Political Gamesmanship: How to Lose without Really Trying

I have made it somewhat of a rule for myself to avoid writing about political leadership because there are few intellectual discussions on the topic. While in most corporate leadership situations the ongoing problem is that leaders manage only by outcomes, political leadership of late seem to rule without any obvious concern of outcomes. Having said that, and in light of today’s government shutdown, a few of my colleagues have shamed me on this topic, so I’m going to say only one short thing.


If you are a student of game theory you recognize that the current state of governmental affairs is a game with conflicting objectives. To give them credit, there is no “win/win” scenario on Capitol Hill right now. In fact, a win/win solution is a losing proposition for both sides when viewed in terms of the noise that would result from what Republicans and Democrats consider their “base.” A lose/win scenario is considered a win in the current scenario if the players are defined as the politicians and the same “base” that is so noisy. Unfortunately, the outcome of a lose/win scenario for the American people is a loss.




In case you aren’t enraged by the current state of affairs, here’s another tidbit. Congressional salaries are exempt from the shutdown. That’s right. President Obama still gets $400,000 per year and your favorite partisan representative or senator, those speaking on your behalf, will also receive their paychecks. The 27th amendment disallows Congress from changing its own pay. This means thatthey also will not be financially impacted by the shutdown. At a minimum of nearly $200,000 a pop, with 535 congressional members, some making much more, that’s a chunk of untouched change.

I have a solution that I think would work but would never happen because the very players in the current game are the ones who would have to adopt this. (This is also why I don’t write about politics) J

  • For every day of a shutdown, or sequester, or any major failure of Congress to uphold their fiscal duties, all Congress members are fined one week of salary.
  • After fifteen days, a cap is set on re-election budgets by incumbent congressional members
  • After thirty days, incumbents are declared ineligible to run for re-election for the next term

This is a fantasy of course and some of you will feel the need to point out all of the unintended consequences of such a plan. Fine. But unless there is some way to include personal consequence…the going-home-and-explaining-to-your-family kind of consequence that the rest of us face in our professions…I’m not sure the rules of the game will change.

Wait. Here’s another idea. We could all agree to no longer vote a party line but actually research, consider, and think about our voting choices before we make them. Hmmmm. That might work too.

Mayer vs Gillard—A contrast in leadership success

An interesting pairing of events has occurred recently which brings up a good question. On the one hand, the first prime minister of Australia,  Julia Gillard, lost her position in a barrage of what appear to be just poor decisions, bad timing, and bad communication. While she herself has argued that it’s more than just gender, others have decided to make it an example of how female leaders are set up to fail. Ms. Gillard stated, ” The reaction to being the first female PM does not explain everything about my prime ministership, nor does it explain nothing about my prime ministership.”

Marissa Mayer

Mayer had a good year

Julia Gillard

Gillard not so much

At the same time, Marissa Mayer celebrated her first year as CEO of Yahoo! on July 16th. For the most part, she has been successful, even with some tough press regarding some of her more aggressive decisions (like bringing workers back into the office). Yahoo!’s stock (sorry—the brand and the apostrophe just look silly don’t they?) has risen over 70% since she has taken the helm and although Yahoo! is still not a major threat to Google, she is also only a year in. Her focus has been on culture change but she has managed to shore up earnings at the same time. That’s pretty impressive.

So, is the failure of Gillard a result of gender? Is the success of Mayer a result of gender? Is it possible to even tell?

The problem with a bully pulpit is that it always oversimplifies the situation. To imagine the Ms. Gillard failed only because the system defeats female leaders is to ignore all of the other elements that play a role in a leader’s success. To imagine that Mayer has been successful, even though she is a woman, is the same type of limited thinking. Of course these leaders have had to deal with specific constraints and battles because of their gender, but they have also battled against market and political forces that are gender neutral.

