One of my last posts, It’s all about Fit,” garnered a very compelling response by a curious reader named Adam Giovane. Adam said that as a young person he had a dream of “soaking up knowledge and being paid to dispense it.” What a wonderful way of looking at the life of an editor. And his timing could not have been better, coming just a few days before Thanksgiving. In asking the question below, Adam has given me a terrific opportunity to give thanks for having one of the greatest jobs I could imagine.
* So do tell why your job is the best?
There were other questions posed by this reader (you can see all, but this was the one that caught my eye and my imagination on this day, just a few before Thanksgiving (you can see his comments under the posting called It’s all about Fit).
My job is the best on the planet for many reasons—and Adam touched on an important one in his comments. First, my job immerses me in the world of new ideas everyday. I am like a lifelong student, but unlike even the best student, I get to play a major role in deciding what gets published and what doesn’t (along with other key players on my publishing team). Which brings me to another reason my job is so fulfilling—it’s all about the team. Portfolio—which is part of Penguin, the second largest trade publisher in the world—is a very special place to work. We are one cohesive and smart team, all in the same boat, rowing in the same direction. I work in a satellite office, but don’t need to be there all the time to know that we are not an organization weighed down by bureaucracy, office politics, pettiness, and all of the other things that kill organizations of all shapes and sizes.
Our cohesiveness and absence of office turf wars are due to our leadership team. Adrian Zackheim, our President, and Will Weisser, our Vice President, are the Walt Disney and Roy Disney of the publishing world. Adrian is the visionary— while Will also brings great ideas and balance while making sure that all of the trains run on time. These two—and all of the people they inspire every day—account in large measure for the success of our division. And success in today’s truly terrifying economy is indeed nothing to sneeze at. Finally, both of these talented people understand that in these times—or in any times—we cannot afford to leave a single soul on the bench. We use the intellect of the entire company every day, welcoming new ideas from every part of the organization, regardless of the “stripes on their shoulders.” In meetings there is no rank, just intellect, and harnessing the collective intellect of the organization is today’s greatest managerial challenge facing every organization. They both are secure in the knowledge that if you give people a chance to shine they will rise to the occasion. And our people prove it every day—by getting better every day.
Lastly, I think we have the greatest authors in the industry. There are way too many to mention here, but we get a chance to select the types of authors that we would invite into our own living rooms or to our dining room tables. They are a gifted and talented bunch, and work harder than any team of authors I have ever had the pleasure to work with.
So you see, when it comes to my work, I have much to be thankful for this year. Oh yes, and Adam, I hope that answers your question!
A recent reader of this blog asked a terrific question: can a great title alone attached to a proposal attract a publisher? The answer is a definite yes—which belies a famous passage from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:
“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo world, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title…” [Romeo and Juliet, 1594]
It’s a good thing Shakespeare never had to write a business book in a terribly challenging business environment like the one we have now. In the business book world, the title is one of the most vital parts of what we call “the package,” and the package is one of the key determinants of success. Without giving too much away, I can say that I have acquired books throughout my career because they had clever, timely and compelling titles. Of course, there is almost always more to it than just the title. A great title usually means that the author has hit upon something else that is also important—such as an untapped need or market niche, a terribly interesting concept, a great counterintuitive concept, etc. In other words, titles do not live in a vacuum, they are a part of something larger.
Last week in a blog post called “The Titling Process: Unlocking Some of the Mystery,” I explained to what degrees a publisher goes to in order to come up with what we would deem a great title for a book. We spend days, weeks, and in a select few cases even months trying to come up with an ideal title that is simultaneously intriguing and informative. A good title does both: it captures the imagination of the target audience while also telling the reader exactly what the book hopes to accomplish. Often the latter is accomplished in the subtitle, and not the primary title.
