Puking at Putin (and I am not the only one)

In this morning’s New York Times, Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote an Op-Ed piece on the possible use of military force by the U.S. against Syria in the wake of their gassing of their own people. This article, entitled “A Plea for Caution from Russia,” is a clever piece of propaganda that would make Hitler’s “Reich Minister of Propaganda” Joseph Goebbels proud.

Putin does not deny that gas was used in the August 21 chemical attack, he just claims that the opposition did it, despite the fact that these forces have no access to such weapons of mass destruction, nor the delivery system that was used in the attack. If the opposition had such an arsenal, al-Assad would have been targeted years ago and would probably be dead. But here is Putin, flying in the face of what the rest of the world knows to be true. Here is how he puts it: “No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists. Reports that militants are preparing another attack — this time against Israel — cannot be ignored.

Hypocrisy does not begin to describe the Russian leader. He remains “KGB down to his DNA.”

Putin also takes aim at the U.S. and president Obama, labeling them, in essence, the world’s new bully (this from a man that has waged brutal thuggish wars on numerous occasions without ever consulting the U.N., helps to arm Syria on a near-daily basis, and even beats and punishes his own LGBT population).

He also takes another swipe at Obama because in the President’s address to the nation on Tuesday, he [Obama], had the temerity to use the phrase “American exceptionalism” in describing the country he leads. Asserts Putin: “I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”

From a personal perspective, I have had the good fortune to visit most every continent throughout the world, and while I have enjoyed so many of the countries I have visited, I have never found a country to be more exceptional than the United States. My father, a holocaust survivor that survives to this day, has always said that the most valuable lesson he can impart on his children is how “fortunate we are to live in a country like the United States.” I carry that lesson with me every day, and now pass it on to my own two small children.

Why makes America so exceptional? The answers are too numerous to detail them all here, but I will give it a shot. One can point to the freedom that America offers, but more than 150 countries throughout the world offer its people freedom. America is exceptional because this is a country in which people can come from “nothing,” and become “everything.” There are so many examples of this, a country in which one can get educated or create a better mousetrap in their garage and rise up to become a business or political or any kind of leader. One of my favorite examples of this, that he himself cited in a recent interview, is former Secretary of State Colin Powell. A black man from the 1950’s Bronx who could have become president but still rose to the highest levels of our military and government. And he is one of so many who rose themselves up by meager bootstraps to make a huge impact on this nation and the world at large.

When I met with management pioneer Peter Drucker in 2003, he reminded me that Europe—for much of the 20th century (especially the first half)–unlike America, still held to long-held rules of birth and social status to determine one’s status in society. It was America, Drucker asserted, that was first to loosen those shackles so that people born anywhere to anyone could be whatever their own talent and ambition took them. I have also lived that reality, albeit on a much smaller stage, coming from the Bronx and rising up, over many years, as an author, publisher and now literary agent helping new authors to realize their own dreams.

What else makes us so exceptional—and what has—over our history? I can think of a few things: Thomas Jefferson and the U.S. Constitution, Henry Ford and the invention of the automobile, Orville and Wilbur Wright and their invention, our freeing of Europe from Hitler [that started with a day of unbridled bravery on the D-Day landing in early June, 1944], and being the first country to land a man on the the moon, to start.

But it is also a seemingly unending list of so many great Americans in our storied history that have helped make America such a singular nation. Here are some: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Susan B. Anthony, Dwight Eisenhower, Thomas Edison, Theodore Roosevelt, Alexander Graham Bell, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Albert Einstein, Walt Disney, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Frank Lloyd Wright, Jonas Salk, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs, to name more than a few.

But, ultimately, it is the exceptionalism of the American spirit, our persistent and consistent values, our unbridled idealism—and our unwavering wish to want more for the next generation than our own—that makes us the exceptional Republic we have become.

