What Can Business Leaders Learn from the Leadership Failure in Washington?

While the more immediate issues regarding the debt crisis appear to be resolved, the recent events in Washington have illuminated the stunning failure of our country’s leadership. Never before have I seen from the various factions of government such a lack of collaboration and willingness to work together for the greater good of the country. Yet I choose to look for the silver lining in this challenging and disappointing situation with our government…perhaps there is something organizations can learn from this episode.

While many organizations have processes in place to encourage people to work together, most still struggle with the dilemma of collaboration between leadership levels, departments, genders, generations, and cultures. The culture of collaboration within an organization – or the lack thereof – starts at the top. Whether they realize it or not, the manner in which the leaders of an organization work together sets the tone for how everyone else in the organization will work together. If the vice presidents of sales and customer service won’t collaborate for the good of the customer, don’t expect their teams to work together either.

One of the biggest factors in this collaboration issue is that too many leaders are trapped in 20th-century leadership models that simply don’t work for 21st-century organizations and 21st-century problems. This is as true in Washington as it is in business. Our world is becoming ever more complex and interconnected. We can no longer use the thought and decision-making processes to navigate the global terrain that we used just five or ten years ago. It will take a fully engaged, collaborative and cross-functional group working toward a common cause to effectively deal with tough, complex problems. If leaders don’t put away their political agendas and their egos, it will eventually catch up with them. We’ve seen that happen in Washington (and I suspect we will see it again in the 2012 elections), and I’ve seen it many times within organizations.

I once worked with a Fortune 150 organization that had experienced exceptional growth and been a leader in their industry for 20 years. But things started to go awry, and they began losing key contracts and market share. The organization’s leadership couldn’t pinpoint the source of the problem and called in SHAMBAUGH Leadership to assess the situation. We discovered that their leadership was in fact the problem. First, there was a lack of clarity about the organization’s overall objectives. Second, departments were not working together – the “silo” mentality was rampant and the blame game was well underway. The contracting department wouldn’t communicate with sales and sales wouldn’t work with finance. This lack of collaboration created a ripple effect throughout the entire organization that reached all the way to its customers. With a targeted leadership development approach, we worked with their leaders to get the organization back on track.

So how can you move beyond organizational politics, find common ground and start working toward a common goal? It’s certainly easier said than done, but definitely it’s doable. Here are some ideas to get you and your leadership team started:

  • Take time to build relationships and build the team. We saw this strategy when President Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner took time out from intense negotiations to play golf. A key element of integrated, balanced leadership that many leaders tend to disregard is getting out of the regular work environment and building relationships. It’s difficult to collectively deal with a crisis if you haven’t built sound relationships up front. But when you know someone as a human being – as more than their title or position – it is easier to find both the willingness and the way to work together. Executive sessions, teambuilding efforts, and offsite retreats are an effective way to build rapport and trust, help individuals find common ground and gain agreement on a common vision.
  •  Step back and ask, “Who are we really serving?” I wonder how different the outcome of the debt negotiations would have been if those in our government had pushed the pause button and remembered that they were elected to serve the citizens of this country. Oftentimes organizations and their leaders get caught up in the same situation and succumb to the same problem – forgetting whom it is they serve. They become so focused on the process that they lose sight of their purpose: to provide value to the customer. Consequently, it is imperative that leaders develop and consistently communicate a shared vision that inspires and engages everyone in the organization and connects them to those they are serving.
  • Be accountable and accept responsibility for problems. Everyone in this debt crisis has pointed the finger of blame at everyone except themselves. Yet the President and every member of Congress are part of the government and should not only accept responsibility for creating our budget problem, but also hold themselves accountable for fixing it. Likewise, organizational leadership almost always has a hand in creating problems, even if their role is nothing more than being asleep at the wheel. Blaming others doesn’t solve anything. Taking responsibility is a first step in the right direction.
  • Leverage the diversity of ideas and experiences around you. In every organization, as in Congress, there exists a rich diversity of thoughts, ideas, opinions and perspectives. Capitalizing on that diversity produces better outcomes. In both business and in life, we have to navigate different points of view to reach successful conclusions. Leaders can and should be role models for embracing new ideas, being open to other perspectives, fostering innovation and collaboration, and being willing compromise when necessary.
  • Make the hard decisions now. If Congress and the President can’t make the tough choices now, what makes them think they will be able to do it later? Leadership calls for courage; it calls for stepping out of the status quo to make the difficult decision. Out of the toughest situations, the most powerful and impactful leaders emerge.

Now more than ever before, America needs authentic leadership. The same is true for your organization. It needs leadership – real leadership. This is the time for you to tear down silos, embrace collaboration and build bridges. This is your chance to lead, to do something big and to show others what is possible.

To learn more on how to accelerate or begin your leadership journey, our Women in Leadership program or SHAMBAUGH’s results focused coaching services can help you get started. Visit www.shambaughleadership.com for more information.

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Rebecca Shambaugh

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