Let me give you an example of a book in which we agonized over the subtitle for many weeks. The final title and subtitle of this book turned out to be:
It’s Not about the Coffee: Leadership Principles from a Life at Starbucks, by Howard Behar with Janet Goldstein
We came up with the primary title for this book (It’s Not about the Coffee) almost immediately, but the subtitle took many weeks before we all agreed to it (Publisher, marketing, and author). The subtitle seems straight forward enough, but it was a huge challenge getting everyone to agree that this was the best subtitle for the book. Every word was scrutinized, weighed, and debated. The issue was that the lead author, Howard Behar, was on the board of directors and for many years a senior executive with the company. We, the publisher, wanted to convey that this book was being written by a real Starbucks insider, yet the author was so humble that he did not want to advertise that fact. Also, it’s not the Starbucks way to brag about one’s level on the company’s org. chart. That’s why this subtitle turned out to be the perfect compromise. “…A life at Starbucks” conveyed a few things, not the least of which was that the author spent part of his life at Starbucks, at least planting the suggestion that the author spent many years at the company, which suggests that he may have been someone quite prominent there (he was the executive that built Starbucks international stores and operations outside of the U.S.).
And the book did indeed have a happy ending, selling tens of thousands of copies, garnering several positive notices, and being translated into more than half a dozen languages. With those kinds of results, all of the Sturm and Drang associated with the titling process was indeed worth it.
Most people would be shocked by the number of book proposals and manuscripts publishers are bombarded with each year. It is safe to say that all large publishers receive hundreds, perhaps thousands of business book proposals each year. Many are rejected for reasons that are different than what most people think.
One of the chief reasons has to do with the concept of fit. One of the key reasons publishers reject manuscripts is not due to the quality of the work, but because the concept is not a good fit for that particular publisher.
For example, at our imprint we would not look to publish a book on global investing. And certainly not in this environment. Which raises another important issue: fit is not a static variable, it can, and does, change with the times.
Today, with a sinking economy and a plummeting stock market, we would be less likely to acquire many types of investing books. Are we still acquiring books on investing? Absolutely, because the stock market is not going away. However, we have to be far more picky about what we decide to publish in that category, and we are already a very selective publisher. A prominent example is real estate. For about five or six years before the housing crisis hit, every just about every business book publisher signed and published scores of real estate books. When the market came crashing down, the market for real estate books disappeared pretty much overnight. So publishers must of course alter their acquisition strategy. This is obviously not rocket science, but to this day we still continue to receive book proposals from authors and agents on real estate books.
Lastly, on the issue of publishing and fit, I will quote the great hockey player, Wayne Gretzky. He said: “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” That holds true for publishing as well. We have a saying with similar meaning, “if it’s in, it’s out.” This alludes to one of the most difficult parts of the job of a good editor and publisher. Since they still have to be written and produced, books that are signed up today may not be published until say, late 2009 or even 2010. Since we have no crystal balls, we must do the best we can using everything we know about the business as well as what is happening in the world and what might happen in the future. One of the books that we predicted beautifully is entitled:
The World is Curved: Hidden Dangers to the Global Economy, with a reading line on the cover “The Mortgage Crisis Was Only the Beginning, by David Smick.
That was a book that we decided to publish well over a year ago and one we got right. But there will always be books that all publishers do not get right. The market zigs when somebody expected it to zag. That’s just the price of admission in publishing. However, publishing books is still the greatest job on the planet!
One of the things that publishers spend a significant portion of their time on is titles. Titling books is an art form, and the significance of it is usually underestimated by authors. Perhaps the most surprising part of the titling process is coming to grips with just how difficult it is to come up with the right title for each book. And the bigger the book (meaning the greater its potential), the harder it is to come up with the right, big-book title—one that will stand out from the other 10,000+ business books that are published each year.
Here are some things that help: titling is usually best done in the morning, when people are the freshest. And as one of the most creative parts of the process, it is best to be as inclusive as possible. That is, bring everyone to the table, regardless of what former GE chairman Jack Welch calls “the stripes on the shoulders” of people. In other words, bring every marketing and editorial assistant and even your interns, for you never know who will come up with a breakthrough title. But the reality is that when it comes to titling—especially the big book—experience matters. Correction: experience matters a great deal. That’s why publishers and senior editorial people usually come up with the right title before the author does.
I know that may be counter-intuitive. Doesn’t the author know more about his or her book than anyone? Yes, of course, but that is part of the problem. The author may be too close to it to come up with a great title for her own book.