In summing up, I have little doubt that Putin’s ham-handed attempt to sway the American people against using force against his close ally, the murderous thug Bashar al-Assad, will backfire. Putin is proof positive that one cannot change their stripes. He under-estimates both the American people and its current occupant of the Oval Office—although it was Obama’s inaction that got us into this political quagmire in the first place (inaction is often a leader’s greatest enemy, and it certainly was in this instance). When Putin fails to come up with an acceptable U.N. Resolution that includes the threat of force against al-Assad [if al-Assad does not give up his chemical weapons as promised], I believe there is a chance that Obama will finally go against his own DNA and use force against the Syrian regime. That will reveal Putin’s puny attempt to gain acclaim on the national stage as nothing but a stunt and a stalling tactic. And that is when Putin will eat the words that he has thrown in our face on this day, September 12, 2013.
—-Jeffrey A. Krames

The Word of a Leader

In the past week I have discussed the importance of leadership moments and showed how they play such an important role when push comes to shove. Push has come to shove for President Obama is in the weekend before his final and sweeping effort to secure the support of Congress to strike Syria in the wake of Syria’s use of chemical weapons against his own people.

Let’s pivot off that concept and discuss the importance of words. For more then three decades I have made my living by shaping words. As editor, publisher, author and literary agent, I have helped many hundreds of authors by shaping and massaging their words in order to turn something ordinary into something special.

Speaking of words, I have always kept mine because I always knew that stakes were too high to contemplate otherwise. I spent more than three-fifths of my life in the business world building up a “fortress-like,” sterling reputation. However, I always knew that if I violated my word, even once, I could tear down that reputation in an instant—something I made sure I never did. Over-promise and under-deliver and you will find yourself out of business very quickly. I work in a small and close-knit industry in which word spreads quickly. I knew I had to be true to the values that were instilled in me from childhood. One does not lie—and one does not make a promise that cannot be honored.

Of course, the word of a corporate leader does not compare to the word of a country and its leadership. It is now common knowledge that President Obama made an off-the-cuff remark in August of 2012 about a red line and chemical weapons in Syria. We know that the remark was not planned because it was never followed up: President Obama—we know now—never instructed any members of his cabinet to come up with a plan of action in the event that the Syrian leader violated that red line. His failure to plan is what boxed him into his current and messy situation.

President Obama knows better than anyone the power of words. It was his soaring rhetoric that got him into the White House in the first place. He is also keenly aware that he has now put his reputation on the line. And not only his—but the reputation of the Office of the President as well as the word of the nation. And not just for now, but for years to come. That is why the stakes in Syria are so high. The decision to go ahead with strikes against Assad is more important than war—it is about the reputation of the United States.

That is why I believe that Obama will work doggedly to get the American electorate and both Houses of Congress with him. But momentum has shifted against him in ugly fashion. The shadow of the badly-bungled war in Iraq is too long and wide which explains why little more than a third of Americans back his decision to wage a limited war in Iraq. However, Obama has always been a pragmatic leader who sees things how they are and not how he wishes them to be. He knows that in 1999 President Clinton initiated bombing strikes for months in Kosovo a full month before the House voted on the issue (but after the Senate voted yes to a non-binding authorization of the use of force 58 to 41).  Obama also knows that he has almost no chance to win over the Republican- led House of Representatives. Momentum is crushing his efforts by the day. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has told him that it might take several weeks before the House is even ready to vote. Contrary to conventional wisdom, that is sweet music to the ears of the president.

That is because I believe that he now has a new plan of action.

He and his closest two members of his inner circle—Vice President Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry—will put on a full court press to win Senate approval. In the Senate, Obama has about a six-member lead in the weekend ahead of his all-important address to the country on Tuesday, September 10th, one day before the 12-year anniversary of the 2001 horrific attack. Still, the Senate could go either way.

So what happens now?

One of two things: if Obama wins Senate approval, I believe he will wait no longer—knowing that his failure to act one week earlier may have been the worst day of his presidency—and order the attacks to go forward. He will not wait for the House to vote. If he fails to win the Senate, then he will go it alone, knowing full well that he is risking his presidency and his legacy in doing so. I believe that Obama has already made his calculation. He will put the word of the nation above his own word and his own legacy. He will do so because he knows that the word of a nation is far too valuable to squander. He also believes deeply that the use of chemical weapons cannot go unpunished—even if much of the the country—and the world—is not with him.

