Monday, November 05, 2012

The Long View Imperative for Leadership

When my daughter was very young she briefly thought I was a fireman after overhearing me describe to a reporter over the telephone that a significant amount of my time as a community-destination marketing executive involved “putting out fires.”

It is an unfortunate condition of executive management that far too much time is diverted to problem-solving, but as noted in an address earlier this year for The Wheatley Institution, a think tank founded by another Idaho native, that seeks to strengthen society’s core institutions, Dr. Roger B. Porter, IBM Professor of Business and Government for the Harvard Kennedy School noted that leadership is more than just problem-solving or hyper list-checking.

I’m not so sure myself, but during my now-concluded 40-year career as an exec in community economic development, some flatteringly claimed that I stood out as strategic while critics, including a couple of friends, cautioned that personally and organizationally I took on too much.

For today’s community-destination marketing execs, taking what Porter calls “the long view” is de rigueur as anyone leading an organization that has been truly accredited knows.

As Porter, who graduated from Brigham Young University a year ahead of Mitt Romney and two years ahead of me, explains, a problem-solver is reactive while a strategic or long-view leader is proactive, viewing each problem and solution through a “prism” of “overarching goals and objectives.”

Those who thought I was strategic during my career perceived that I was always using such a prism.  Those who feared that I took on too much in defense of the identities of the communities for which I fought during my career didn’t realize that I was equally determined to filter all tactical, day-to-day actions, including “putting out fires, through that prism.

Use of a long view prism is also what distinguishes some who are able to see through “special interests” from the many who front for them instead, basing decisions on “who’s asking.”

As Porter eloquently notes in an essay adapted this month from his remarks at Wheatley, “long view leaders” are “searching the horizon not for problems that need solutions [or I might add, problems to fit preconceived pet solutions or beliefs] but for the surest and most efficient path to the overarching goals they have established.”

Today, organizations can no longer afford leadership at any level including elected office that doesn’t take the long view, or to adapt the words of Dr. Helen Fisher, a researcher in behavioral anthropology at Rutgers University who blogs at from an essay published last week by US News about the “genetics of politics” (which applies just as well to management,) leaders need a little less testosterone and a lot more estrogen with a constant supply of dopamine.

According to recent biographies of two of America’s greatest and most beloved Presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, a trait that made both uniquely successful was their willingness to surround themselves with aides and advisors representing a wide range of dissenting viewpoints, a trait that frustrates many advocates as well as detractors of President Barack Obama.

As Washington and Lincoln each addressed seemingly insurmountable challenges, this trait enabled them to take the long view, always being aware of historical precedent, forgiving in victory, willing to adapt ideas even from their enemies while, even in the midst of crisis, never losing sight of the overarching importance of infrastructure and the indispensible role of debt, even as each struggled to balance their personal check books.

These Presidents had no patience for partisan bickering or lock-step ideologues or favor-seeking lobbyists or anything that short changed the common good and upward mobility such as today’s no-tax pledge.  They were moderate realists.

As Porter concludes about great leaders of every stripe: “They are not diverted by the seemingly urgent…[they] concentrate on the important and eschew the less important.”

Just as importantly, according to Porter, great leaders “are more concerned with investing in the future than in immediate gratification, and they value dynamism, change, and innovation over security and stability.”

To me, these observations and lessons are as applicable to small community organizations as they are world leaders and central to any job description today for management or leadership, appointed or elected.

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