Also there are many moving parts to a title: there’s the main title, the subtitle, and a possible third element referred to as a reading line which explains the book in even greater detail than the title and subtitle. Only a small percentage of business books have a reading line, but most have the title and subtitle. The title should really attract attention while the subtitle should describe as specifically as possible what is in the book.
The other thing that makes it harder for authors to come up with the right title is that while titling a book is is an art form, there is some science to it as well. That’s why experience is so important, and I mean on the publisher’s side of the ledger, not the author’s. Another problem is that even when the publisher comes up with what they regard as a kick-ass title, the author sometimes does not agree. This is why this is one of the areas that can cause real friction between a publisher and the author. Ultimately, the publisher and author have to agree on the book title. That’s because the last thing a publisher wants is an unhappy author. That would poison everything. So even when the publisher comes up with what they regard as the perfect title, we won’t go with it if we cannot get the author to see our side of the argument (even though almost all publishing contracts allows the publisher to choose the final title from a legal perspective).
As an aside to the discussion, one thing that has always perplexed me is how is it that authors think they have the same ability as a publisher to choose the right title. Most don’t. Among the top people at our imprint, we have published many hundreds of books, if not a few thousand. And we have seen how these scores of titles have sold (or didn’t sell). And that is one of the things that helps publishers to be so good at the titling process—it’s not only the titling—it’s the titling and then seeing what happens to the book that makes experience so valuable.
So, if you are an author and your publisher suggests a title that you think is really off the wall, give it a chance. Think about it, sleep on it, and ask the publishing team why they are so convinced that is the right title. You may be surprised by how much you come around.
With the Dow losing hundreds of points a day (yesterday’s 550 point gain notwithstanding), I have been doing some soul searching. It is difficult to watch this happen, to see great companies turn into hobbled organizations at the mercy of a panicky global market and the whims of Washington. The saying “What’s good for GM is good for the country” has been made irrelevant, as GM faces its bleakest future since the last time it faced bankruptcy almost a century ago (after being founded precisely 100 years ago it faced bankruptcy a dozen years after its founding).
But I want to talk about the market meltdown on a more personal note. Thanks to the Internet, we now have the ability to check out 401k’s and personal stock market accounts weekly, daily, hourly, or God forbid, from minute to minute. And I am convinced there are millions of people who are transfixed by their accounts, watching their money far more often than they would ever admit. It’s like having a gambling addiction without taking any action. Of course, this phenomenon would have been impossible in the last extended bad bear market of the 1970s. Then, when I bought my first stock with my Bar Mitzvah money in 1974 (200 shares of Gulf Resources at $14 per share), there were only two ways to find out the share price of any stock on any given day.
The most common way was the newspaper, which would give you the previous day’s closing price. Back then I delivered the New York Post in my Bronx neighborhood, so I checked there. Or you could call your broker—mine was a friend of the family who worked for the old E.F. Hutton (the people everyone listened to), who could give you a “live quote.” Obviously we have come a long way since then, but I am afraid that we have come three steps forward and four back. Here’s why.
We have become a nation of scorekeepers, with stocks being one of the worst parts of the phenomenon. Scorekeeping naturally started with sports, and there was certainly nothing wrong with that. Numbers and statistics lend themselves beautifully to sports. Without them, we would not have known that Ted Williams had a batting average of 400 or that Roger Maris edged out Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1961 with 61 home runs (Ruth hit 60 in 1927).
But over the years we have become a nation obsessed with numbers. Now we pay attention to dozens of numbers, some more ridiculous than others. On Monday mornings most every news show tells you which movie was #1 at the box office that weekend, and precisely how many millions it brought in.
We also follow scores and stats on a whole host of diverse topics, such as: how much money rich former wives receive as payments in divorce settlements, how much money a presidential candidate raises in a single month, which actors are in the $20-million-per-movie club, how much money Oprah Winfrey is worth, and how much former big time CEOs get in books deals. And the list goes on.
But more important numbers escape us. Does any of us remember exactly how many electoral votes Barack Obama received—or John McCain?