I have had the good fortune to publish more than one book on former Secretary of State Colin Powell. He spoke of leadership as a lonely endeavor. Just how lonely is something that Obama is about to find out—the hard way.

—Jeffrey A. Krames, September 7, 2013

 

 

 

 

Why Obama May Have Already Lost Syria

It is difficult to believe that less than 70 hours ago it seemed a sure thing that America would launch strategic missile strikes to weaken Syria’s al-Assad’s regime—the same one that crossed Obama’s red line by murdering more than 1,400 innocents with sarin gas.

Now, just after the U.S. Labor Day holiday, that moment seems like some long-ago lost reality. In earlier posts I have discussed the importance of leadership moments. It now seems, with 20/20 hindsight, that there were far too many moments missed by Obama to save the world from a Middle-Eastern crisis that deepens by the day. Especially since Iran and Russia are two major players determined to undermine the west—countries with leaders whose actions will only complicate and confuse the muddled morass that Syria has become in such a seemingly short time.

But that’s the point. Has it really been a short time? The short answer is “no.” The civil war that has raged in Syria did not start a week ago or a year ago or even two years ago. It began in the Spring of 2011, and it did not take all that long for certain American politicians to recognize the war for what it was: a cancerous, Middle-Eastern crisis that had the ability to light up the Middle East in some tinder-like- box regional war.

Now, in the early days of September 2013, the chances of that stark reality seem more possible than ever.

Let’s look back at what did not happen in the last 30 months to bring us to this leadership moment. Forget 2011, that was only the beginning and no one could imagine that Bashar al-Assad would become a modern- day, Hitler-like  leader on the modern stage. After all, he enjoyed listening to musician Phil Collins and was described by one credible biographer [who met with him on numerous occasions] as a as a geek—a nerd-like leader—certainly not a harsh dictator that would use every weapon in his arsenal to kill and maim thousands of his own citizens.

But—by 2012— a new al-Assad had emerged, the real Bashar al-Assad. That is when two never-shy Republican leaders—Presidential contender John McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham—warned Obama and the world to the perils of Syria and al-Assad. They understood that the Syrian conflict was about far more than Syria—it was about Iran—the only Middle-Eastern nation that had the capability of becoming a nuclear country besides Israel. [The Iranian red line is a whole other story—one that now seems more likely to be dealt with by Israel when the time comes].

It was enough for McCain and Graham that Syria had 5,000 Hezbollah fighters backed and financed solely by Iran. They urged the American president to arm the Syrian Free Army. But to Obama—the anti-war president, it wasn’t that simple. There were simply too many factions—including al-qaeda—on the anti al-Assad side of the war. Better not to involve America in a messy and complicated civil war in the worst neighborhood on earth. In retrospect, especially when it seemed that al-Assad was losing, it is clear the United States missed its best chance to level the playing field and tip the balance against al-Assad and his Iranian proxy fighters. But that, too, is “Monday morning quarterbacking,”— after-the-fact analysis.

However, hindsight is not useless when it provides lessons for the future. By arming the right factions fighting against al-Assad, the U.S. could have tipped the scales against him. But the hands-off American leader stayed true to his doctrine and stayed out of it. Even in late 2012 or early 2013 the Syrian war was still not something that rose to the level of U.S. involvement, Obama argued. And that was Obama’s second Syrian miscalculation, but unfortunately, not his last. [it is interesting to note that it was another U.S. president that was always on guard against “miscalculation,” and that was the 35th president, John F. Kennedy. It was a number of correct calculations on his part during those 13 days that saved the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis].

