reaching group agreement rather than finding the best solution.
Leaders have a responsibility to engage diverse ideas. Why? Because they are accountable for both decisions and results. A major reason for the current Washington standoff is that both sides have dug in their heels by making absolute statements: Republicans say they won’t increase taxes and Democrats vow not to reduce spending on entitlement programs. It is the leader’s responsibility to break the impasse and achieve results. Gingrich spoke recently of how he worked with Clinton, noting the two would meet and one would say, "I want X, what do you need?" and then they would hash out how to move forward. Leaders don’t blame others for lack of progress. Instead, they engage diverse ideas and accept accountability for results.
Of course, political opposition is very different from debating opposing viewpoints in a business boardroom. The point is simply that it pays to listen to and work with different viewpoints, in both politics and in business, because the resulting decisions are better. In any case, engaging differing opinions is a decision process, not to be confused with making the decision, which is the sole responsibility of the leader.
Developing a culture where all opinions-even opposing ones-are heard and valued pays off in better decisions, stronger individual and team development and higher performance.
Bob Legge is president of Legge & Co. LLC. He specializes in organization development and strategy implementation and leadership coaching.
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