Filtering the U.S. Presidential Candidates Through IBM's Crucible

Rob Enderle

Last week, I wrote on the IBM Leadership event in New York, which was put on to partially celebrate IBM's 100-year anniversary. At the event, it had speaker after speaker - from presidents of emerging countries, to CEOs of global firms, to experts on leadership - get up and define what would make a great leader. Given the drama surrounding the U.S. presidency and the dissatisfaction both with the incumbent and with the folks running to displace him, I thought it would be interesting to set down how you might interview a candidate to see if he, or she, could actually be a successful leader.

 

So let's break it down.

 

Vision

 

It all starts with a vision or goal for the country. What is the aspirational goal that will cause folks to stand up and vote for the candidate the people in the country can get behind? Often, opposing candidates run on the goal of kicking out the bum currently in office, which is tactical and is largely how the existing bum got into the office (and look how well that worked out). I'm talking strategic, long-term goal. We are talking in the range of Kennedy's goal to land on the Moon, or Abraham Lincoln's goal to free the slaves and eventually re-unite a nation. There is actually a ranking of U.S. presidents and it is interesting to look back and see how far you have to go to find one that ranks in the Top 10. It appears that my grandparents' generation did one hell of a job, my generation and my parents' not so much.

 

Ironically, fixing health care could be a vision that fits the bill, but that takes us to number two.


 

Leadership

 

One expert at the event argued that meetings should be voluntary and that way you'd know who the leaders weren't - they'd be the ones in the empty conference room. For a leader to function, he or she has to be able to lead. Obama didn't lead on health care and it turned into a disaster, and the odds that the bill he sponsored will be both gutted by the courts and revoked by a successor are better than the odds of the bill being fixed. Leadership isn't about getting votes; it is about getting people to follow and the current administration has largely failed to even get its own party to go along with it.

 

But a new leader will have the same issues, so you are looking for someone who can lead others and who can set an agenda that people will actually follow. It is all well and good to argue about fixing the tax system or reformatting government, but if you don't have a history of getting large numbers of politicians to go along with your views, you'll be unsuccessful. There are some good visions in the current Republican field, but proven leadership in politics is far less common. And this is largely where the current administration has come up short.

 

Fact-based Decision Making

 

Now, you can have a great vision and have a great leader, but if they are going in the wrong direction, the first two things actually work against you. In short, if you are running away from the finish line, running faster isn't a good initial strategy.

 

It reminds me of a meeting I had years ago where the presenter drew a quadrant chart with the vertical range being direction (right and wrong) and the horizontal range being speed (fast and slow). He argued that the problem with most companies is that leaders tend to focus on speed before they figure out the right direction and end up making problems worse.

 

Many of our current problems appear to be the result of leaders who didn't get the facts right before they floored the accelerator. Iraq (both the cause and taking out the leadership), the failed stimulus package (which just increased the national debt astronomically) and even some of the disaster recovery efforts seemed to be tactical as it is more the exception than the rule that replacement structures are designed to weather the disaster they are fixing.

 

The Republican field almost seems awash with people who fire from the hip without first checking their facts and a good leader that leads in the wrong direction will be disastrous.

 

Wrapping Up: IBM for U.S. President?

 

If you look at IBM's big goal this year, it is Smarter Cities/Smarter Planet, which is both aspirational and strategic. It is leading its industry in the accomplishment of this goal and has led historically in technology (as Mike Vizard points out, IT plays a huge role in ensuring sound decisions), given that IBM is an information technology company that tends to live off information (though the '80s would suggest even it can get on the wrong track). Who can argue with the goal of creating a world with more responsive governments that do more with far less? Technology is the only segment that constantly does more with less, improving both cost and performance metrics at the same time.

 

In the end, if IBM were a person, it likely could make a hell of a president and it showcased what we should look for in a leader of the U.S.: someone with a strategic vision we want, who has a demonstrated ability to lead, and a history of basing decisions on actual facts rather than firing from the hip or relying on uninformed advisors.

 

I think you'll find that significantly cuts the field of folks running for the job and provides an answer for why the Republican Party continues to look for another candidate. It also points to how the current administration could save its job. More town meetings won't get it there, particularly if it misses the point.



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