Apparently it did not occur to President Obama that he might have miscalculated. That is, not until his own credibility, after al-Assad used his unthinkable chemical agents—and the credibility of the United States—became the new table stakes in this far-away civil war. Once Obama realized he under-estimated the significance of the Syrian war and the brutal dictator who led it, his first instincts were the right ones. Attack al-Assad as soon as possible—before the regime could prepare and hide key assets in such civilian populated places like hospitals and schools. Show him, Iran, Russia and the rest of the world that al-Assad’s actions would not stand. That was August 31st—when it was thought that at least some sort of limited war would be waged by Obama under the War Powers Act.

But then the other Obama—the anti war Obama— appeared, and mucked up the works in ways that might very well be studied for decades as the flinch that brought the Middle East to its knees. At this point, with so many players, countries and politics in the mix, only time will tell how all will play out on this increasingly dangerous chess board. But the signs are disconcerting at best, and terribly ominous at worst.

Russia has volunteered to send delegates to speak to the American Congress—an unprecedented act as far as I can tell. Iran remains eerily silent, secretly delighting at the inaction of the United States. If the U.S. won’t back up its own red line, they won’t attack us, reason the Iranian leadership. That may or may not be true, and if it is, surely Israel will act. But that is a topic for another day.

For now, the stakes are growing by the day as the American electorate sides with the anti-war Obama. Stay out of it, they argue. Who wants another Iraq? But they are fighting the wrong war at the wrong time, something the world did some 75 years ago, when many underestimated a different leader. to catastrophic results. Despite the two recent wars started by George W. Bush, America has had a history of entering wars reluctantly and too late. The most vivid example of that is World War II. Even though Hitler’s war had already rolled over most of Europe—it took the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 to get America to enter the war. [Hitler’s war against Jews was well known by that point, but it is lesser known that in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, anti-semitic factions in the U.S. helped to give cover to Roosevelt to stay out of the European conflict].

I fear many outcomes of what appears to be a fairly contained conflict (if you do not take into account the two million refugees that have already exited Syria, nearly a third of its population—with half of that incredible number being children under an average age of 12). The range of thinking in the U.S. Congress on this topic is as fractured as I have ever seen it. Some want to see the details of a comprehensive and strategic plan to bring down a monstrous regime, while others do not want us to go in at all. Most congressional leaders are torn—somewhere in the middle. Even if Obama gets the vote to wage “war,” which I believe he will, it will be such a watered down version of the original document that he will be handcuffed in what he could actually do against Syria, leaving little room for contingency plans if some awful “what-if” scenario plays out in the region [and I believe it will].

And what if the 113th U.S. Congress does what it usually does? [hint: nothing].

What will Obama do then? And what will happen to the U.S. reputation on the world stage? More important, will the conflict in Syria spread to the rest of the Middle East? And how will Russia’s appearance in the Eastern Mediterranean with its state-of-the-art navy hardware play out against the U.S. presence already there? The outcomes are too many to ponder, and none of them are good. Which is what keeps me up at night, writing such verbose pieces about events in far-away lands. It used to be only the health and well-being of my loved ones that kept me up at night…that, and maybe the stock market. Now look at where we are.

However, It is where we might end up, however, that truly scares the living daylights out of me.

Please stay tuned for more in the days ahead.

—-Jeffrey A. Krames, September 3rd, 2013

 

Barack Obama’s Failure of Leadership

It is not without irony that a legacy of a leader can take years to construct— but can be torn down in a single moment.

Many believe that leadership is about grand and sweeping campaigns and they can be—take Winston Churchill’s magnificent performance during World War II. But more often leadership is about a series of moments and the decisions made during those all-important occasions when it seems all is at stake.

By the nature of the job, presidents of countries—especially the one that heads the world’s lone remaining superpower—get more of those moments than say, leaders of corporations or other organizations.

Obama had such a moment on Saturday, August 31st, in the early afternoon. And he went down without a fight.

It was at about 2 pm Washington time that Obama stunned the world with an abrupt about- face on his tactical policy against one of the world’s worst mass-murderers—instead leaving the decision in the hands of the most incompetent congress in America’s 237 years as a Constitutional Republic. [The 113th Congress—has been called the “do-less-than-nothing Congress” by more pundits and news organizations than one can count].

