The Globe & Mail, 12-16-09
Gil Troy on leadership
Karl Moore spoke to Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University, about what CEOs can learn from U.S. presidents.
KARL MOORE: Good morning, Gil.
GIL TROY: Good morning.
KARL MOORE: So, you’ve written a lot about presidential leadership – very interesting material. Does that apply, in your opinion, to the business leaders as well?
GIL TROY: I think the argument that the best presidents were moderates that the best leadership comes from the centre is not just limited to the White House. And, I think that CEO’s and leaders of organizations can learn a lot from both the great presidents who understood they had to build to the Centre, and the presidents who failed by playing to one extreme or another.
KARL MOORE: What do you mean build to the Centre? Maybe, you could just tell us what you mean by that.
GIL TROY: So, what I talk about in the book, is the need for a president to understand, that in order to be effective in a democracy, he has to find that golden mean. He has to be balancing. So we look at someone like George Washington. George Washington, we could call the case study of the squabbling subordinates. He had Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, two brilliant men, who were at loggerheads. And, Washington understood that if he appeared to be favouring one over the other, then he would have even more chaos in the administration.
At the same time, he was a man of principle, I’m looking for moderates; but, I’m looking for muscular moderates. And, what we see Washington doing is playing the two off each other, understanding that he has to learn from both, that he has to give each victories enough, so that each of them stay within the organization. And, reminding them constantly, and reminding the people around them, that we’re Americans. We have to keep our vision of the community together.
And, so for a CEO to learn from George Washington, and read this case study, you learn about how to handle tension. You learn about how to channel tension. And, you learn how to remind your organization about the bigger picture, about the goals of the organization.
When you look at someone like Abraham Lincoln; and, you can say there we have the case of the squabbling states. And, I also think about Abraham Lincoln as a muscular moderate; because he had a – you think North/South – but we tend to forget that one of the tensions he had was, he had a Northern Coalition of States that was under extreme stress.
The Border States were slave-holding states; but they stayed with the Union. What Abraham Lincoln has to do, is he has to, while having the ultimate goal of eliminating slavery; he has to keep the real focus on keeping the Union together; because he understands that if he rushes ahead, and tries to eliminate slavery too quickly, he’ll lose the Border States, he’ll lose the war. So, a CEO would learn from Abraham Lincoln that part of building for the centre is having a vision; but, knowing that you sometimes have to go in baby steps, you have to go gradually, you have to keep your eye on what’s realistic, while also keeping a broader form of vision.
KARL MOORE: How about some of the modern presidents? What are some of the lessons we might get from a Reagan, a Clinton, or a Bush – ones that we’re more familiar with?
GIL TROY: Well, when you look at someone like Bill Clinton, there are, I think, two lessons, that CEOs can learn. First of all, whereas George Washington has these squabbling subordinates, is able to channel them; one of the problems with Bill Clinton was that he had a little bit too much of the university professor in him, and, enjoyed the chaos of many different voices – which sometimes can be very good; because one of the problems that we see in presidencies is, and also we see in corporate board rooms is that insulation.
But, with Clinton, he let it get out of control, partially because of his own lack of discipline, and we had too many voices coming from the administration. It created a lot of haze. It created a lot of chaos. The other thing with Clinton was that he was so committed to being a centrist, is that he ended being a spinal centrist, as opposed to a muscular moderate – that he sometimes forgot his “ideals”. For example, at the beginning of his first term he talks about health care, and he goes 60 per cent towards achieving his goal; but, he ultimately fails; because when push comes to shove, he doesn’t really make it the core principle of his administration. And, he’s too concerned with popularity, he doesn’t push through, and he ends up as a president who had more potential to succeed than actual success.
Then, we look at someone like George W. Bush, known often as the first CEO president, I think there are some negative lessons to learn, that Bush often says that “the devil may care about what’s going on”, “you have to keep your eye on the prize. You have to keep ahead, forging ahead towards the goal.” And, I think what Bush teaches us is that, yes, it’s important to have a goal; but you also must remember that you have people who are following you, an organization of a thousand, or an organization of 100,000.
Equally, you have to make sure that people are buying in to your goals, and if you rush too far ahead you fail. You will learn this really from Franklin Roosevelt, if I can just go back to the 1930s. Roosevelt understood that if he was five giant steps ahead of his people, he would fail. He understood if he was half a step behind, his people, meaning both his subordinates and the American people, he would fail. A good leader is half a step – three-quarters of a step ahead. And, we look at the excruciating dance that Franklin Roosevelt had to dance during the fight over whether or not the United States should enter World War II.
He was always just ahead enough, so that he could push the American people where they needed to be, not so much that he was following, and not so much that he was rushing too far ahead, as George W. Bush did with Iraq.
KARL MOORE: So, it’s interesting, because when you look at change – and CEOs are often about leadership about transferring, about changing – part of the issue is creating a sense of urgency, and a sense that we must change, as opposed if you change you’re going to screw up a successful organization. So, there’s a real tension there. And, you’re suggestion there, looking at Roosevelt, is that don’t get too far out, but get people to buy into what you’re seeing, what your vision is.
