Posted by: dstieglitz | March 29, 2013

Inspirational Leadership in Washington

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, to learn more, to do more,

and to become more, you are a leader.”     – John Quincy Adams

     Unfortunately, the leadership was on the baseball field not in the White House or Congress. After winning 98 regular-season games, the Washington Nationals ended 2012 by losing 9-7 to the St. Louis Cardinals in the deciding game of their playoff – despite leading 6-0 after three innings. It was among the most colossal collapses in post-season history with lots of potential blame. One might say the team’s failure was the baseball equivalent of the 2011 Super-Committee’s failure to recommend a federal budget. Despite that ignominious loss, Davey Johnson, the Nationals’ field manager, declared “the World Series or bust in 2013.”

     Davey’s Swan Song. When he announced that he will retire after the 2013 season, the 70-year old Johnson doubled down on his expectations for the team. He said: “With the job they did last year and experience under their belt from the post-season, it’s going to be an awfully exciting year.” He engaged the players’ pride by comparing them to his 1986 New York Mets team that won 108 games and the World Series. He boasted that the Nationals were the best defensive team he has ever managed and claimed that their starting pitchers, bullpen, and bench were as good as any of his six championship teams. Johnson said “I’m going to take heat if we don’t play well.”

     Leadership Attracts Talent. His leadership not only engaged the players, it enabled the front office to attract and retain top talent. The Nationals added a top-10 closing pitcher as a free agent, filled a void in center field via trade, and resigned their Golden Glove first baseman who was a free agent. Johnson’s confidence has the players believing their status as a Las Vegas favorite. “Nobody wants to come in second,” shortstop Ian Desmond says. “Yeah, it’s World Series or bust. I’m right there with him.” The players also warn “don’t get comfortable” as they push each other to produce career-best seasons.

     Leadership Attracts Talent. His leadership not only engaged the players, it enabled the front office to attract and retain top talent. The Nationals added a top-10 closing pitcher as a free agent, filled a void in center field via trade, and resigned their Golden Glove first baseman who was a free agent. Johnson’s confidence has the players believing their status as a Las Vegas favorite. “Nobody wants to come in second,” shortstop Ian Desmond says. “Yeah, it’s World Series or bust. I’m right there with him.” The players also warn “don’t get comfortable” as they push each other to produce career-best seasons.

     The Federal League. Federal agencies play in the Major League of government, and each agency is a team with a manager potentially like Davey Johnson. The press maligns civil servants (the players) as being under-worked and overpaid, and Congress has withheld pay raises for several years. With over two million employees, it would be inappropriate for the government to have a risk-taking, start-up culture; but its leaders must do more to attract, retain, and motivate employees who value opportunity and innovation.

     Getting to Cool. During his first campaign, President Obama promised to “make government cool again.” But there’s more to running the government than campaign speeches – workers in the Executive Branch need leadership. The avalanche of threatened shutdowns, bruising private-public job competitions, adverse salary surveys, and now furloughs leave many federal workers feeling undervalued and dispirited. Government service is anything but cool these days.

     Sequestration is Like Losing the Playoffs. How does a leader bring his or her team back from such a demoralizing loss? Since the recession began, millions of Americans in the private sector and state and local government lost their jobs while the federal government expanded. But the situation has dramatically reversed: federal jobs are at risk and the private sector is slowly recovering. The real effects of sequestration will lie somewhere between the sky-is-falling Obama and head-in-the-sand Republican extremes. Nevertheless, federal leaders will be challenged to retain talented people who envy stable private-sector jobs. For example, one wonders what the long-term effect of cancelling White House tours will be on attracting young professionals into civil service.

     Leading During Crisis. Like Davey Johnson’s inspirational actions after the Nationals’ defeat, there is plenty leaders can do to re-engage the federal workforce. Obama distanced himself from the failed super-committee and sequester negotiations, and many Executive Branch leaders followed his wait-and-see approach. In good times, leaders transform average performers into great performers by pushing people just beyond their current abilities. In challenging times like these, proactive leadership is required to even maintain performance levels.

     Teams on the Rise. Teams – whether in sports, business or politics – that improve performance year after year behave in predictable ways. The following table lists behaviors that are characteristic of teams on the rise and teams in decline. Which behaviors were displayed by Davey Johnson and the Washington Nationals, and which are displayed in Washington’s political arena? Which behaviors does your team display?

Behaviors of a

Team on the   Rise

Behaviors of a

Team in Decline

Envisioning the   Future

Leaders use evidence and logic to define the vision for future success

Leaders take adamant positions and support them with one-sided arguments

Evaluating Options

Everyone pushes to find new ways to achieve shared goals

People argue mainly to boost their public image and personal interests

Learning from Mistakes

Everyone learns from failure and takes responsibility to do better next time

Leaders autopsy setbacks, assign blame, and often repeat their mistakes

Unifying Actions

Everyone works together to make decisions succeed – even if they don’t agree

People acquiesce to decisions but don’t alter their actions – or worse yet, try to make the decision fail

Giving Credit to Others

Everyone compliments each other for success, and enjoys each other’s full faith and confidence

People pursue individual praise and achievements while minimizing the contributions of others

Providing Supportive Leadership. It’s essential for leaders to reach out to people in difficult times. That may seem like obvious advice, but that doesn’t make it less powerful. You will be surprised at how much can be accomplished in just one meeting with your people. To maintain high performance, make it a two-way conversation where: answer as many of your people’s questions as you can, and (2) hear their concerns and ideas.

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