First a quick bit of history: for 30 months Bashar al-Assad—the dictator of Syria– has been slaughtering tens of thousands of his own people—in a civil war against an opposition made up of many factions. The Western world watched, waited, and did nothing, hoping that the whole thing would simply go away. Instead the situation deteriorated with each passing week as more Syrians—and more innocents—were murdered by al-Assad’s armies, a fighting force which dwarfed anything he faced from the opposition. Even when Obama’s closest advisors and political foes alike told him he needed to arm the opposition, he waved them off and did nothing.

Then on August 21st, 2013, al-Assad did the unthinkable: he used sarin and perhaps other chemicals to murder more than 1,400 innocents, with more than 420 of those being children. Jews around the globe were reminded of another leader and another time in which a different gas was used to produce similar results.

Now al-Assad finally got what he did not want: the world’s attention.

Now let’s turn back the clock a year to when President Obama–in another pivotal moment— made his bold declaration: when asked about his stance on Syria he said that the “game-changer would come when Syria would throw a whole bunch of chemical weapons” around Syria. That was what he called his own “red line,” his line in the sand. No one doubted him. Wait. I take that back. Evidence now shows that his greatest foes—including al-Assad—likely questioned the word of the young American leader. Some say Obama was talking only for himself and not the nation. But the leader of the free world has no such luxury. Anything he says in front of a camera or a journalist becomes the word of the country.

It should come as no surprise that Obama is one of the most reluctant war Presidents in history. It is a good thing that he is called the “anti-Bush,” ending wars instead of starting them. That was one of the primary attractions of the young Senator from the land of Lincoln. He had called Iraq a “dumb war” long before he became president, and as President promised to bring back our heroes from Iraq and Afghanistan. He seized the moment by making good on those promises, for better or worse.

But then the Syrian crisis occurred and Obama’s red line was obliterated. And with the world’s eyes upon him, including al-Assad’s, Obama had the worst moment of his five-year presidency—when he decided to “punt” when he needed to lead. The president appeared indecisive and his foreign policy looked muddled at best. That moment played out on the world stage in a far harsher manner than it did in the U.S. Here four out of five war-weary Americans said they want Obama to get Congressional approval before striking at al-Assad’s war-making tools, even if it involves a very limited campaign with no boots on the ground. But the War Powers Resolution of 1973 gives the President the power to strike at al-Assad’s regime just so long as the attack is less than 60 days in duration.

Across the world reaction— and judgment— was swift.  “I think Obama has no desire to act,” said an Israeli statesmen following the press statement. “The Americans have lost the battle even before it started,” boasted the newly emboldened Syrian Deputy Prime Minister on a Pro-Syrian television station.” The next morning the key Syrian newspaper described Obama’s decision as a “historical American defeat.” One could only wonder what other leaders—like those in Iran and Russia and North Korea— thought of President Obama and the United States when the American President decided that he would allow members of Congress to complete their vacations and come back in ten days on September 9th. The urgency of now became the urgency  of… whenever. And what did Obama do after the worst moment of his presidency? He went golfing with his Vice-President.

For those of us who have followed and admired the first African American president the optics of the day were truly devastating. This was a President who always had the ability to do the right thing at the right time. But on this day his own decision- making abilities failed him, giving al-Assad a huge gift. It was bad enough that Obama had telegraphed—even televised—every aspect of his entire meager war plan against the regime. No boots on the ground, no regime change, nothing to really fear. Just a few targeted missile attacks, Mr. al-Assad, and you can go on your merry way killing and maiming, just so long as you do not use gas or other weapons of mass- destruction to do it. Now the Syrian leader has at least ten days to move all of his stockpiles of chemicals and weapons and troops. And what if he feels emboldened to order larger scale chemical attacks? What can we do? Congress is on vacation. In other words, even if Congress eventually does authorize force, it will be far too little, far too late. At this juncture, only a very specific and vigorous strategic battle plan with achievable goals could do real harm to the Iranian-backed Syrian regime.