GIL TROY: The great presidents were grounded – Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt.
And I take them, because you can learn from the left and from the right. They had a sense of a vision. They had a sense of wanting to change; but, they also knew that human beings, to a certain extent, are conservative. And, you have to give them enough comfort to be able to change. And, so you have to push, but not push too hard. You push too hard, you miss the boat. And, it’s very much a tension; but I think the CEO can learn from reading about Roosevelt, learn from reading about Reagan – that you have to be going forward. You have to be moving somewhere; but, you also have to be remembering to get buy-in.
KARL MOORE: So, it’s interesting, when you think about, you understanding moderates from the point of view of the Republicans, you have the Democrats. Reagan was fighting and trying to lead through. In the world of a CEO, what do you have to compromise about? What’s the equivalent in the world of a CEO?
GIL TROY: Moderates get no respect. We’re told we’re boring. We’re told that we’re wimps. We’re told we’re mush balls. And, one of the things I’m trying to push, with this notion of muscular moderation, is that the moderate is in some ways, someone who’s sensitive to his or her surroundings; someone who understands the dynamics, but also knows that part of their job is to lead. So, I think what works with a CEO is, a CEO like a president has constituencies. And, a CEO, like a president, has to say who’s buying in, and who’s – what’s the tension, what’s the back and forth, between me and my people, me and my board, me and my management team, me and my workers. And, you know, people love to complain these days about the high salaries of CEOs. That’s a good example of a distancing perhaps, between the CEO, and the rank and file. And, what we learn from applying some of the lessons of democratic politics to the corporate board room is that democracy doesn’t necessarily just mean sharing power and opening up to the people; but, it means keeping rooted in the community discourse – keeping rooted in the norms of the community, while also being the engine for change.
KARL MOORE: So, it’s the idea of a stakeholder. Rather than the shareholder being the only one, that may be perhaps the political party. As a stakeholder model, saying there are employees; there are communities where your base might worry about the environment. There’s the government, as well as your shareholder, as well as perhaps your banker. So, there’s a bunch of groups you have to work with, and understand their concerns. And, somehow please all of them to some degree.
GIL TROY: I have to say, I thought I was writing a book about moderation, and I ended up writing a book about nationalism; because, to be a great moderate president, you have to be a great patriot. You have to be a great nationalist. I think it applies to this example of CEO; because, you have to understand you are a community leader. And, I think if we spent more time thinking about businesses as communities, as functioning communities, and we ask the same question – you know, Al Gore has this now, worrying about our carbon footprint. If you ask as a leader, “What’s the toxic footprint that I leave?” I want to minimize that. I want to make sure that I’m not leaving bad feelings. I’m not rankling people too much. Again, without being a total mush, without forgetting core principals. But, if you think about your role as being a constructive community leader, a constructive agent of change, I think it can lead to successes in the board room and beyond.
KARL MOORE: So, part of it is, you want to create a sense of pride. So, I’m an American, I’m a Canadian, I’m an IBM-er, I’m a Microsoft person – that there’s a sense of real engagement, of something bigger that we’re proud of, and we’re leaving a legacy, whatever part of the company we are.
GIL TROY: If you read these presidential case studies, especially, if you focus on the modern world, the modern presidency, one of the things you see, is that so much of modern leadership is what Theodore Roosevelt called the bully pulpit – setting a tone, symbolic leadership. We have a tendency sometimes to say, “Well, if it’s all symbol, it’s empty.” That’s true. But, if there’s no symbol, you’re also in trouble. And, a leader has to set a tone.
A leader has to understand that part of the job; part of the mandate is leading people together. You know, you think of an organization that has 100,000 people. The challenges of leading a 100,000 person organization are the same as leading a country of 300 million. You can’t speak to each one. You can’t create a personal relationship. So, what do you do? You set certain goals. You set certain standards; but, you also set a tone. And, you start a communal conversation, and a communal sense of going forward.
KARL MOORE: So, it seems some ways, I think, big companies are moving to, perhaps the pre-millennial generation particularly, where you’ve got to have multiple voices heard – whereas, it used to be more a meta-narrative – here’s the story and follow it. And, young people are not going to buy into it as much. But, in some sense, it means we’re becoming more like a democracy – that you hear the voices of these many constituents; but, we accept the CEO, the leader, the president’s got to make a decision that will please everyone. But, you’ve got to listen to the voices along the way.
GIL TROY: And, I think, again, you can learn from the democratic model, because here you have a situation where you’re leading 300 million people in the United States with very strong opinions, with a great gift of freedom. We don’t want to minimize how great that gift is. And, so you have to be able to push ahead while also hearing multiple voices.
And, certainly working with students, I see that this generation wants to be able to have their voice, have their stake. They feel a connection by being able to make their mark. But, the job of the CEO, even while allowing this chorus, these many choruses to come together, is to make sure there’s harmony. And, when I mean harmony, I don’t mean a lack of conflict. I mean being able to kind of have a harmonic convergence – where you have people coming together, and ultimately understanding that they have to sing from the same song book.