The Coming Year, Our Critical Gambit

By J.F. McKenna

The year 2014 will long be remembered as another of America’s epiphanies, a time at which the nation began to recapture its sense of leadership.

Not a moment too soon, say 2013 citizens and allies who have watched and worried as their nation wobbles when not lurching from crisis to crisis. The Affordable Care Act surely stands out as its most expensive self-inflicted wound, casting one-sixth of the gross domestic product into unmatched chaos. Meanwhile, Pax Americana, that long-revered notion of the U.S. as guarantor of a sane and just world, continues to fade from view on the world stage; events such as the deadly bungle in Benghazi keep the global whispering alive—Uncle Sam is not the fellow he used to be. And, in that wider philosophical sense, America has traded the free marketplace of grand ideas for the back alley of political correctness.

But America is again ready to take up the work of leadership. And, don’t kid yourself, it’s work—not magic. Peter Drucker, the revered architect of modern management direction, made that clear when he wrote so perceptively a quarter-century ago:

“Leadership does matter…. But, alas, it is something different from what is now touted under this label. It has little to do with ‘leadership qualities and even less to do with ‘charisma.’ It is mundane, unromantic, and boring. Its essence is performance.”

The Austrian-born polymath, who died in 2005, goes on to say that the foundation of effective leadership “is thinking through the organization’s mission, defining it, and establishing it, clearly and visibly….What distinguishes the leader from the misleader are his goals. Whether the compromise he makes with the constraints of reality—which may involve political, economic, financial, or interpersonal problems—are compatible with the mission or goals or lead away from them determines whether he is an effective leader.”

Simple stuff. Only the acceptance and the execution are difficult. That and getting the right leaders in place.

That’s our job, of course.

Or as the late, great business journalist Stan Modic once told me, “I need an editor, and I know you know how to do the job. One more thing—if you don’t work out, I’ll fire you in three months.”

Modic knew Drucker, and vice versa. I’ve long thought that they each had a great influence on the other’s thinking about effective management. (See ) Both were all about the results of any venture, from running a corporation to running a nation. Both knew what success took.

Twenty years ago, Drucker wrote that there is “no better way to improve an organization’s performance than to measure the results of capital appropriations against the promises and expectations that led to their authorization.” As Drucker told Harvard Business Review readers, “how much better off the United States would be today had such feedback on government programs been standard practice for the past 50 years.”

His was simple, direct and effective counsel then. So it remains. I’ve argued from this digital corner more than once that today’s government executives—including those from the so-called most transparent administration since Warren Harding’s—should diligently apply Drucker’s yardstick. Let them evaluate if that stimulus appropriation is indeed deserving of renewal. Or if a particular spending program has yet to meet its goal of utopian bliss.

Otherwise, to borrow a working concept from Modic, let’s fire them. That’s what leadership is all about at its core: getting the job done, no matter what it takes.

Certainly the most troubling weakness of the current administration, as well as its successors in waiting from both parties, is the philosophical wrongheadedness arising from government first, last and always. A decade ago, Drucker warned America about the danger, pointing out that “the challenges we will face in the next economy are management challenges that will have to be tackled by individuals. Governments will be able to help or hinder. But the tasks themselves are not tasks governments can perform….Government will not become less pervasive, less powerful, let alone less expensive. It will, however, increasingly depend for its effectiveness on what managers and professionals are doing in and with their own nongovernmental organizations, and in and with their own lives.”

Just substitute the word “we” for “managers and professionals” above. That’s the thinking from which epiphanies spring and nations regain strength.

J.F. McKenna is a business journalist, communications specialist and former editor and associate publisher of the national manufacturing magazine Tooling & Production. Reach him at .


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