How do we know that Obama failed? By what measure do I make such a judgment? The one leader I have observed and written about most extensively is Jack Welch, the former Chairman and CEO of General Electric. In Welch’s proven “4E” leadership model, he held that the most important two “E’s” of a leader is “Edge” and “Execution.”

Edge is the ability to make the really tough yes/no decisions and avoid the maybes.

Execution is the ability to transform a leader’s vision into reality.

On the final day of August of 2013, President Obama had neither edge nor execution. He never got to “execution” because he lacked edge and went straight to “maybe,” the very worst signal to send to the world at that pivotal moment. As a result, the word and reputation of the United States —and the presidency—will suffer for years to come. As he himself said, it does not matter who occupies the office when a decision like this is made. The office itself suffers. And perhaps the worst thing about this entire affair is that there is no way to turn back the clock, nowhere to go to get our reputation back. And who can the Syrian people go to now, as al-Assad continues his war with impunity against his own people?

— Jeffrey A. Krames, September 1, 2013/September 2, 2013

 

Should Good Men Do Nothing?

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The Limits of Charisma: The “Sequestration is Dumb” Edition (a.k.a How on God’s Green Earth Did we Get Here)?

Having written about some of the greatest leaders of the 20th century, I have always believed that charisma and leadership have little to do with each other. That idea is hardly new. It has been espoused most eloquently by the late, great Peter Drucker (the “Father of Modern Management”) when I met with him in 2003—as well as in several of his classic books.

Drucker also asserted that charisma, as defined by Merriam Webster as “a special magnetic charm or appeal,” could also be used as a construct to explain the evil influence of some of the worst leaders of the 20th century, like Stalin or Hitler. But, for the sake of this piece, we will use “charisma” to describe a positive leadership trait.

Before moving on, let’s get back to Drucker for a moment. To underscore the difference between leadership and charisma, he wrote: Harry Truman had no more charisma than a dead mackerel,” but accomplished great feats of leadership and legislative victories nonetheless. In contrast, Drucker asserted, “John F. Kennedy was perhaps the most charismatic president of his day, but “few presidents got less done.” I take exception with that characterization, since Kennedy both inspired a generation, and saved the world from a potential nuclear exchange during the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

Let’s fast forward more than five decades to today’s occupant of the Oval Office. In ways that were similar to JFK, Barack Obama has the gift of oration and charisma, two qualities that helped to get him elected twice. Obama is a gifted and intelligent president. His command of the bully pulpit typifies at least part of what makes a great leader, but only a part. For leaders of states and nations, there is no substitute for authentic leadership and effective legislating. Consider them as two sides of a coin. Opponents of Obama have labeled him the “campaigner in chief,” because whenever a difficult choice must be made by him and the congress, he takes his argument directly to the people, passing “go,” both houses of Congress, and the media in one fell swoop. But presidents must do much more than campaign.

The most effective leaders don’t just talk, they act. They articulate a path forward—a vision of the finish line—and get others to follow; this is true for people they don’t like or who hold different views than themselves…especially those that think differently from themselves. That was the best part of Lincoln—the President (as well as the movie). It is in this regard that Obama has consistently let us down, especially when it comes to the economy. Even though his common sense ideas are almost always more popular than any that emanate in Congress, he still comes up short when it comes to getting others in Congress to follow his lead. Recently Obama has reached out to members of congress by hosting a lunch and a dinner with key members of congress (but not the leaders of either house of congress).

Of course, John Boehner and the other House Republican’s obstructionists (e.g. think Tea Party zealots) have actually made  congress less popular than cockroaches (I kid you not). Their responsibility in sinking the U.S. economy into the sequester quagmire is equal—and even greater—than President Obama’s. Most Americans blame Republicans for hurling us into this mess which according to the government, could easily spark the loss of 750,000 jobs just when the United States was getting on solid ground following the great recession of 2008/2009. One very recent Bloomberg headline summed it up as follows: Congress Budget Cuts Damage U.S. Economy Without Aiding Outlook

 

POISONING THE WELL

And in one way important way, Republicans spoiled the well in a way that Obama will never forget.

