American voters had their angry moment this week. They turned the U.S. House of Representatives over to the Republican Party. It was an object lesson in the failure of leadership. This was not a partisan moment. It was a moment of supreme despair and frustration. If the blameworthy Republicans drove the car into the ditch—as President Obama said so often on the campaign trail—it became his administration’s failure to get it out of the ditch and back on the road to jobs that doomed Democrats in the mid-term elections. Nobody can argue the ditch wasn’t deep or that economic traction was illusive. Some like Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post saw voter’s behavior as irrational. In his editorial The Spoiled-brat American ElectorateRobinson wrote “The American people are acting like a bunch of spoiled brats.” When it comes to the massive challenges facing our nation he writes, “They want somebody to make it all better. Now.” Patience it seems is not on the national menu. Frustration, well that’s another matter.
Whenever either political party has held the full majority in both houses of Congress, they have more often than not failed to hear the electorate, ridden rough-shod over their opponents, filibustered one another’s efforts and in the end violated the inherent privileges of leadership. Simply put, every leader gets paid for results. Period. When individuals believe their sole purpose is to obstruct the other side’s plans, they forfeit their right to lead, violating the most basic tenets of trust, teamwork and responsibility of calling people to service along the way.
That’s also what makes it such a critical cautionary tale. If so many capable and talented politicians can blindly stumble into this leadership maelstrom, how can we possibly avoid it? Sure it’s a punchline to an easy joke, but it’s also a daunting question all leaders need to consider. History is replete with leaders who have gotten it so very wrong and thankfully a few so very right. Perspective in these matters is easily worth a 100 IQ points.
In my career I’ve had the benefit of observing the working style and behaviors of hundreds of business executives, community leaders and professionals. Each of them brought differing personalities, temperaments, skills, and experiences to our shared work. Many of them provided important or interesting teaching moments. Yesterday’s disclosure that Treasury Secretary Nominee Timothy F. Geithnerhad failed to pay overdue federal back taxes and penalties brought one of them immediately to mind. The details of Geithner’s tax troubles are ably reported in today’s New York Times so I won’t tread over this well worn ground. There are several solid lessons to be had. One of them is about “RM’s”, which leads me back to an earlier teaching moment with a venture capitalist.
Judging from his curmudgeonly ways, he had seen more than his fair share of bad ideas, poorly executed business plans, sloppy strategies, and less than stellar executive performance. He had also seen oodles of what he called “RM’s”—a not entirely positive short-hand for “rookie mistakes”. He had a knack for throwing “RM’s” at you, whenever he thought you’d overlooked the obvious, failed to think through your approach to an issue, or simply fell short of his expectations. “That’s an RM”, he’d say. His judgement omnipresent. “You need to look at this differently. You need to re-think your strategy here. Have you given any serious thought to the long-term impact of what you’re planning to do?” Invariably, the questions would come fast and furious without sarcasm or rancor. But the “RM” judgment was as crisp as a sub-zero winter morning. It had the feel of the character Gordon Gekko from the movie Wall Street (played by Michael Douglas) or perhaps Fox television’s 24 Agent Jack Bauer (played by Keifer Sutherland) up close and in your face. It was discomforting to be sure. Many a budding entrepreneur and even some senior level executives withered under the imprimatur of numerous call-outs for “RM’s”.
To be clear, if you’re interested in achieving any level of personal and professional growth you’ll likely collect your own set of “RM’s”. I’ve got mine and am still adding to the set from time to time. The trick is not to have a matching collection. If you do, it means you’re probably repeating the same “RM’s” over and over again. That’s a mistake of a different type. Rookie mistakes come with the territory. In the process of learning something new, exploring a fresh frontier or discovering a new interest, the odds are something will go astray. Dealing with a rookie mistake is easier than it looks. When you make a mistake, own up to it. Apologize directly, clearly, and quickly to those affected. The “I” message, as in “I made a mistake and want to apologize” works best. If there’s a means to remedy the situation, do so as quickly as possible. Among the largest “RM” is the temptation to cover up, gloss over or deny your culpability. That’s a far greater danger and much bigger risk to your career, reputation and self-esteem than you might ever imagine. Don’t do it. Making rookie mistakes is human. Learning from them and managing them effectively is a leadership imperative.
On a recent swing through Richmond, Virginia the hunt for fresh coffee and fossil fuel landed me at the 7-Eleven in Glen Allen (somehow I missed the nearby Starbuck’s). It also gave me the first opportunity to vote in the 2008 Presidential Election courtesy of highly unscientific 7-Election Presidential Coffee Cup Poll. The coffee cup poll now in its third year invites you to pour your favorite hot beverage into either a red cup for Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, or a blue cup for Democratic candidate, Sen. Barack Obama. According to 7-Eleven the poll has proven remarkably accurate in elections past, with results closely mirroring the official surveys by the country’s top political pollsters. In the first 7-Election in 2000, only 1 percentage point separated the cup-counts of now-President George Bush and Democratic nominee, Senator Al Gore. Likewise in 2004, President Bush out-cupped Senator John Kerry, 51 percent to 49 percent.
So what goes best with 7 Election coffee? Well, that brings me to the Cookie Poll sponsored by the Retail Bakers of America. That’s right, since 2004 when the cookie poll accurately predicted the next president of the United States – President George W. Bush – bakeries have baked and decorated cookies to represent both the Democrat and Republican candidates. Using political party mascots, colors, and the nominee names, each cookie sold represented one vote for the candidates. The Retail Bakers of America tabulate cookie sales of the presidential candidates weekly, and results are posted on the association’s website. So how’s this unscientific insight into America’s political psyche turning out?
So far, the 7 Election Poll results show John McCain with 40.68% of the vote winning in New Hampshire and West Virginia. Barack Obama leads with 59.2% of the votes with a sizeable headstart in the big states including California, Texas, New York, Ohio, Nevada, Arizona, and Florida. The Cookie Poll has Obama in the lead 57% to McCain’s 43% with 21,099 cookie votes cast so far. And that as they say is how the cookie (and perhaps the campaign) crumbles.