Gordon's Lessons in Leadership from Obama and Elton

Posted on 15th April, 2009

“I screwed up” President Obama told NBC’s Nightly News in February this year.


The failed appointment of Tom Daschle as Secretary of Health and Human Services was a major embarrassment to the world’s favourite new President.  This was doubly so given that the putative candidature was abandoned just hours after the President had said he was "absolutely committed" to Sen. Daschle taking the job. Not to mention that the former senate majority leader’s tax oversights came to light during what turned out to be a string of appointment disasters for the administration.

Whilst the President could never be expected to have been personally involved in the inadequate pre-vetting process before he gambled on Daschle, he made it clear that he took ultimate responsibility. “I’ve got to own up to my mistake”, he told Brian Williams, “today was an embarrassment for us." The President said he was “angry,” “disappointed” and “frustrated with myself” over the episode.  

The apology was timely, wholehearted and, apparently, genuine.
As such, the American people accepted it, his polling remained steady and life returned to normal.


Contrast this with the behaviour of the President’s British counterpart over the recent McBride email affair.  Damian McBride, until the weekend a long-serving and extremely senior adviser to the Prime Minister, made the fatal political error of being found out.


Let’s be clear, all political parties engage in dirty tricks.  It’s the game. It might suck, but that’s the world we live in.  Admittedly, McBride’s fabrications about members of the Conservative Party were particularly distasteful but no one in the Westminster village is genuinely surprised that this kind of thing goes on. And we can accept that Gordon Brown had, as he says, no knowledge of the content of the McBride emails: not least because that is irrelevant.


The real story is the Prime Minister’s response to, and handling of, the affair.  In this respect, American readers might reflect on the ‘handling’ abilities of a 1970’s occupant of the White House.


And just as President Nixon didn’t personally break into the Watergate Building,  President Obama didn’t personally vet Tom Daschle or Bill Richardson. But he understood that, as the boss of the people who did, he was responsible for their mistakes. And he said so. Publicly. On several networks.


The British Prime Minister’s felt-tipped (?!), “private” notes to David Cameron, George Osborne and Nadine Dorries, the intended targets of McBride’s slurs, expose his misunderstanding of the nature of leadership.


In seeking to distance himself from both the problem and McBride himself, Gordon Brown’s begrudging, delayed ‘regret’ is at best only a half-apology and has already proved to be counter-productive. History shows that leaders, perhaps counter-intuitively, actually extend their shelf-life when they admit – genuinely and fully - they got something wrong.  Voters, employees and consumers just don’t tend to buy the “it wasn’t my fault” line.


This is because they know that leadership is not simply about grandiose oratory at lecterns in the London Docklands (although, as President Obama himself would admit, that has its place).


Leadership is also about ownership. Leaders – whether they like it or not – ‘own’ the entirety of the organisations they lead.  Every customer who passes through the doors of a Marks & Spencer or a Wal-Mart has an experience, good or bad, that is ultimately ‘owned’ by Sir Stuart Rose or Mike Duke. Every iphone user has a view on their handset that, similarly, has to be ‘owned’ by Steve Jobs.


And Rose, Duke and Jobs seem to understand that.  Not least because their jobs depend upon it. They know that because genuine leadership involves risk-taking, sometimes those risks will not pay off and mistakes will be made. This is unavoidable. But because we are a fairly forgiving species and we recognise that to err is human, mistakes are not generally fatal: provided they are properly handled.


Just ask Willie Walsh of British Airways. This time last year he was demonized as the man who, through the chaos at LHR’s Terminal 5, lost the world’s luggage.  But he apologised and made it clear, very publicly, that as far as the whole fiasco was concerned the "buck stops with me".  This was even having admitted that he pushed on with the opening of T5 despite knowing that there could be some very serious problems. Discussing this decision with a committee of British MPs he went on to say candidly that "it was a calculated risk and one I decided to take.....you can't point the finger at anyone else."


Indeed.  And the same is true of political leaders.  In fact, where apologies or admissions of failure are full, heartfelt and pretty immediate, they can end up actually endearing leaders to voters. It makes them look, shock horror, human.


So as the British Prime Minister stands on the bridge eyeing the general election coming into view on the horizon, he should ask himself: can leaders really admit to having made mistakes, apologise and still recover?


The resounding response from the other side of the ocean – Yes We Can.


And the lesson from Elton?


Well for Gordon at least, Sorry – still - Seems To Be The Hardest Word.


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Comments (5)

Thanks for your comment Jim - but no, this site is about leadership and business improvement and is apolitical.<br /><br />There are plenty of political bloggers out there as the McBride affair showed. As a specialist, what I'm interested in is the lessons we can draw from leadership as and where we see it (or don't, as the case may be) out there in the broader world. <br /><br />It makes what can otherwise be a rather academic topic live and real.<br /><br />I agree wholeheartedly that there is no blue-print for successful leadership and you'll see one of the previous posts talks about the inadequacies of any attempt to 'model' it. That said, as I add more and more blogs you'll see that I am trying to pin down some of the key atttributes of leadership.<br /><br />I'd welcome more of your comments as I do.<br /><br />Nick
Interesting:- <br /><br />http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8002085.stm
mmmm, political capital is definately a factor here but an apology is an apology is an apology. who knew the british couldn\'t say sorry? i thought you said it all the time!
How many mistakes can a leader admit to before he/she becomes a fool? Obama currently has a pile of good will to work with; but if a similar screw-up happened next week, could he say it again?