Several years back, on the floor of the Senate, Leader Mitch McConnell announced that his main priority was to “make sure that Obama never gets a second term.” That is unprecedented—and politics at its worst.  One would think that creating legislation that leads to a stronger economy and the ending of two wars would rank higher than ridding the White House of its current occupant—or any sitting president for that matter. Think of it. What if one of your colleagues at work said the same thing to the entire company you work for—that getting you fired is his main priority. There is no way that would be tolerated by the leader of that organization. But the 2013 Republican party is both a leaderless and rudderless party. That did not happen overnight. They had to work at it to be so out of touch with the American mainstream.

I view Obama, who boasts a more definitive swagger after his second term win, as a determined prize fighter landing blow after blow on the entire Republican party. Don’t misunderstand me. He did not want this sequester to go into effect, but, as many pundits pointed out, he “miscalculated” by overplaying his hand. He thought that the Republicans would cave again because they could not tolerate the cuts to the Defense Department. Clearly he was wrong. And there are more “cliff-like” moments coming at the end of March and in the ensuing months that follow.

In the early days of March, no one knows what effect the Sequester will have on the economy and the financial markets. That’s because this is an unprecedented event for the U.S. (a self-inflicted $850 billion wound). People in far-away lands are incredulous—they can’t believe that the greatest country on Earth cannot get their fiscal house in order. In light of that, who knows what they will think of us if we are unable to come up with a new budget in the next few months. Stay tuned!!

Seek Strong Subordinates

strong-businessmen

Many managers are afraid to hire people better than themselves. That’s a huge unforced error. As Jack Welch once said, “the smartest people in the world hire the smartest people in the world.”

If you hire weak perfomers, “Bs” and “Cs” rather than “A’s,” you are doing yourself and your organization a serious disservice.  This is something that great business thinkers have understood for quite some time.

One of the most surprising things I learned about Peter Drucker was how he felt about Franklin Delano Roosevelt. While most historians and citizens from the era regarded FDR as a great leader, Drucker felt that our 32nd president was so insecure that he sought to “undercut” anyone he viewed as a threat. That convinced Drucker that FDR was a poor administrator and a weak leader in important areas.

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, felt the same way about hiring. He said that management’s first priority is not coming up with the right strategy, but making sure that you have the right people “on the bus.”  All else follows getting the right team on board first.   

If you fear so much for your job that you would consider hiring a sub-par performer, then you have already lost. The most effective leaders know this in their bones, which is why they try to fill every position with strength. Focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses is a key theme in The Unforced Error. It is the responsibility of every manager to bring strength to his or her organization whether we are talking about products, ideas, or people—especially people.

Fire Those Who Don’t Live Up to Expectations

In the last posting I discussed how hiring the wrong person is one of the greatest unforced errors a manager could make. Close behind that one is keeping the wrong person even though you know he is all wrong for your unit and/or company.

How do you know when someone doesn’t belong?

He may not live up to the rules of the organization, especially the unwritten ones. Or he or she may simply fight against every key management initiative. Or an employee may simply be over his or her head in their current position. In these unsettled times, with unemployment at about ten percent, there is no reason to keep someone who does not perform with distinction. In most industries, there are others on the bench and unemployment lines just waiting for a chance to show you what they can do. But that’s besides the point.

fired

Jack Welch was roundly criticized because he eliminated the bottom ten percent of the GE workforce every year. Early on he was called Neutron Jack (for eliminating people but keeping the buildings standing) and far worse by those who felt the full impact of this particular leadership tenet. But, as Welch pointed out, the New York Yankees fire the weakest players every year, so why shouldn’t his company? After all, both want to win and ridding the organization of non-performers increases one’s chances of winning. My new book, published today, The Unforced Error, increases chances that you will be retained and promoted rather than fired or left to twist in the wind.

