From Inside or Outside, Change Needs Seasoned Leadership

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Last week President Obama said one of his biggest first-term failures was to underestimate the difficulty of changing the tone in Washington. He said that Washington "cannot" be changed from the inside; it can only be changed from the outside.

Is that true? Is it impossible to change Washington from the inside, or is the worsening divide in Washington a failure of change leadership?

In April 2009, I wrote a column Obama Must Launch Offensive Against Gridlock. In it, I questioned the president's change leadership strategy and asserted that if he did not make four major changes there would be gridlock after mid-term elections. That is precisely what happened.

One month before my article, The New York Times article ran a story with the headline, "Scolding GOP, Obama Makes 15 Recess Appointments." Scolding and blaming created gridlock which produced more scolding and blaming and more gridlock.

Candidate Obama's post-partisan vision captured the hearts of many Americans. To voters, it seemed simple; all that was needed was a president who was committed to ending the fighting. In a landslide victory, the American public lined up behind the new president -- he had the mandate from the outside. But the president and the public soon learned what many executives have learned -- making change statements is much easier than making change.

The deeper issue is that few Americans appreciate the skills required for successful leadership. Most know that it takes more than ten thousands of hours of practice to develop the skills to be a professional golfer or tennis player. Yet, we assume that the experience needed to be the president of the United States, the CEO of, arguably, the world's most complex organization, is something almost any intelligent person can do with a couple of advisors.

In 2008, U.S. citizens hired a candidate with no formal leadership experience, not even a first line supervisor job, to become America's CEO.

Other 2008 candidates included John McCain and Hillary Clinton. McCain was a legislator. Given the number and impact of the bills he sponsored, he should be considered a successful legislator. But holing up with a small team to write legislation hardly qualifies one to lead a highly diversified organization of just under three million employees. Although there are some overlapping tasks, senator and president are two very different jobs. Governor and President -- that's much closer match.

Then there is Hillary Clinton whose leadership experience was as a partner in a small Arkansas law firm. Many voters and media members considered her qualified because her husband had been a president. How many corporate boards consider that a valid qualification when hiring a CEO?

Or, what about appointing college professors to lead federal departments with thousands of employees? Can a smart person with no leadership experience at all succeed as a large scale organization leader? Is the smartest person in the room typically the best leader? It seems that the American public grossly underestimates the skills required to lead.

Among all leadership skills, the most difficult may be change leadership. Change leadership requires: 1.) an inspiring vision jointly created and deeply embraced by key constituencies, 2.) an ability to find and build upon points of agreement, and 3.) extraordinary person-to-person influence skills. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both scored well against these criteria.

In the 1980's, it seemed that interparty tensions could not be worse. Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill squared off daily. They spent many hours together rolling up their sleeves to resolve difficult issues. Despite intense philosophical differences, the two managed to produce many important legislative achievements.

Although Reagan is often portrayed as a simple actor, he was very experienced in large-scale organization leadership. He learned how to lead a large organization and how to negotiate through difficult issues during his seven years as president of the Screen Actors Guild. And, of course, his next role was an eight-year stint as Governor of California.

Bill Clinton was also a successful change leader in an era of intense partisan politics. Clinton learned to run large organizations during his 12 years as governor of Arkansas. Yet, in his first term, President Clinton struggled to deliver results. His failures led to a Republican Senate and House takeover -- the first time in 40 years the Republicans controlled both congressional chambers.

But, like Tiger Woods rebuilding his swing, President Clinton's experience enabled him to change his style during his second term. He worked one-on-one with Newt Gingrich to build on common points of agreement and, like Reagan, used his personal charm. The result was big legislative achievements -- like welfare reform -- that Democrats and Republicans both still claim as party victories. That's a true win-win. In the end, Clinton concluded his tenure with the highest ratings of any modern-day president.

Is it really impossible to change Washington from the inside, or is today's dysfunction a direct result of inexperienced leadership? Whether you are choosing a governor, a president or a PTA leader, look for a record of sustained leadership achievements. No achievements? No vote.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.
Hall is managing director of Human Capital Systems (www.humancapitalsystems.com), a firm that designs systems for improving workforce performance. He is also an instructor in Duke Corporate Education's teaching network and author of The New Human Capital Strategy. Hall was formerly a senior vice president at ABN AMRO Bank in Amsterdam and IBM Asia-Pacific's executive in charge of executive leadership and organization effectiveness. During his tenure, IBM was twice ranked No. 1 in the world in Hewitt/Chief Executive magazine's "Top Company for Leaders." Hall completed his Ph.D in industrial-organizational psychology at Tulane University, with a dissertation on people management practices of Japanese corporations.

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