But back to our fading 401k plans and other stock market accounts. The financial and cable networks, which of course did not exist until the 1990s, certainly do not help the situation. They make us all froth at the mouth while hanging and analyzing ad nauseum every number and tick of the Dow. When that is combined that with millions of on-line trading accounts and Internet-access to millions of others, you get panicked far faster than ever before…and why not? When someone nearing retirement sees a $200,000 account turned into a $110,000 shadow of its former self—while hearing the D-word (Depression) on every cable news channel nearly every day, you can understand why people would want to cash in their chips and try to hang on desperately to what’s left.
Unfortunately, nothing I say here is going to change anything. We will only become more obsessed with the scoreboard in the days, months, and years ahead. Instead, I will impart only one modicum of advice: keep your holdings diversified—stocks, bonds, cash, and maybe, dare I say it—even real estate. If the time to buy is when there is “blood in the streets,” how much more red can there be? At some point, a crisis turns into a genuine opportunity. Oh…yes…and try not to watch your stocks so closely. They are going to look better from a distance for the foreseeable future.
Today I heard an interesting number: some 67 percent of Americans are optimistic that our incoming president will be able to fix our flailing economy. I haven’t heard the numbers on other important issues, such as national security and the wars, healthcare, education, etc. I would bet the numbers are similar. Two thirds of Americans probably think the President Elect can fix all of those things also. And why not? He seems capable enough, and anyone who was not moved by the historical nature of his victory last week has to have a heart of stone (after all—slaves largely built the White House beginning in 1792). However, I am beginning to think that our expectations as an electorate are running way too high.
While our incoming president will have democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, the problems facing this nation are simply too daunting for any quick fix, no matter who is minding the store. Let’s set aside two wars (and one getting more dire in Afghanistan by the day), the health care crisis, and education. Let’s stick with the economy—the fourth leg to the stool that Barack Obama has named as his four greatest priorities.
Here is what plagues this country—and what faces lawmakers and the executive branch in the current lame duck session (there is still well over two months before the new administration takes over):
* The biggest crisis in confidence in our economy in many decades, that has caused the second huge problem that follows below.
* A complex, global financial crisis that has shaved well over 5,000 points off the Dow, shredding millions of people’s 401k plans, individual, and other retirement accounts. And this problem is unprecedented in its size and scope.
* The big three automakers are all facing possible bankruptcy with millions of jobs on the line, directly and indirectly (incredibly, a cup of Venti Starbucks now costs more than one share of General Motors, as shares of the world’s largest automaker have plummeted to under $3 per share today, a 65-year low).
* A housing crisis that continues to this day, one so powerful that it helped to ignite much of what has been outlined above—with no signs of things getting better anytime soon.
* An unemployment rate that has increased to 6.5 percent, and could go much higher if a few more things go wrong (like one or more of the U.S. car makers declare Chapter 11).
* A trillion dollars already pledged to bail out Wall Street—and that number could easily skyrocket as more and more bad commercial paper is discovered.
Because of the complexity of the global financial system—which has never before been dependent on such a fragile foundation of confidence, there are no simple fixes to be found anywhere. According to David Smick in his groundbreaking book, The World is Curved (Portfolio, 2008), “for the financial markets, the world is curved. We can’t see over the horizon. As a result, our sight lines are limited. It is as if we are forced to travel down an endless, dangerously twisting and turning road with abrupt steep valleys and risky mountainous climbs. We can’t see ahead. We are always being surprised, and that is why the world has become such a dangerous place.”
No wonder we are all so hungry for change—we have never been in in such need of it, not to mention a little stability! So consider this post as a request for both patience and confidence. We in America want things when we want them. Which is now, yesterday, immediately, pronto, stat. But at this time, facing these circumstances, change and improvement will not happen overnight. I believe things will get better, as so many smart people are focused on lifting us up from the bowels of what plagues us. But only if we don’t panic when change doesn’t arrive with the morning paper.
On Friday Barack Obama had his first press conference (not pictured) following his historic victory (pictured) and stuck to the Drucker playbook. It is Drucker who has said that an executive can only focus on one or two priorities at a time. On Friday, President Elect Obama had only one priority—the flailing economy that continues to disappoint with each and every new number released. (Just this morning Circuit City declared bankruptcy and thousands of other jobs were cut at other large firms).