To reduce the debate to a single factor, whether it is gender, generation, ethnicity, whatever not only oversimplifies the situation but it takes away from the true leadership abilities of the person in question. Gillard may turn out to be a strong politician and moving force in Australia yet…she’s fearless and focused. Mayer may yet struggle, but she also has strong capabilities for which she deserves credit regardless of gender. We need leaders, whether women or men, and we should celebrate when we find them and learn from them regardless of their chromosomes.

What do you think?


The Passing of a Great Leader: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher


Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, then you aren’t.  


Margaret Thatcher, 10/23/25-04/08/13

thatcherIt has always amazed me that in America we are so often “surprised” when women are chosen for high levels of leadership responsibility and we are truly challenged at the idea that a woman could just as easily be the best choice for national leadership as a man. If we were to elect a female president, there would be a certain amount of self-pride that we are so diverse and accepting as to consider that the gender of the top leader makes little difference.

Yet, one of the strongest democratic, free market leaders of all time was none other than Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The longest serving prime minister of the United Kingdom since the beginning of the 20th century, Mrs. Thatcher died today at the age of 87.

From a leadership perspective, Prime Minister Thatcher defied much of the myth of what it takes to become a great leader…especially as a woman. She was born in 1925 to very common means. Her father taught her about politics as she grew up, but not as a political relate. Mr. Roberts (her dad) was a member of the town council.

It is clear that the way Margaret Thatcher became the dominant leader that she became was by something pretty simple…she decided to do so. She entered politics in the 50s, losing her first foray but learning an enormous amount from the experience and gaining a reputation in the eyes of the public and her peers. The battle was a tough one, so much so that in 1973 she was quoted from a television appearance as saying, “I don’t think there will be a woman prime minister in my lifetime.”

Next lesson then—not only did she want to be a leader, she persevered even when she believed it was impossible. In May of 1979 she became that person that she thought would never exist when she was elected Prime Minister.

If you have any interest in leadership and you have not read her biography, you really should. Her terms were amazingly challenging for anybody but as a woman, she destroyed every myth. She was decisive in military challenges, open in taking on adversaries, and wise in knowing when to push and when to pull.  She had guts and she had compassion. After three terms as prime minister, Margaret Thatcher left the post in 1990 yet continued as an active member of the House of Lords. She went on to write several books, the only one of which I have read being Path to Power(2005) which is an amazing study of her life.

The legacy of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is one of many lessons. While I would still argue that her example makes most arguments of concern about women in leadership positions sound ridiculous, the lessons of her life are applicable to leaders of all gender and race. They are also important for new leaders and tenured ones. If you know what you stand for and are convinced that your leadership would benefit those around you, you owe it to yourself and others to claim the responsibility to make it happen.  If you do this, and you stay true to your beliefs, you can change your team or your company and perhaps, the world.

It’s Time for our Leaders to Lead

The electorate has spoken and since today most conversations will be about yesterday’s elections, I’m going to go there too if only briefly.

I’m a “fiscal conservative” if you would and I’m not a fan of big government.  There are certain liberal perspectives that make no sense to me and others that I simply think belong in the hands of the people rather than the politicians. I voted for Romney/Ryan because, in the balance, I felt the direction they espoused was a more responsible one to government than those of Obama/Biden.

BUT, yesterday the American people chose Obama for another four years. And I’m with Romney on this as well…let’s pray that he’s a successful President in his second term.

Notice that I didn’t say I’m a Republican, because there’s little about that party to be proud of either. The Republican’s screwed this one up and didn’t get it until it was too late. The policy of obstruction announced by Boehner four years ago, and the practice of opposing anything that might be seen as supporting the Obama administration did nothing to break the status quo even when the status quo is painful for millions of Americans.

Partisanship is for elections and there it serves a purpose. It delineates the field and simplifies issues. But governance is a collaborative effort. It requires compromise and a commitment to the bigger picture. True leadership requires working together for common outcomes. That shouldn’t be seen as a sell-out…that’s the act of getting things done.

