Lessons Learned in Full Public View

Regardless of your support for the results of the last Presidential election most will agree that there were leadership successes and failures throughout the campaign from which one could learn. Although Presidential elections are not a succession in the family business sense, there are a number of similarities. One might even argue that U.S politics are a “family business” if you analyze the generational successors such as the Bush Family.

Our Family Business Leadership Series No .21 Effective Leadershipin the Family Business by Craig Aronoff and Otis Baskin teaches in a substantial way that leadership is fundamentally about the ability to influence others, even if you don’t currently possess legitimate power or a position of authority. On election night millions of people gathered in Chicago and many more hovered around their TV sets throughout the world to get a glimpse of our new President and hear his words of change. President Obama’s influence could be visibly seen and felt. Let’s look at some of the key points in his campaign that could be adapted to leadership development in the family business.

Earning credibility takes time and is established through consistent behavior. Aronoff and Baskin write that earning credibility is much more important than inheriting the right or the opportunity to lead. If we examine some of the behavior these authors state is needed to establish effective leadership in family business, we will find that many of these characteristics came to define Obama as a leader and ultimately led to his success.

Effective leaders are articulate. Obama’s ability to express the concerns and fears of people in a calm but compassionate manner helped persuade early skeptics to listen to him. This ultimately resulted in a devoted base of advocates working and voting for his success. Family business leaders who have the ability to articulate the future direction of the business to the family in a calm but passionate way, so that everyone including plant floor workers, the suppliers, the customers and executive suite members understand the vision and support the leadership.

Leaders are willing to act and to take risks. Obama did not react to unfolding issues or challenges in a knee jerk fashion. He was deliberate but not delayed in his responses. He knew that he needed to act quickly to be out front articulating his position. When ready, he presented from his own page not as a reaction to his opponents barbs and calls for action. This was particularly successful in his focused responses to the race question presented by his former minister, as well as during the Wall Street meltdown and the resulting call to suspend campaigning. Obama also knew when his family needed him, and he earned respect and credibility when he had to step back from “business” and pay a visit to his dying grandmother. Successful family business leaders are jacks of many trades. One must fight the urge to be reactionary in responding to emerging issues and challenges. This often requires foregoing deliberation of alternatives. One must also take caution against non-action such as hiding in the office or over delegating the tough decisions required of leaders. Over time these tests influence others to believe in you.

Leaders build the team. Obama built one of the most effective national teams through the use of key supporters and by leveraging the power of technology and grass roots efforts to communicate early and often. One only has to look at the power of his fundraising and electronic communication strategies to see the success of his team. Obama’s team remained cohesive and did not suffer as a result of petty disagreements and directional changes. Who got credit for what was inconsequential to Obama. That the team was operating together was of utmost importance. At times Obama talked about himself in the third person, deflecting any image of a huge ego or solitary decision maker.

In family businesses, the founding generation often has to act in a solitary manner to make quick decisions and take advantage of any market opportunities that are present. As time moves on, this style can hold the family business back as other family and non-family members join the company and want to make a contribution and grow the company. If they are not permitted a voice or a way to make an impact on the team, the strong get up and leave and the weak stay and disappear into the woodwork. The family business loses the power that new and diverse teams and leaders bring to the table.

Leaders build trust. Much is written about the charismatic leader but in reality the word “charismatic” embodies a number of behavior patterns that come to be recognized in a leader over time. These behaviors are different in each leader, but in order for a leader to build trust the patterns must be consistent and the leader must be dependable no matter what is happening. A mark of a good leader is that his or her team knows what to expect and can trust in the leader’s response.

A behavior that is constantly present in leaders is energy. Obama displayed energy through his stance, his entry and exit from a room, the passion in his facial expressions, and in his demeanor. He carefully avoided the firebrand persona that many of his early opponents developed. His quiet, steady, reasoned but underlying resonate energy built trust in his early followers and developed trust in him as a candidate for many as time went on. Knowing what to expect from him, knowing that he would not lose focus or get side tracked, built trust.

In family businesses, trust starts to develop before we even know it. It may be through performance in that first summer job in the company or on that special project for a family meeting. In all cases it is the leaders “charisma” that translates over time through behaviors which include consistency, inclusion, and communication, all of which are hallmarks of leadership.

And remember, leaders are only leaders when they can influence others to follow.