Surrounded by his VP and new Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, and a crowded team of economic heavyweights that included former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, President Elect Obama gave a sobering statement on the economy.
Just that morning a report was released that unemployment had increased to 6.5 percent, the highest since 1994. We now have lost 1.2 million jobs in 2008. The Dow has lost a stunning 5,000 points amidst the greatest collapse in confidence since the 1929 stock market crash.
However, what struck me most about the press conference was not the substance but the demeanor of the newly elected president. Gone was care-free candidate Barack; in his place was President Elect Obama, whose future burdens and responsibilities weighed heavily enough on his mind to alter the very way he carried himself.
It was clear that he understood the enormity of the task ahead and what is expected of him. Peter Drucker felt that a man of character “sees leadership as responsibility rather than rank and privilege.” He also said “the new tasks demand that the manager of tomorrow root every action and decision in the bedrock of principles, that he lead not only through knowledge, competence and skill but through vision, courage, responsibility and integrity.” He added “when things go wrong—and they always do—they don’t blame others.”
Drucker also stated :”In the final analysis it is vision and moral responsibility that define the manager.” Only time will tell if Barack Obama can live up to Drucker’s vision of the ideal leader—one who acts in a way consistent with his bedrock principles—one who leads through moral courage and responsibility. However, when it comes to an Obama administration, in which expectations soar as high as the rhetoric, vision and moral responsibility is only the cost of admission. What is expected of this new president—especially one who has already inspired so many millions—is results.
“Management,” said Drucker “must always, in every decision and action, put economic performance first. It can justify its existence and its authority by the economic results it produces.”
Perhaps there has never been a time in our country’s history in which economic results are so important to the future functioning of our republic. Drucker espoused those words in 1954—but they have never been more true than they are today.
Photo credit: CBS News
Drucker spent much time talking about “naturals”—those gifted people who are viewed as “born” managers. Naturals set the right priorities, spark others to perform, and know how to make the “life and death” decisions (who to hire, fire, and promote).
Naturals do not micro-manage people to death. They understand intuitively that autocratic, bully-like leaders are not effective and are part of yesterday.
Naturals know a lot of things that others do not. They understand that intimidation and scare tactics have no place in an organization. That kind of toxic behavior is stifling and hurts the morale of the unit. It also shuts down creativity. After all, who wants to take a risk by presenting a new idea when they are likely to be slapped down?
Naturals are confident. That’s no small feat. GE’s former chairman Jack Welch once said that finding a truly confident individual is rare indeed.
Naturals trust their own judgment and have “edge”—they know how to make the tough decisions. They say yes or no and eschew the maybes.
By most anyone’s judgment, Barack Obama closely adheres to Drucker’s definition of a natural. He would have to be to defeat all comers in a grueling, two-year campaign at the young age of 47. Not that he will be the youngest president—that honor goes to Teddy Roosevelt who was only 42 when he was sworn in after the assassination of McKinley in 1901. Next comes John F. Kennedy (43) and Bill Clinton (46). On January 20th, Obama will be sworn in as our fifth youngest president, knocking Grover Cleveland out of the top five (#4 is Ulysses S. Grant, who, by the way, wrote the best presidential autobiography in history).
Obama ran an incredibly disciplined campaign, as was discussed in the last posting. What I left out was some of the other qualities that made him one of those once-every-other-generation type candidates. His incredible ability to remain cool under fire. No matter what was thrown at him he remained incredibly unflappable. That was in marked contrast to McCain’s lurching behavior in the final days of the campaign.
Perhaps the greatest evidence of Barack, the natural, is his lack of any substantial unforced errors throughout the campaign. Pundits called it the most disciplined campaign they had seen in decades. In all those many months and dozens of debates he did not make any major gaffes (the comment about Pennsylvanians sticking to their guns and religion does not rise to the level of a significant “operating unforced error”).
As important is the lack of unforced errors on the part of Obama staffers. Well, there was one Obama staffer who called Senator Hillary Clinton a “monster” during the primaries, but she was summarily dismissed and the incident was quickly forgotten.