Perhaps the game changes this time because this will be President Obama’s final term. Neither he nor the Republicans have the same need for dogmatism. It seems that both sides of the aisle made the first four years of Obama’s administration all about whether there would be a second four years. Well, now there is. Perhaps the next four years can be about the American people.

Thought for the Week: No Shortcut for Selection

"We made our employees sing at their interviews."– Jim Long, Media Pioneer

Employee selection and team-member selection are two of the hardest aspects of being an effective manager. Not only do you need to understand skillset and technical competencies, you are faced with additionally figuring out whether this person will add to the overall dynamics of your team. Determining personality and “fit” are the intangibles that drive leaders crazy and, in general, are something of a roll-of-the-dice even for the most skilled.

In order to apparently limit some of the “unknowns” in determining whether a person is a good fit or not, some employers and agencies have been asking applicants to provide their Facebook passwords as a condition of consideration for employment. From recent news, I can’t decide which disturbs me more—the fact that employers are actually asking for this information, or the fact that two U.S. Senators have had to ask Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate whether or not this practices violates federal law.


The fact that it’s even a question confuses me. An employer today cannot require you to provide your personal diary, nor the password to your personal email. They can’t ask to see the photo album from your latest vacation. They can’t ask you about your “relationship status” or which religious affiliation you claim or what bookmarks you have in your Internet browser at home.

So how can it even be possibly legit that you would provide your password to Facebook? The logical extension of this practice doesn’t even have to be taken to its extreme to be ridiculous. What about your iTunes playlist, or your “pins” on Pinterest? The links to the lame YouTube videos you watch? Your Netflix account? The list could conceivably go on and on

At the end of the day, managers have to make team selections based on their best available legitimate data, usually through the form of a resume (nearly useless), references (sometimes useless) and interviews (effective if done correctly). There’s not a short cut and there are no guarantees, which means you have to take your time, plan your approach, and get plenty of input from others to make a sound decision. Even then, you’re going to get it wrong sometimes. And I doubt that would change if you knew your applicant’s latest scores on Farmville.

Warren Buffett Said Enough—for now

In an age of immediate and exhaustive information, Warren Buffet’s announcement last week that he had chosen a successor left many investors and analysts perplexed and frustrated that he then failed to name exactly who that successor might be. In his annual letter to shareholders, the Berkshire Hathaway leader stated that “the person is an individual to whom [directors] have had a great deal of exposure and whose managerial and human qualities they admire.”

Warren BuffettSo, does the Sage of Omaha owe us more than that? According to some, including Lawrence Hrebiniak of the Wharton School, there should apparently be more concern at the announcement of a “secret” successor than no announcement at all. While I have argued in this blog before that there is a long-term danger of the “CEO Icon” mystique that requires companies like Berkshire Hathaway to ensure that succession is a priority, I disagree with Hrebiniak that Buffett is “losing it just a bit.”

In fact, there are some pretty real reasons why you don’t announce a successor before the deal is finalized. For one thing, the deal isn’t done until the deal is done. David Sokol, the original best bet for a successor to Buffet, resigned over allegations of insider trading. Had a been prematurely named by Berkshire as the next CEO, it would have been disastrous.

Similarly, in Buffet’s letter to shareholders, he mentions that there are two backup executives who could also be considered. He further stated that he has not plan to retire in the near future. So imagine, if he named an actual successor today, and then for whatever reason it didn’t work out, investors would absolutely believe they were getting second best with one of the two backups. While that could end up being the case, it could also be that the context changes and one of the other two are ultimately more qualified.

Buffet is in a situation strikingly similar to that of the late Steve Jobs, or former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates.  When the CEO is the identity of the company, investors and interested parties have a right to want to know that the company will succeed the current leadership. But Warren Buffet has shown himself to be a wise man many times over. It’s reassuring to know that the situation is a priority at Berkshire Hathaway, but with no indication to the contrary, I believe that’s enough. For now.