This presidential column is not about ideology. The election is over. And while we believe that John McCain is a great American whose economic platform has made business better, particularly in terms of free trade, tax policy, and job creation, we look forward with hope to the presidency of Barak Obama.
If there is one USA for all people, as he passionately promised, then surely it will also serve the interests of the millions of hardworking small entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs who are so much a part of the strength and future of this country. But enough of the politics.
This column is about the lessons business leaders can learn from McCain’s defeat and Obama’s victory. Because while there are differences between running an election campaign and running a business, three critical principles of leadership stand out. And it is on these principles that Obama’s decisive victory was established.
Start with the oldest principle of leadership: a clear and consistent vision. If you want to galvanize followers, you simply cannot rework your message. Neither can you confuse or scare people. McCain’s Social Security policy, for example, had real merit. But his presentation was always complex.
At the same time, Obama’s message was simple and appealing. He talked about the failures of George W. Bush. He spoke about the change of hope and health care for all. On several occasions, he painted a picture of the future that excited people. He was also a perfect example for business leaders: Sticking to a limited number of points, repeating them relentlessly, and getting people to buy into them.
The next management principle should sound familiar: execution. In their eponymous book, Larry Bossidy and RAM Charan demonstrated that execution is not the only thing a chef must master perfectly, but without it nothing else matters. This election proves their point. In almost two years of campaigning full of attacks and counterattacks, Obama’s team has made few mistakes. From the start, his advisors were best in class, and his players were always well-prepared, nimble, and where they needed to be. McCain’s team, crippled by a less cohesive set of advisers and less money, simply couldn’t make the cut.
Another great leadership lesson can be learned from the mastery with which Obama defeated Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. She thought she could triumph the old-fashioned way, winning the great states of New York, Ohio, California, and so forth. He revealed an unexpected way to get there by winning over all the small towns and usually overlooked caucuses.
The business analogy couldn’t have been more apt. Too often, companies think they’ve achieved perfect execution by using the same old recipe to get better and better. But successful execution means doing things perfectly by finding new customers and opening new markets in the meantime. You can’t just beat your rivals with the old rules; to grow, you have to invent a new game and beat them at that too.
Finally, this election reinforces the value of well-placed friends. From the beginning, Obama had the support of the media, which chose to ignore the controversies which concerned him. Meanwhile right after the Republican primaries, McCain began to take it from all sides. In the end, no one could dispute that Obama’s relationship with the media made a difference.
As a business leader, you cannot succeed without the approval of your board of directors. Every time you try to trigger change, some will resist. They can fight you openly in meetings, through the media, or with the subterfuge of palace intrigue. And you will have to make your case in all these meeting places. But in the end, if your council supports you, defeat can be turned into victory.
This is why you must begin any leadership initiative with your “friends in good places” firmly at your side, convinced of the merits of your character and policies. But it’s not enough. If you want to keep your board as an ally, don’t surprise them. Think of McCain’s hazardous choice of Sarah Palin. The media didn’t like the joke. Surely political strategists will analyze this election from every angle for years and years. But business leaders can learn lessons right now. You may have ideas. But you need a lot more to win the game.