What does all of this tell us about how Obama will lead? He will be incredibly well disciplined, will lead by inspiring rather than intimidating people, and run a very tight ship. With his second major hiring decision (Joseph Biden was first)—Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff, Obama is also showing us his pragmatic self as well. Emanuel, a seasoned politico, worked as a top level aide in Bill Clinton’s administration, and is well versed in the ways of Washington (from Congress to the White House). And he was selected for the right reason: Obama said “no one is better at getting things done as Rahm Emanuel.” Once again, we have the President-elect focused like a laser on performance, accomplishment, and achievement. And that is vintage Drucker:
“Management, in every decision and action, must put…performance first,” declared Drucker.
So far Obama has followed the Drucker script quite closely. Come back in future days and weeks to see if Obama continues to stick to the Drucker playbook.
If Peter Drucker—the inventor of management and the chronicler of great leaders— was still alive, he would not have been surprised by the outcome of the presidential election. He would have known that the Obama strategy and execution of its campaign was superior to Senator McCain’s weeks before Election Day.
Peter Drucker was a shrewd observer of our presidents. Ever since the Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960, the candidate most able to exude charisma not only won the majority of elections, but also stayed in power the longest. There was John F. Kennedy, of course, but there was also Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, the only two-term presidents to complete both of their terms since Dwight D. Eisenhower (Nixon won but didn’t finish his second term).
However, Drucker felt that charisma was a poor indicator of how a prospective candidate would perform as a president.
Drucker felt that charisma—by itself—was a dangerous leadership quality. “Indeed, charisma becomes the undoing of leaders…leadership is not magnetic personality; it is not ‘making friends and influencing people’—that is salesmanship,” asserted Drucker. “It makes them inflexible, convinced of their own infallibility, unable to change,” he concluded.
His choice of America’s greatest president of the 20th century confirms this: Harry Truman, America’s 33rd president, “the-buck-stops-here” president. Drucker’sadmiration of Truman had nothing to do with charisma. “Truman was as bland as a dead mackerel,” asserted Drucker. However, continued Drucker, “everybody who worked for him worshipped him because he was absolutely trustworthy.”
The most charismatic leaders of the 20th century, proclaimed Drucker, were Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Mussolini. He called them “mis-leaders!” In addition to Truman, he rated Ronald Reagan as one of the most effective presidents of the last century. “Reagan’s great strength was not charisma, as is commonly thought,” Drucker explained, “but that he knew exactly what he could do and what he could not do.”
Unique Leadership Qualities
Drucker felt that the qualities that made leaders great were specific to each leader. He regarded Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, George Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bernard Montgomery, and Douglas MacArthur as extraordinary leaders during the second World War. However, “no two of them shared any ‘personality traits’ or any ‘qualities.'”
Given Drucker’s view on charisma, he would have been cynical of Barack Obama, at least at the outset. It is likely he would have viewed Obama as a JFK-like contender, and despite Kennedy’s iconic popularity, Drucker did not give America’s 36th president high marks: “John F. Kennedy may have been the most charismatic person to occupy the White House. Yet few presidents got as little done.”
But Drucker would have known weeks before the election that Obama would have won. The following factors would have been decisive in Drucker’s mind in evaluating an Obama victory:
Exhibited Consistency and Decisiveness: Drucker felt that consistency was an absolute critical quality of effective leaders. From the first day of the campaign to the last, Obama’s message of change did not waver. He also defined his opponent’s campaign by describing it as a third Bush term, which resonated with most voters since Senator McCain’s voting record was almost identical to President Bush’s. Also, McCain’s message was anything but consistent, shifting from “experience” to “change,” to Obama’s alleged “association with domestic terrorists,” and back again.
Won Customers and Non-Customers: Drucker urged leaders not to forget non-customers who had the potential to be turned into customers. From the start—in fact, from before the start, from the stirring speech he made at the 2004 Democratic Convention—Obama said “there are no red states, there are no blue states, there is the United States of America.” He reached out to democrats and independents, but also to Republicans as well. He also turned out the most enthusiastic and eager youth vote since JFK in 1960. Those moves allowed him to win over red states that would have been unthinkable only four years ago, such as Indiana, Virginia and Colorado.