The key is to make sure that when you discover someone who does not fit your company, move quickly. One of the greatest confessions made of big time CEOs is that when it comes to important matters, they never moved quickly enough. There is a lesson there for all of us, particularly those procrastinators who can’t ever reach inside themselves and make the really tough decisions that need to be made.

A Person Could be the Biggest Unforced Error of All

Tennis players often get to choose their doubles partners. In the world of business, you can’t always choose the people you work with.  As a new employee or manager, you are assigned to a particular team or unit. However, one of the big responsibilities that comes as you rise into the ranks of management is the authority to hire new teammates. And it is in this critical area that managers often make the biggest unforced errors of all.

Bad Employee

The best managers understand this. Under Jack Welch, less than one percent of GE’s “A” [best] managers jumped ship,  demonstrating how well GE hired and developed people under his leadership. The legendary CEO Alfred Sloan, who turned General Motors into the world power it became in the 1920’s, 30s, and 40’s,  would spend hours interviewing potential managers for positions that seemed insignificant from his vantage point on the org chart.  However, when Peter Drucker asked him why he spent four hours interviewing a manager for his Toledo plant, Sloan answered unflinchingly:  if I don’t spend those four hours now, he said, I will have to spend 400 hours cleaning up the mess. And that’s time I do not have.

Hiring bad partners or colleagues is obviously not restricted to sports and business. In my new book, The Unforced Error, I use the example of  Sarah Palin. At a time when the Republican candidate was five to seven points behind his Democratic challenger, McCain panicked. Even though his strongest case for voters was his experience—veteran senator, war hero, foreign policy experience—he abandoned all of that when he chose the inexperienced Alaskan governor, Sarah Palin, as his running mate. The junior senator from Illinois, in contrast, ran a near-error-free campaign. At first, Palin energized the base. However, when Katie Couric interviewed Palin in prime time, the Alaskan governor choked. Not being able to answer what magazines or newspapers she read was a huge unforced error that proved to the world that she was not ready for prime time. When she said she could see Russia from her living room as evidence of her foreign policy experience her fate was sealed. Soon after her numbers sank and along with it any chance for a Republican victory. While very few of us get to run for any office at that level, the story illustrates how choosing the right people is one of the most important decisions any manager ever makes.

Get Rid of the 100-Day Presidential Litmus Test

one-hundred-imageIn the spring of 1933 FDR announced major initiatives to lessen the impact of the Great Depression. The nation was a disaster. Things were so bad that  historian Arthur Schlesinger made the following statement at Roosevelt’s inauguration:  “It was now a matter of seeing whether a representative democracy could conquer economic collapse. It was a matter of staving off violence — even, some though — revolution.” 

Between March 9th and June 16th, 1933, Roosevelt proposed an unprecedented number of new bills that were quickly passed by both houses of congress. Roosevelt’s legislative orgy set off a presidential practice of evaluating the first 100 days of every new presidential administration

It is worth noting that when Roosevelt took over in March of 1933 the unemployment rate was an eye-popping 25% and all banks were closed and no checks could be written or cashed (can you imagine if that happened today?).  Even though many a pundit have thrown around the “D” word (Depression) in recent days and weeks, we are nowhere near where we were in 1933. That’s one of the two key reasons we should get rid of the 100-day litmus test. The other reason is even more pertinent.

In the course of a presidential administration, 100 days is nothing. It is very much a short-term phenomenon.  And therein lies the rub. There should never be an incentive for a leader to favor the short-term over the long-term. This is not to deify the present administration. They just went along with the hype by discussing it and hosting a press conference and a giant town-hall meeting.  Former GE chairman Jack Welch was adament about this, as was Peter Drucker before him. Said Drucker:  “There is one more major factor in every management problem…an additional dimension: time. Management always has to consider both the present and the long-range future.”

As long as a commander-in-chief has one eye on the 100-day calendar there is always the incentive to favor the short term over the long term health of the nation.  And that is never a good thing.

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