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Got A Little Too Much JQA In Your Organization?

I’m always a little late to the game when it comes to finding good podcasts. However, I have a wife who has a longer commute than me (sorry, honey) and has found podcasts to be a balm to soothe her mind and stoke her intellect while navigating Atlanta’s daily traffic woes. One of the latest podcasts she has introduced to me is Presidential, which is produced by the Washington Post. Each week, Lillian Cunningham devotes an episode to one President – starting with Washington and ending with Obama – and explores their character and the legacy they left as Chief Executive. Well, consider this history nerd fully fascinated and engaged.

Now, even though the podcast started a few months ago, I just started listening and am only caught up to John Quincy Adams (AKA JQA). But already I’ve learned so much about the birth of this nation and how even the Founding Fathers were complex individuals who didn’t always get governance right. And I’ve learned that while we might think our current political climate is completely FUBAR, from the moment of our nation’s founding there was discord among opposing viewpoints, constitutional squabbles, and racial tensions that don’t seem that different from what we are experiencing today. In some ways, it’s rather comforting to know there really has never been a golden age when all Americans – regardless of color, religion, creed, etc. – held hands and sang Kumbaya. Yes, granted there have been better times than others, but this “union” of states has always been in some phase of precarious tension that could tear it apart.

A related and important question raised in the podcast series, and which gets to the title of this post, is what does effective leadership look like? Let’s say you have someone with a bold vision for what they want to see and a strong policy framework in mind to make it happen. That sounds like effective leadership, doesn’t it? It’s supposedly what we want from the person in charge. By that definition, JQA was a visionary leader who wanted to dramatically overhaul the infrastructure of the young U.S.A. The only problem was that Congress wasn’t having any of it. The result: gridlock. No one was willing to budge or compromise for reasons both petty and pragmatic. Sounds familiar, right? Sounds like what’s happening “over there” in Washington right now, yes?

But what if it’s also happening right now in our own organizations? Show of hands where there is no conflict holding up a crucial project or keeping a department from surpassing its goals. Yup, thought so. I’m not suggesting that conflict is inherently bad…quite the opposite. Productive conflict that focuses on mission and a mutually desired objective is what moves organizations into new areas of growth. Yet, on the other hand, unhealthy conflict occurs when leaders believe their own vision is the only vision and their way of getting there is the only way of getting there. (It’s also not too healthy when leaders get too caught up in their own fears of change and paranoia of not being completely in control, but that’s a topic for another day.)

I get it, though. If figuring out how to create win-win scenarios on a daily basis was easy, thinkers like Stephen Covey wouldn’t have sold millions of books. Organizations like yours and mine would be operating with close to zero friction. And JQA’s presidency would be considered a rousing success rather than the one term failure that history has judged it to be.

Here’s the question I invite you to ponder along with me: how can we practice effective leadership which best balances our vision for organizational success so it is also inclusive of the visions held by others? When things stop working well, that seems to me one of the only ways we can dislodge ourselves from the political mire that holds us back from doing world-changing work.

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