Maintained only One or Two Priorities: Drucker felt that the best leaders maintained no more than two priorities at a time. He said he never met a chief executive who could handle more than that at one time. The Obama campaign stayed focused on a very few, core ideas throughout the campaign. Whenever the topic of the Iraqi War came up, for example, he pointed to the 2002 speech he made denouncing the idea of an offensive, non-premeditated war in the Middle East. Another example: once the financial meltdown hit, his stump speech was all about creating jobs and lowering taxes for the middle class.
Obama Showed he Could Hire: Drucker felt that the most effective leaders could hire, fire, and promote people. The one hiring decision a presidential candidate makes is the selection of a running mate. Obama’s choice of Joe Biden proved that he was not afraid to be surrounded by strong personalities (which bodes well for his selection of a cabinet). He showed that same important quality when he sat down with economic heavyweights like Paul Volcker, Warren Buffett and Robert Rubin. McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin was an ill-fated choice which became a constant, living example of Senator McCain’s erratic, shoot-from-the-hip, style of leadership.
A Superior Organization and Ground Game: In Drucker’s world the most effective leaders are organized, able to prioritize and maintain a high level of morale. Obama’s campaign was nearly flawless in its execution. It held together beautifully to the final day—in marked contrast to McCain’s “circular firing squad” organization which developed in the final weeks of the campaign as it became increasingly clear that their candidate would not win. Also, Obama’s campaign often did unprecedented things. For example, Obama’s “50-state strategy” seemed like a fool’s errand early on, but his organization in red states helped him to win several key states that seemed out of reach only a few months earlier. With his huge money advantage, it is not surprising that Obama had a better get-out-the-vote ground game. Obama’steam used the Rove-Bush playbook to beat McCain and the republicans at their own game. Every aspect of the Obama campaign seemed better executed—steadier, less erratic and more consistent with Drucker’s principles of organization, discipline and accountability.
Last week we ended with a discussion of managing under crisis conditions. That was a favorite topic of Drucker’s. He also observed that “some people are beautifully prepared for the crisis. And hate everything else.”
As the supreme example of a leader who operated incredibly well under the worst of conditions was Winston Churchill. Drucker called Churchill the 20th century’s most successful leader. But even Churchill wasn’t Churchill until his country—and history—called upon him. He explained that for a dozen years, from 1928 through Dunkirk (codenamed “Dynamo,” that’s was when more than 300,000 allied soldiers were successfully evacuated and saved), Churchill played a minor role at best. Drucker suggested he was an onlooker, “almost discredited, because there was no need for a Churchill.”
When chaos and Hitler struck and England was forced to declare war with Germany in September of 1939, Churchill was precisely the right leader at the right time—a decisive, iconic figure on the world stage. And, for the record, the praise was not all one-sided. Winston Churchill reviewed and praised Drucker’s first book, saying “the amazing thing about Peter F. Drucker was his ability to start our minds along a stimulating line of thought.”
Drucker once declared “Fortunately or unfortunately, the one thing in any organization is the crises. That always comes. That’s when you do depend on the leader.” Drucker felt that the Churchills were a rare breed. “But another group is, quite common,” insisted Drucker. “They are the people who can look at a situation and say: This is not what I was hired to do or what I was expected to do, but this is what the job requires–and then roll up their sleeves and go to work.”
That’s the brand of leader we need in these tough times, when an economic meltdown is bringing down so many of our great companies. Time will tell us which leaders were the most successful in helping their organizations weather the storm. Of course, war is a far graver challenge than even the worst economic collapse, but Drucker knew that certain situations create great leaders: “To every leader there is a season,” explained Drucker. “Winston Churchill in ordinary, peaceful, normal times would not have been very effective. He needed the challenge. Probably the same is true of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was basically a lazy man,” proclaimed Drucker (who didn’t like FDR, despite his great popularity). I don’t think FDR would have been a good president in the 1920s. His adrenalin wouldn’t have produced,” concluded Drucker.
Drucker’s analysis of our 20th century global leaders gives us much to think about, and raises some obvious questions. If you are a manager—or a manager of managers—do you have a fair-weathered team that will do well when times are good? Or a foul-weathered team whose “adrenaline is likely to produce” when things get rough? Given today’s economic realities, you may be about to find out.