The Watchword in 2012—Leadership

By J.F. McKenna

To hell with the Year of the Dragon. Look to 2012 as the Year of the Leader.

A lot of Americans are no longer wandering aimlessly and chanting the supplication “Take me to your leader.” The days of sounding like second-rate actors in a 1950s science-fiction film are over. Instead, if the polls are right, they’re telling it straight to the print pundits and cable talking heads. “We’ll find the leaders ourselves,” they say. “Better yet, we’ll tell you who the leaders are.”

These fellow citizens are weary of a stagnant economy, a basically frozen unemployment rate and the stale political palaver issued from City Hall to the halls of Congress. The expression “empty promises” has been relegated to the heap marked Redundancies. Being mothballed is Mark Twain’s classic barb that common sense is “out of place in government.” Results will be the lingua franca of 2012 and beyond. And if these neo-revolutionaries cannot resurrect the Founding Fathers, by heaven, they will midwife a new generation of such leaders.

The more I talk with folks about leadership, the more I hear clear echoes of Peter Drucker, himself the founding father of modern management. Writing in Management in a Time of Change, Drucker explains that “leadership rests on being able to do something others cannot do at all or find difficult to do even poorly. It rests on core competencies that meld market or customer value with a special ability of the producer or supplier.” Translating Druckerspeak into language even today’s politician can understand: Do the job we sent you to do, nothing more and nothing less—or else.

Certainly the easiest core competency to review is macro-economic. Back in the 1990s, Drucker lamented that few businesses, government included, used the capital-appropriations process correctly. Successes, he preached, show what the market “values and will pay for….The non-successes should be viewed as the first indication either that the market is changing or that the company’s competencies are weakening.”

Substitute government for company and it takes little effort to cast about for representative examples of Druckeresque non-success, starting at the national level. Back in October, former Texas congressman Phil Gramm made a strong case for Reaganomics over Obamanomics, pointing out that the former “was the revival of an older understanding that unlimited government will eventually destroy freedom and that decisions regarding the allocation of scarce resources are best left to the private sector. Reagan explained these old ideas well, and in terms people could understand.”

“So how does the Reagan recovery compare to the recovery going on today?” the UBS executive asked his Hillsdale College audience. “In sum, this is the most disappointing recovery of the post-World War II period by a large margin. I don’t think people understand what an outlier this recovery period is. If the economy had recovered from this recession at the rate it recovered from the 1982 recession, which was roughly the same size in terms of unemployment, there would be 16.3 million more Americans at work today—in other words, all those who say they are unemployed plus almost 60 percent of ‘discouraged workers’ who have dropped out of the labor force. If real per capita income had grown in this recovery at the same rate it grew during the Reagan recovery, real per capita income would be $5,139 higher today. Both the Reagan program and the Obama program instituted dramatic changes. One program worked. The other is failing.”

(I can already hear dozens of keyboards clacking out argumentative emails. Spare your fingers. Here’s my response, complete with a playful rock-and-roll reference: Just as 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong, so do more than 14 million unemployed Americans make an indisputable proof for Gramm’s conclusion.)

Core competency can also be examined a lot closer to home. Grab a Plain Dealer. The copy I just picked up shouts this top-of-the fold headline—8 firefighters on military duty got excess pay, audit reveals. The story itself isn’t any cheerier. Fire Chief Paul Stubbs’ office, the paper reports, promised more than two years ago to automate the recording-keeping system, but never followed through.

I could continue this litany, but you get the general idea. You also understand why a lot of Clevelanders, along with a lot of their fellow Americans, are unwilling to accept government as usual, business as usual and lack of real leadership as inevitable.

They’re not asking for better. They’re making way for better.

So get ready for a new watchword in 2012—leadership. And remember what Professor Drucker always said: “Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results, not attributes.”

As for the dragon, let it fend for itself.


J.F. McKenna is a veteran business journalist and communications specialist. As an editor at Industry Week magazine in the early 1990s, he co-chaired Total Quality Government conferences in Boston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Reach him at .


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