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The Managerial Triumph of Barack Obama

Nada Almutawa
08/11/2008 12:00 AM

How Obama Became CEO of the USA -- and What It Means for CEOs Everywhere

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It`s the morning after one of the most miraculous events in memory, so it seems slightly uninspired to look to yesterday`s election for lessons about leadership, competition, and change. But what is a presidential election, ultimately, then a nationwide exercise in leadership, competition, and change?

So this morning, still bleary-eyed from a late night of watching concession speeches, victory celebrations, and nonstop punditry from all points on the political spectrum, allow me to offer a few insights about how Barack Obama ran his campaign to lead our country -- and what it means for how we should think about how we run our companies and lead our organizations.

The first lesson is that being different makes all the difference. It`s remarkable, really, how similar so many of our first 43 presidents have been to one another. It`s not just that they`ve all been white males, but that so many of them have been cut from the same personal and political cloth. Lawyers. Military service. Many years (if not decades) entrenched in the political scene.

Other than the lawyer part (hey, we can forgive one shortcoming!), Barack Obama simply does not fit the traditional mold--and not just because of the color of his skin. Born in Hawaii to a mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya. Raised largely by his grandmother. A period of his childhood in Indonesia. A community organizer. A constitutional-law professor. And don`t forget that scary middle name!

Early on in the campaign, the pundits warned that Obama`s unusual background made him too "exotic" to win the Presidency. In fact, it is that which made him different that made him so unstoppable. Obama didn`t win despite the fact that he is so different. He won precisely because he is so different.

Americans seemed to sense that the stakes are too high, the problems too severe, to settle for politics as usual. Much the same can be said of business today.

Think of all of the best-performing and most-beloved companies and brands, from Southwest Airlines and Apple Computer to Zappos and the Geek Squad. What do they all have in common? They are outliers, innovators, weirdos -- they don`t look, talk, act, compete the same way as everyone else in their industry does. They are as "exotic" in their field as Barack Obama is in his -- and they, like Obama, are winning votes that the competition isn`t.

Seth Godin, everyone`s favorite marketing guru, once wrote a funny line that I take pretty seriously: "Tastes like chicken," he cracked, "is not a compliment." That`s what`s wrong with how so many of us compete today, whether it`s in business or politics. We are comfortable in the middle of the road, playing the game the way everyone else does. We all "taste like chicken"--and then we wonder why so few people get excited about what we have to offer.

There`s a second lesson we can learn. Just because you`re different doesn`t mean you can`t be disciplined. What struck me so strongly about the Obama campaign was, from the very first day, how ruthlessly "on message" it stayed, no matter the twists, turns, and psychodramas from the other candidates or the media gasbags. Bill and Hillary Clinton took some tough shots at Obama during the Democratic primary, and he never took the bait. John McCain and Sarah Palin unleashed some truly unkind and unhealthy assaults on Obama`s character and patriotism, and he never got down in the gutter with them -- even when Clinton`s advisors, whom Obama`s campaign had vanquished in the primaries, urged him to fight back.

Obama didn`t take the bait because, again, unlike the political establishment, he didn`t spend most of his time thinking about the competition. He spent most of his time thinking about how to connect with his core constituencies. He was less concerned about what other candidates were saying about him than what he was saying to voters -- and he didn`t let the "noise" on the campaign trail interfere with the "signals" he was sending to his supporters.

What a contrast with John McCain, a noble leader who seemed to change personalities, let alone campaign tactics, on a weekly basis. Again I am reminded of some wisdom from a management guru, this time Jim Collins. "The signature of mediocrity," he likes to say, "is not an unwillingness to change. The signature of mediocrity is chronic inconsistency."

It was "chronic inconsistency" that took a difficult challenge for McCain and made it impossible. The same goes for so many companies. They lurch from one strategy to the next, one consulting fad to another, because, deep down, their leaders don`t really understand what makes them different, better, special. When you do understand that, it gives you the confidence to stick to your message and strategy -- no matter what your rivals say and do.

Don`t trust me, or Seth Godin, or Jim Collins on that score. Henry Ford put it best many decades ago: "The competitor to be feared is the one who doesn`t bother about you at all, but goes about making his own business better all the time."

Sure, it`s more complicated than that. But these simple principles seem pretty darn powerful to me. Embrace what makes you different, don`t apologize for it. Develop a message that sticks, and stick with it regardless of what your rivals say and do. Above all, stay focused on your constituents rather than your competition.

It`s a formula that helped Barack Obama become CEO of the USA, and it can help you become a more effective leader in your organization. Not sure you can do it? Yes you can!

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